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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special issue - November 2005   

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Title  Revealing science through history

History can provide an illuminating approach to the teaching of science. Among other things, it can place scientific progress in context, explain the research adventure and show how it is linked to the development of civilisations and the demands of society.

The sea iguana, of such interest to Darwin when he visited the Galapagos Islands (19th century engraving).
The sea iguana, of such interest to Darwin when he visited the Galapagos Islands (19th century engraving).
A certain history of science manages to combine all that is most boring about history with all that is most difficult about science. It is one that offers an endless series of supposedly key dates plus constantly changing and redefined scientific concepts, the genesis of which it is difficult to grasp. Many students regard such matters as a kind of preliminary, a tedious but necessary introduction that is quickly forgotten before getting down to the real subject matter. It is true that the history of science does not find much favour in Europe’s schools and universities today, a fact that many teachers regret very much, however. “We teach science by presenting knowledge as stable elements, depersonalised and isolated from their context. The introduction not only of history but also of current affairs in science courses is a means of overcoming barriers to our understanding of scientific activity,” believes Grégoire Molinatti, Professor of biology at a Marseilles secondary school and a researcher at the Institut national de recherche pédagogique, in Bron (France).

The scientific approach
Speaking of the history of science in the classroom is in fact one of the most tried-and-tested ways of getting pupils to understand the scientific approach, the role of observation and measurement, and of getting them to comprehend the notion of proof. Although teachers sometimes hesitate to use the term epistemology, this is essentially what it is: a matter of encouraging young people, on the basis of historic examples, to think about the many ways in which hypotheses are formulated, tested and used to construct theories. It is much easier, for example, for a pupil to understand the Darwinian concept of natural selection, a central concept in all contemporary life sciences, if he has learned about the famous naturalist’s trip on board the HMS Beagle, his observations on the diversity of island life, and the hypotheses he formulated to explain this island diversity. 

But there is more to teaching sciences through history than relating them to the activities of the individual. It also involves placing sciences in a broader historical context, one of political, economic or cultural movements, thereby demonstrating to pupils that although different subjects are taught by different teachers, there is and always has been constant interaction between them. Thermodynamics was born of the need to formalise relations between heat and work so as to optimise the functioning of steam engines at the time of the Industrial Revolution. The idea of locating the site of various functions of the brain, which is at the heart of contemporary neuroimagery, first took root when doctors were treating and therefore observing the hundreds of thousands of wounded in the First World War. These are just two of many possible examples.  

Production of knowledge
Darwin aged 31.
Darwin aged 31 (watercolour by George Richmond, 1840).Courtesy Institut Charles Darwin International -
Linking science and history also involves explaining to pupils how the production of scientific knowledge is organised. A traditional conception is to always link a discovery to a single researcher, when one of the most notable developments of the 20th century is precisely the way research has become a group activity, increasingly linked to strategic interests and rivalry between countries. There is an urgent need to educate Europe’s future citizens by speaking of this development if they are to be able to understand the public debate on financing the ‘big science’ programmes such as ITER, Cern’s Large Hadron Collider and GPS. Even strip cartoons have picked up on the change, despite its absence from science textbooks. Hergé’s Professor Tournesol is a lone inventor who is forgotten when he designs his first submarines in Red Rackham’s Treasure (1944). Less than a decade later, in Destination Moon (1953), he is heading a team of several hundred researchers to develop his rocket on which ill-intentioned neighbouring states are casting their jealous eyes.

Countless anecdotes and biographical details also have a contribution to make to the understanding of science. Abbot Spallanzani studied reproduction mechanisms by having his frogs wear pants. Blaise Pascal developed the calculation of probabilities for an impenitent gambler in urgent need of a winning formula. Galileo started by dropping balls of paper, wood or lead off the Tower of Pisa to study the laws of motion. These colourful anecdotes are often an invaluable aid to pupils in remembering a scientific fact. It is an idea that has shown its worth. Have not generations of students learned that the force exercised by a body immersed in a liquid bears the name Archimedes due to this famous scene – whether true or false – when he uttered the cry “eureka” as he stepped into his bath?

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