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History of Science in Learning and Teaching Science: Introduction

The Values of History of Science in Learning or Teaching Science

This guide identifies areas of library support and library resources for persons interested in history of science.

**The points in this guide should also be of interest to people who have an interest in philosophy of science, given that is impossible to do philosophy of science well without a solid grasp of history of science, and vice versa,. Carlo Rovelli's 2018  paper "Physics Needs Philosophy, Philosophy Needs Physics" provides food for thought.** 

Why learn history of science? Why introduce it into teaching?

Learning the recent history of a specific niche in science enables one to:

  • avoid replicating the research of others (see: Re-inventing Willis);
  • discern emerging trends on which to focus;
  • provide solid literature reviews in writing, teaching, or presentations.

But why learn the older and deeper historical background of scientific research?

James Clerk Maxwell claimed that "It is of great advantage to the student of any subject to read the original memoirs on that subject, for science  is always most completely assimilated when it is in the nascent state, ...."   Maxwell, A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. Perhaps one meaning of this statement is it is good to read the first (or early) development of scientific concept as a source of insight into the immediate challenges and problems that original scientific work addressed, before new ideas are taken for granted and are no longer subjected to scrutiny.

Other reasons to delve into the deep history of a field is to learn:

  • just how much very wide-ranging empirical work, often desultory, has to be done before theoretical advances can occur (notable examples: electromagnetism--no Maxwell without Faraday; or look at the empirical work that ushered in 19th century thermodynamics and statistical mechanics)
  • the importance of interactions with other disciplines (e.g., look at the fascinating history of how long the philosophical atomistic hypothesis; from Greek times took to take hold in the early 20th century!);
  • the impact of science within the larger cultural and historical context of human ideas;
  • fascinating stories about discoveries that can help enliven teaching of science;
  • how often hypotheses and theories have been enriched or superseded by later findings.

Finally, it is important to recognize that scientists cannot make fundamental advances without a deep knowledge of the tradition up to the point he wrote; see Einstein as the Greatest of the Nineteenth Century Physicists for an example.