Telling the Story of Science

by PhysicsJenn

I came to a realization yesterday: I love reading history books, even though I hated history class.  I love reading the stories of historical figures.  Let’s face it; the people who made history mostly did so because they led extraordinary lives.  It doesn’t mean that everyone in the history books is fascinating, but it’s generally possible to find an historical figure or period that has fascinating stories. Usually several figures or periods.  And the reason I hated history class?  It seemed like it was more about memorization of dates and events than the study of the stories of an era.

Science education and writing can be a lot like this.  Most non-physicists hate science class because they feel like they just have to memorize a lot of formulas.  As a teaching assistant, I was constantly frustrated by the fact that I could not convince students that all the specific formulas they were trying to memorize could be derived from one master equation or law — e.g.,  the ideal gas law, or PV=nRT, for thermodynamics.  For those who thought like scientists, the derivation of a specific case from a general law was like the story behind what others simply memorized.

In a different vein, I had a quantum mechanics professor who inserted little stories about various famous physicists into his lectures about the origins of quantum mechanics.  On our final, one of the questions asked us to identify this man:

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That was the only problem I was absolutely certain I had gotten correct after finishing the exam, certainly because it was the only one that had a simple, black-and-white, correct answer, but also because I had really listened during those stories about famous physicists.  I found the context of physics almost as interesting as the actual physical concepts themselves.

While people like to think of science and math as pure fields, outside the influence of zeitgeist or prejudice, this simply isn’t true.  Learning the context of scientific discovery unveils a new level of understanding of the field itself.  When the laser was first invented, it was seen as a useless novelty; now they are ubiquitous in many fields of physics.  Some fields of physics stalled because the prejudice of the times simply wouldn’t allow for the strange new thought.

Popular science books do a good job of marrying history with technical detail to give a full contextual picture of a scientific discovery, and it is often something that science reporters must do.  Those writing about the supposed observation of neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light brought the story back to Einstein and how he might have felt about being “proven wrong.”  These historical tidbits give a sense of importance of an event to someone who is not an expert in the field in which the event has the most meaning, thereby broadening the impact of discovery.  In a similar way, adding historical context to classroom education about science might be a way to bring different kinds of students into a love of scientific discovery.  By mating the love of historical discovery with science in the student’s mind, it might be possible to bring different kinds of interest to the sciences.

What do readers think?  Do you think that historical background could be interjected into the middle school or high school classroom to pique the interest of those students who haven’t already decided they want to be scientists or engineers?  How does the historical story of a scientific discovery relate cognitively to the scientific “story” told by a derivation?