How History Can Help Your Science

Putting your research field in context isn’t just about reading the latest journal articles, or searching out the seminal papers from the past few decades. It can also include learning about the history of your field: how did it start, who were the key players, how did ideas evolve over time, etc.

I have a new post up at Canadian Science Publishing exploring this very idea. As Arctic researchers, my grad cohort and I were intrigued by stories of Arctic science and exploration – both at the turn of the century and more recently, in the 1950s-1970s. While the early history featured naturalist-scientists such as Franklin, Fridtjof Nansen, Otto Sverdrup, Robert Peary and others, the more recent history featured Canadians we met and talked with about Arctic research, like Fritz Koerner (who passed away in 2008) and David Fisher.

As Alaskan snow scientist Matthew Sturm noted in a talk he gave in 2009, exciting stories about the history of our discipline can be a way to attract new students. I know that I – and my colleagues – were drawn to the history of Arctic exploration as a natural extension of our own Arctic research.

I recently read a biography of Alexander von Humboldt (founder of biogeography) and a history of British and American plant collectors (including Carl Linnaeus, founder of modern botanical nomenclature). Both books (by Andrea Wulf) explored the history of these sciences, and put current research in the context of past research and sociopolitical conditions in a hugely engaging manner, with stories of adventure, politics, and interpersonal conflicts. While researchers in these fields might already know some of the stories, I – as an outsider to these fields – was intrigued enough to want to learn more. Not only that, I was able to learn quite a lot about science while reading for pleasure – not something that usually occurs when reading journal articles!

You can read the whole post here.

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3 thoughts on “How History Can Help Your Science

  1. Pingback: How History Can Help Your Science | Legacy Info...

  2. One of the reasons I follow your blog is because I am interested in learning about other parts of the biosphere, especially the arctic areas in the face of the effects of global warming. I find this post especially interesting. I am a biologist and retired high school science teacher born and educated in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but we have lived in Alabama for the past 40 years. I have always been drawn to the history involved in the science. Some of my most enjoyable reads have been biographical in nature, focusing on Charles Darwin, Henrietta Lacks, Barbara McClintock, and Rosalind Franklin, just to name a few. Thanks for this informative post.

  3. Thanks for your note, Carolyn – glad to hear you enjoyed the post. A well-written scientific biography can be a great way to learn about the science and the people behind it.

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