Looking twice at the history of science

Thursday, April 26, 2012

About this blog

Double refraction in a calcite crystal
This blog is about general issues in the field of history of science. There are some posts on specific people or events from the past, but usually these are designed to say something general about the field.

By “general issues” I mean questions like: what kinds of things should historians of science study? What is the proper relationship between history of science and neighbouring fields like the philosophy of science? What are the main schools or trends in the history of science? Is there any point reading history of science written before 1960?

Why this obsession with generalities? Well, in the last five decades the field of history of science has absorbed a rapid sequence of new themes, theories and techniques. Labels that have been attached to these changes include “science studies,” “post-modernism,” “post-positivism,” and “the sociological turn.”

The challenge now is to take stock. The '80s and '90s have been described as “yeasty” decades, full of fertile action that pushed the boundaries of the field of the history of science. Now it is time to ask how much of this expansion was genuine, and how much just hot air.

My pet theories are that there are that there is nothing wrong with internal history of science; that large-scale narratives are not just spin-offs or embarrassments but one of the main aims of history; that we should worry as much about the quality of our evidence as we do about our sensitivity to actors' categories; that we should read older histories of science more often and more charitably; and that the study of past science is interesting for its own sake and not just for the lessons it might offer about the general nature of science.

These issues may (should?) be of interest not only to historians of science but also to historians and scientists. Many of the issues discussed here—from anachronism to the meaning of “culture”—are applicable to history-writing in general and not just to history of science. And perhaps there are one or two scientists out there who care about how historians portray their work, and hence about how historians portray themselves.

About me

As of January 2013 I am a third-year PhD student at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. Born and bred in New Zealand, I studied at the Universities of Canterbury and Toronto before landing in Cambridge. My PhD research is on the relationship between natural history and experimental physics in France in the eighteenth century, focusing on the academician Charles Dufay (1698-1739).

My other interests include the history of materials science; the emergence of systematic experimental history in France, especially among chemists and physicians; the use of precious stones in scientific research; the life and work of Georges Buffon and René Réaumur; theories of experimental practice; aspects of twentieth-century social science; Thomas Kuhn's historical research; and methodological issues in the history of science.

In another life I wrote some reviews of popular science books, as well as this guide to energy management for radio stations in Africa.

My full CV can be downloaded here.


Alert readers will notice some affinities between the themes of this blog and those of Ether Wave Propaganda (EWP), another history of science blog. This blog is indebted to EWP but independent of it. My interpretation and assessment of the ideas on EWP can be found in this series of eight posts.

The title of this blog refers to an optical effect wherein a light ray is bent (“refracted”) at two different angles when entering certain media, such as the calcite crystal in the image at the top of this post. The effect got its first detailed mathematical treatment in a chapter of Christiaan Huygens' Traité de la lumière, first published in 1690 and the source of the images on this blog.

I began this blog with the intention of translating each post into French. Although this did a lot for my French it did nothing for the frequency of my posts, so I dropped the practice after the first few posts. Anyone who wants to see all posts with a French translation can find them here.