My fellow blogger Jim Grozier (http://jimgrozier.wordpress.com/) recently had some interesting things to say about the history of science, and the way historians think about science. This prompted me to dig out the Preface to the Folio Society edition of my own history of science, in their edition known as a History of Western Science but originally published by Penguin as Science: A History. In both cases, “a” history, not “the” history, for obvious (I hope) reasons.
In Praise of Whigs
I have been interested in history for as long as I can remember, and writing about science for nearly as long; but it was only well into my career that I realised I was also writing about history. My writing career began with journalism, where stories had to have immediate impact, dealing almost exclusively with things that were ‘new’ and this week’s ‘breakthrough’ – which often became last week’s out-of-date idea. Even when I started writing books, at first I concentrated on so-called cutting-edge research, which made for some excited scurrying to get the stories into print before they became out of date, but didn’t always result in books with a long shelf life. The change came when I decided to write a book about quantum physics, consciously intended as the book I wished someone else had written for my benefit. Lacking the cutting-edge immediacy of its predecessors, it was turned down by eight publishers
before seeing life in 1984 as In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat, and has remained in print ever since. Even then, it only slowly dawned on me, thanks to correspondence from readers, that what Ihad written was a history of how quantum physics developed in
the twentieth century, and who the people were who developed it. Readers, I learned, were fascinated to discover that people they knew of only as names on laws (such as Heisenberg, of uncertainty principle fame) were human beings with human frailties (in this case, among other things, severe hay fever, which played a part in his discovery of some key features of the quantum world).
Gradually, my books became more focused on scientific history and biography (which, after all, is a kind of history), until Stefan McGrath, my editor at Penguin, suggested that I should do the job properly, and write a history of the development of Western science. The result was the book you now see. And once again, after it was published I learned that I had written something that wasn’t entirely what I thought I was writing.
One of the reviews of the Allen Lane edition of this book referred to it sneeringly as a ‘Whig view of history’. Never having trained as a historian, I was only vaguely aware of the existence of factions among professional historians with different views on the
interpretation of history, but it was clear from the context that this was not intended as a complimentary remark. Intrigued, I checked up on what, exactly, the term means. As I had suspected, I discovered that Thomas Babington Macaulay was the archetypal ‘Whig historian’, but (as I had also anticipated) that the term is almost exclusively used as one of derision, so that very few historians, past or present, describe themselves as ‘Whigs’. From John Warren, author of History and the Historians, I learned that ‘most people interested in non-academic history enjoy a good, sweeping narrative and appreciate the way in which Whig-style history gives them straightforward explanations’, which certainly fits what I was trying to do. I also learned that the term was coined by Herbert Butterfield, and that his influential writings helped to push British academic history ‘towards narrow PhD style
research and books which had little or no appeal to a general
readership’ – certainly not my scene.
Macaulay’s great-nephew George Macaulay Trevelyan, following the family tradition, wrote in an autobiographical essay that:
The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once,
on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked
other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their
own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone,
one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we
shall shortly be gone . . .
I prefer to emphasise the continuity rather than the vanishing, theway the torch of, in this case, scientific progress is passed on from one generation to the next; but I agree with Trevelyan about the poetry. And I would emphasise that in the history of science, whatever the situation may be in the broader historical context, we are talking about progress. Albert Einstein did come up with an objectively better description of the Universe than Isaac Newton did, not because he was any more clever than Newton, but because of all the things that had been discovered in the centuries between Newton’s death and Einstein’s birth.
In his biography of Trevelyan, David Cannadine summed up the success of his Whig approach to history as ‘in evoking the past, in unfolding a narrative, and in capturing the imagination of a broad general public’. Adding this to the comments already quoted, to paraphrase Tom Lehrer, ‘It makes a fellow proud to be a Whig.’ My sneering critic precisely hit the nail on the head, and helped me to understand what I was doing in writing this book – my aim is indeed to evoke the past, to unfold a narrative, and to capture the imagination of a broad general public; and I am flattered to be mentioned in the same breath as Macaulay and Trevelyan.
But in the light of such criticism, in case any other professional historians of a non-Whiggish persuasion should stumble upon this book, there is one relevant point that I would like to make crystal clear. History is inevitably about people, because it is people who make history. But I am firmly convinced that individuals do not play a great part in determining the way history develops (at least, not in terms of the history of science), because if one individual had not made a particular discovery, or come up with a particular law, someone else would have at about the same time. The reason why science has progressed in the way it has since the ball started rolling in the middle of the sixteenth century (why it started rolling then is perhaps another story) is that one thing builds on another, and that science and technology go hand in hand. To take a simple example, Galileo Galilei could not have discovered the moons of Jupiter before the telescope was invented, and the discovery of the moons of Jupiter helped to spur both Galileo and other telescope makers to develop better instruments for observing the heavens.
There is room to debate whether or not the influence of a single individual such as Napoleon or Mohammed can change the way history is developing in the broader sense; but there is very little room for speculation that the course of science over the past few centuries would have been radically different if Newton, or Einstein, or any of the other people whose work is described in this book had not existed.
So if you are looking for a narrow PhD-style book, you have come to the wrong place. But if you have Whiggish tendencies and want a sweeping narrative with plenty of stories about real people doing out-of-the-ordinary things, you are just the kind of person I hope to be able to please.