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Discussion Questions

27 January 2017:  Bowler and Morus, Making Modern Science, chapter 1

  1. On page 1, Bowler and Morus establish that “science textbooks often tell stories about the great discoveries that present them as steps in a cumulative process by which our understanding of the natural world has expanded”.  They reject this view of the history of science.  Why?  [Note:  You might also think about concrete examples you have encountered of this type of presentation of the history of science].
  2. On page 3, Bowler and Morus assert that history is “something more than a list of names and dates”.  What do they mean by this?  If history is about a methodology rather than simply the recitation of names and dates, what specific analytical tools and approaches do historians generally use?
  3. Today we tend to think about the physical sciences as being clearly distinct from the humanities in methodology, aims, training and career paths, location on Geneseo’s campus, etc..  How does the “Origins of the History of Science” section challenge these distinctions (you might look particularly at Bowler and Morus’s discussion of the interrelationships between philosophy, theology and science in the 17th century)?
  4. Chapter 1 identifies Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions as a key work in the history of science.  Based on the material Bowler and Morus present, what did Kuhn argue and why was it important in shaping the ways historians of science approach their work? 
  5. Bowler and Morus suggest that an important point that historians of science have raised is that the practice of science cannot be neatly separated from “the sociological conditions that made science possible” (p. 10).  What do they mean by this?  What are some of the “sociological conditions” that they see as important?  [Note: this also connects to their subsequent discussion of the “Edinburgh School” of science history].
  6. What do the authors mean by “modern” science?  What themes characterize modern science and why does it make sense to focus the book on this somewhat limited frame?  How would the book have been different if the authors had framed their study in a way that included Classical or medieval works?
  7. Although the authors briefly mention Chinese and Islamic traditions, on the whole this book has a traditional “western” (i.e. Christian Europe) focus.  What are the implications of this decision?  How might the book have been different if the authors had explicitly framed their study in a way that included global contexts? [Note:  you might also think about whether there is a kind of “whiggishness” embedded in the decision to focus specifically on “western” contexts.]

3 February 2017:  Bowler and Morus, Making Modern Science, chapter 2

  1. The historian of science Steven Shapin began his 1996 book The Scientific Revolution with the line:  “There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it”.  How is this theme repeated and refined in the second chapter of Bowler and Morus?
  2. As Bowler and Morus note in the first several pages of this chapter, early historians of the “scientific revolution” – often operating in a whiggish view of history – presented figures like Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon, Boyle, Descartes and Newton as decisively breaking from Classical learning.  Bowler and Morus dispute this view.  What continuities do Bowler and Morus see between these “revolutionary” figures in the early history of science and the Classics, particularly thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Ptolemy?
  3. On page 24, Bowler and Morus note that most practitioners of what we would today call science would have self-identified as “natural philosophers”.  What does this term mean and how does it provide insight into how 16th and 17th century scientific thinkers understood their work?
  4. Bowler and Morus note that what we would today call the scientific revolution began with men studying astronomy.  Why was astronomy in particular such fertile ground for innovative inquiry in this period?
  5. Focusing on Bowler and Morus’s coverage of early astronomers, what role did personal politics – and particularly patronage and social class – play in furthering particular lines of critical inquiry?  Bonus points for 21st century science majors:  Do you see any continuities in the ways that patronage and especially competition for funding shapes research agendas?  Bonus points for everyone:  Why would someone like Cosimo de Medici II (one of the richest and most powerful men in Europe) want to patronize someone like Galileo?
  6. Our educational system tends to break the sciences up into distinct disciplines (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.).  How does this chapter problematize those disciplinary identities?  You might think in particular about how Bowler and Morus handle material on “mechanism” and the life sciences.
  7. The figures associated with the “scientific revolution” discussed in this chapter primarily came from the British Isles, France, Germany and northern Italy.  What else was going on in these regions in the 16th and 17th century?  How does Bowler and Morus’s silence on some of these issues shape their analysis?  In other words, how might the discussion be different if they talked about the religious disruptions associated with the Protestant Reformation or the economic disruptions associated with overseas expansion?

10 February:  Bowler and Morus, Making Modern Science, chapters 3 and 4

  1. Chapter 3 includes an extended analysis of the work of Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier.  What are the arguments in favor of viewing Lavoisier as a transformational figure in the history of chemistry?  What are the arguments in favor of viewing him as part of a longer set of continuities?
  2. In chapter 3, Bowler and Morus talk about a number of 16th and 17th century systems of natural philosophy (alchemy, Paracelsus, Van Helmont, etc.) that today would not be considered scientific.  Why is it hard from a 21st century perspective to see these pursuits as part of the history of science?
  3. In their discussions of Priestley and Lavoisier, Bowler and Morus briefly note connections to wider cultural and political transformations going on the late 18th century (and what they don’t tell you is that Lavoisier was guillotined during the Terror phase of the French Revolution).  What role do you see these cultural and political transformations playing in the development of science in this period?
  4. In the section on Lavoisier, Bowler and Morus note the importance of systemization (for example, defining a common vocabulary for all practitioners of chemistry) and standardization (for example, defining a common system of weights and measures).  Why were these changes so important to the evolution of science in the late 18th and 19th centuries?
  5. In the section of Barlow’s Wheel in chapter four, Bowler and Morus note in passing that the proliferation of “philosophical toys designed to demonstrate the powers of nature to lecture audiences” was an important part of early 19th century science.  What other examples do we see of science appealing to novelty or spectacle in this period, with scientific knowledge being placed before a broad public audience as a form of entertainment (or infotainment)? 
  6. In chapter two, we discussed the ways that pragmatic applications of new knowledge were an important part of the early modern scientific revolution.  To what extent do we see that theme continued in the chapters on chemistry and the conservation of energy?  How should we understand the fact that key developments in both fields tended to occur in areas that were industrializing very rapidly in the late 18th-19th centuries (i.e. Britain, France, and Germany)?
  7. On page 100, Bowler and Morus conclude the section on the conservation of energy by writing “that what was being discovered by these various protagonists was in any sense the same thing – or indeed that anything was being discovered at all – is, however, the product of retrospection”.  How does this connect to their generally critical approach to progressivist (or whiggish) interpretations of the history of science?
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