Methods of Approaching the History of Science

Johnson refers to three models of studying the history of science. In the “Progressive” or “Great Man” theory of science history, the central actor is the individual.  Progress is achieved through the singular genius of a brilliant individual. Heroic overtones permeate the historical thinking in this model and although the “hero’s” contributions stand on previous work, the “hero” is primarily responsible for the progress they achieve.  The “Paradigm Shift” model seeks to contextualize the great scientists and their contributions with an understanding of the social, political, even geographic environments in which they work. It emphasizes the clustered nature of scientific achievement to support the contextualized view. Finally, the “Ecosystem” theory observes that many macro-level systems are inextricably connected.  Indeed small changes in one system can rebalance or unbalance other systems.  This applies to natural phenomena, social systems, and, of course, scientific progress.  In this model, scientific progress is a product of not only individual people and societies, but also the interplay between countless macro-systems.  This approach is necessarily cross-disciplined.

In the second chapter, Johnson describes the mint experiments.  He explicitly discusses the Kuhnian paradigm shift saying, “And here we find ourselves at the fault line of the classic Kuhnian paradigm shift…Data emerge that somehow challenge the dominant model” (Johnson, 72) He goes on to explain that the survival of the mint, and the first mouse in the jar with the mint, present data that don’t fit inside the paradigm that then existed.  It was the data that pushed the science forward to find an explanation and create a new field of study.

Interpreting the Kuhnian model loosely, one can see the influence of it’s ideas on other works of popular science history.  In Brian Greene’s, “The Elegant Universe,” He directly addresses the collision of a dominant paradigm with contradictory or absent data.  He briefly speaks of the paradigm shift that occurred when Einstein began publishing on gravity and relativity. “Even before the discovery of special relativity, Newton’s theory of gravity was lacking in one important respect. Although it can be used to make highly accurate predictions about how objects will move under the influence of gravity, it offers no insight into what gravity is.” (Greene, 56)  The paradigm shift from Newtonian to Relativistic physics both deepened scientific understanding and asked more questions than it answered.

The history of science is poorly understood by merely reading published science.  Perspective can be found by applying any of the three models discussed here.  It seems likely that even these three models fail to truly grasp the complexity and interconnected nature of history, science, and human progress.


Works Cited

Greene, B. The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.

Johnson, Steven. Invention of Air: a Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. Riverhead Books, 2009.

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