Arxiu mensual: juliol de 2011

Interview to Patricia Fara by Amparo Bruño and Pedro Ruiz-Castell

Amb motiu de la seva participació al cicle de col·loquis Comunicar la Ciència: Plaers i Obstacles de la Narrativa Històrica, després de la seva xerrada a l’Institut d’Història de la Medicina i de la Ciència a València, Patricia Fara va ser entrevista per Amparo Bruño sota la supervisió de Pedro Ruiz-Castell.

Interview to Patricia Fara by Amparo Bruño[1] and Pedro Ruiz-Castell[2]

Patricia Fara is Senior Tutor and Director of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science at Clare College, and Affiliated Lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Science Department at the University of Cambridge. Some of her main publications are Pandora’s breeches: women, science and power (London: Pimlico, 2004), Sex, botany and empire: the stories of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks (Duxford: Icon Books, 2003) and Newton: the making of genius (London: Macmillan, 2002). We talked with her about the history of science and her latest book Science : A  four thousand year history (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

You currently teach history of science at Cambridge University, but you were trained as a physicist. As far as we know, you owned a computer education company for several years. How did you end up interested and devoted to the history and philosophy of science?

My first degree was in physics and after a couple of years I decided that it was a terrible mistake. I think what happened was that when I was at school it was a time when teachers and everybody wanted to encourage women to do science; because I was a girl and I was very good at doing science, everybody immediately said: “OK, she’s got to go to University and do science”. It never occurred to me or to anyone else to think whether that was what I really wanted to do. Just because I could do it, everybody assumed that I should, and I was pushed in to that way strongly.

I ran a company that made tape slides. We were the first people in England and America to provide visual training material about computers at an elementary level. Therefore, we had no competitors. At first it was just the two of us, my husband and me. We were literally doing it on the kitchen table. Because nobody else was doing it, we were very successful. We sold the product to a lot of universities and technical colleges. Then we went to San Francisco and we did exactly the same thing in America. We did it for about 15 or 16 years, but then video started to be introduced and there was less money in education. We had to choose between stopping or becoming a big company. The whole point of doing it in the first place was that we were idealistic children of the sixties and the seventies who did not believe in big business. To set up a big company would have been completely contradictory.

While at university studying physics, despite hating all the practical work, I was really interested in the bigger ideas and the theory. When I decided to do a Masters in History and Philosophy of Science, I wanted to study philosophy, but after few months, I realized that I was more interested in history. Thus, I did a PhD in History.

Did you find any obstacles to entering such a world, both as an adult student or as a woman?

Certainly not as a woman. Neither as an adult student. History of Science is something that was largely done as postgraduate level. I chose not to think about my age too much. The only time I found a problem was when I became very friendly with some of the people on the course. There was a young woman and she was complaining to me about her mother. She said to me: “You know, these mothers are so awful…” and I thought: “I’m on the side of the mother in this case, I think the mother is right!” But I went very quiet and finally said: “Oh, mothers are absolutely awful”.

You manage to summarize in your last book a four thousand year history into four hundred pages. How did such a project come to your mind and how was it shaped?

I think it first came into my mind when I was a student doing my PhD. There was a big conference in 1991 in London called “The Big Picture problem” that Jim Secord organized. with a lot of eminent speakers. I was in the audience and I became really interested in it. I think that was when I first had the idea that I would do something like that. I didn’t know then that I would start in Babylon, but the idea of doing a sort of big history did appeal to me. It was obvious as a student (and also now that I teach other students) that there were not any books like that. When I was studying there was Charles Gillispie’s book The Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas (1960), which went from Copernicus up to modern days. I found it very interesting to read, but it contradicted all the other things I was being told as a historian of science.

In fact, your book presents a big picture different from the big pictures written by other historians of science. Is it because of the influences of the social and cultural history and of the science and technology studies?

Absolutely. That was what I wanted to get across very strongly: all the research that has been done during the last 30-40 years over new ways of thinking about history. There is a view of history that publishers like to present; it is a very old fashioned world. And it is very difficult to persuade them to change their minds and do something new, because they think that people like to read and to hear what they already know. They like nice stories celebrating how we’ve reached our current understanding because that is unthreatening, entertaining and interesting.

The title of your last book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History, has been translated into Spanish as A Brief History of Science, which slightly changes the original meaning. What do you think about it?

A Brief History of Science was the title I originally intended to have. I’m not sure in Spanish, but it is a joke in English referring to Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. The one science book that everybody has bought but nobody has read is A Brief History of Time. It sits on bookshelves as a symbol of learning, rather like Newton’s Principia in the 18th century. It is such a famous book that I wanted to call mine A Brief History of Science. I liked it as well because it emphasizes that it is a book about history. With the title Science: A four thousand year history it has been converted into a science book. That is what publishers like. They want books about science more than about history. But it is very interesting that in Spain the title has been changed.

When you consider a book like this, where easy reading is combined with academic rigor… what readers do you have in mind?

Students are very important, but I also wanted to write a book for wider audiences. It seems to me that science, politics, government and commerce are very closely linked, so every decision that is made about science is, in fact, a political and a financial decision. Science is not separated from politics in any way. In England, there is a big programme encouraging people to learn more about science. I believe it focuses far too much on the content of science and it seems to me a complete waste of time to try to teach people all the complicated theories of science.: we can leave that to specialists As educated citizens in a scientific democracy, we should have some knowledge about how scientific decisions are made and about how science is conducted. I think ordinary people should have some knowledge about the political and financial forces that are affecting scientific decisions. That was a large goal I had in writing the book. And there is also a more immediate goal of enabling students who are coming in to the history of science for the first time to have some way of understanding what it is the modern historians of science are talking about at an introductory level, which I think has been completely missing. There are a few books doing it, but none of them cover the range that I do, and are all different from mine and from each other.

In the first chapter of your book you deal with the peculiarities of the number seven. The book is organized in seven sections, seven chapters each. Why did you choose such an arrangement?

I found it difficult deciding how I was going to organize the book and how I was going to break the past up into chapters. I like the seven x seven structure because it is symmetrical and it implicitly sends a message: it is completely arbitrary to impose a pattern on the past. There is no relationship between this structure and any ideological way of thinking about the past. I like the fact that it was arbitrary, because we think in centuries or in terms of great Kings, Queens and great governments, but there are objections to all of them. Mine is a neutral system but it was very helpful for me to have that in order to think how I could organize the book or where I would put different things. When the sun was known to go around the earth, there were seven planets: the sun, the moon and five others. Therefore, it makes sense scientifically. The number seven is also interesting mathematically: if you have a torus (like a tyre’s inner tube) and you want to draw a map on the surface so that no two regions have the same colour, seven is the minimum number of colours you need (on a flat surface it would be four). Seven is also a magic number, and I intended to implicitly reinforce the idea that magic and science are quite closely related. Scientists would like to say magic has got nothing to do with science. However, I intended to combine those two ideas, that the structure was arbitrary and that science and magic are more closely linked than one might think.

In your book you reinforce the links between science, magic and a different way of understanding science. Do you think that science should be taught in schools in that sense, underlining the links with magic, or do you think that the teaching of science in schools should be completely different? What do you think about formal teaching of science?

In a way, if you want to captivate the audience, if you are a scientist doing a television show, something for young children or any other sort of audience, then you emphasize the magic things that science can do. You make things happen mysteriously and then you explain them. That would be a very good way because you could present under magic something that nobody could understand and then have the children trying to rationalize and understand it. I think it would be good because it would emphasize the process of discovery. Too often one is presented with scientific results as if they were absolute facts and something you have to learn.

Related to this, authors such as Richard Dawkins feel strongly that science and religion have completely nothing to do with each other. I think Dawkins is tending towards scientific fundamentalism. He is rather like a religious fundamentalist: he stands in his laboratory and says, basically: “I am a scientist. You, ordinary people out there cannot understand what I say. Believe me, trust me. I am a scientist, therefore I am right”. And that is exactly what religious fundamentalists say: “You have got to believe me because I am right”. I think there are important ways in which science and religion play similar roles in society. Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein are not just people who were very clever; they are seen as people who were extraordinary, only born once in five generations. People go back to the places where they lived, the places where they were born. It seems that the aura of genius is very like the aura of sanctity, so culturally is fulfilling the same function. I am not saying that a saint is a genius, nor that Einstein and Newton are geniuses, but it seems that some humans need to have these higher beings. Now we visit the house where Isaac Newton was born, or we go to the Royal Society and look at the telescope that he owned… and it seems to me that this is exactly like a saint’s relic. Again, genius and sanctity are fulfilling similar social functions, so you can think of Isaac Newton as a secular saint. In the 19th century people used to talk in English about scientists as the “priests” of science. If you go somewhere like the Natural History Museum in London or the Science Museum in Oxford, they are both built in the gothic style; they are gothic cathedrals.

In your book, you attempt avoiding a rhetoric based on great heroes and heroines. In fact you present the main actors as normal people that have to work to survive, that sometimes fail and that may even fight with some rivals. But to what extent do we need those big names in a story like the one you have written?

I think that it ties up with what I was saying about the need of figureheads such as Newton and Einstein. They are rather like saints and we do need models to look up to and admire… and it has became part of the ideology of scientific progress, as they are very appealing. I am not saying that they were not important; they were very important and clever and did a lot of things, but the history of science is about far more than just these great names. We need to look around them as well. Why is it that we usually write history in that other way? Could we write a different type of history? Could we become interested in the history of big organizations?

You are an expert in the role of women in science. In fact you wrote a book on 18th-century women who played a relevant role in science, Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment. How is that your book Science: A Four Thousand Year History deals mostly with men and only few women scientists?

I wrote one book about women in science in the 18th century, but I do not want to be characterized as a feminist historian who only writes about women. Gender is something I am very interested in, but I would rather treat it along with class and ethnicity. I felt slightly uneasy about writing a book about women because I do not want to be seen as a gender historian. Second, I am not an expert. Women and science is now something that people are very interested in, and I am often asked to give talks on it. I am interested in the role of women in science, but when I wrote the book about women in science in the 18th century I wanted to think about what it meant for the history of science more generally: Do we just want to write about big heroes like Newton, Darwin or Galileo? Or do we want to think about all the people who were teaching, who were translating or classifying specimens and those behind the scenes working as invisible assistants? All of them contributed to science. If one goes further back, one finds people who used to make pottery or jewellery and developed a lot of knowledge which later came into science — as the science of mineralogy. Or farmers who knew what the weather was going to be and their expertise became part of meteorology. Or sailors whose skills became part of astronomy. There were huge numbers of people whose knowledge contributed to what we now call science, but there is no way that one would call them scientists. By writing about women I was also trying to re-think how we think about history, using women as an example of how we might re-do the history of science. But there are not so many in this latest book because it seemed to me that to include a lot of women would distort the past. I do mention women, more than a lot of people would do, but I did not want to be overloaded with women.

Do you have any future projects related to some of the aspects that have been necessarily left out from your last book? Would you perhaps think about writing another book dealing with some of these elements?

I am very happy to go back to the 18th century. It has been quite few years since I did research into it. All the research I was doing about China and Islamic science for this book was not real research; it was all in secondary sources and I did not make any original contribution. I enjoyed writing Science: A Four Thousand Year History, but it is also very nice going back into archives and manuscripts. I am back into being a real historian and doing original research of my own.

I am working at the moment on a book about Erasmus Darwin, involving myself in the narrative in a new way. It is a different sort of project. There is a poem called “The loves of the triangles” that is a satire on Darwin’s poem “The love of the plants”. Instead of having semi-erotic plants, there are slinky triangles and parallelograms. It is a joke, but also it is a very political poem because it was printed in the journal The Anti-Jacobin, very much opposed to the French Revolution. Lots of people have mentioned the poem but no one has tried to analyze it. The basic question I am asking is: why is it that what seems to be a rather silly satirical poem was printed in the leading political journal of the day? Why is it that so many people referred to it? It must be more than just a simply parody; it must have lots of political meanings. I have read and re-read it trying to work out what those political meanings are.

Moving to the present, we have learnt that you recently had a meeting with the Prime Minister, David Cameron…

How did you find that out? [Laughs] I was invited to a dinner party to talk about how the government could support science. There were David Attenborough [natural history film-maker], Tim Berners-Lee [inventor of the World Wide Web], Steven Cowley [director of the leading nuclear fusion research centre in Britain], Mark Walport [director of the Wellcome Trust]… There were twenty-two people around an enormous table. After dinner we were asked to suggest one way in which we could improve science in Britain and one whinge. I thought I had to justify my existence as a historian, so I said: “Think about Crick, Watson and the discovery of DNA. That would be impossible now, because everybody is forced to do a PhD in three years. There is no time to think around a subject. The meaning of research is that some projects just won’t work. You can do research and set up the answer in advance, but you also have to have room for research projects that do not produce an answer.

[1] Amparo Bruño has a BA  (Universitat de València) andi s currently taking an MA in History of Science and Science Communication at the Institut d’Història de la Medicina i de la Ciència “López Piñero” (Universitat de València-CSIC).

[2] Pedro Ruiz-Castell is assistant lecturer at the Institut d’Història de la Medicina i de la Ciència “López Piñero” (Universitat de València-CSIC).

Interview with Professor David Edgerton by Jaume Valentines Álvarez and Jaume Sastre Juan

Amb motiu de la participació del Professor David Egerton en el Col·loqui The shock of the old: Technology and Global History form 1900, celebrat el 20 de desembre de 2010, mitjançant videoconferència des de Londres a la Seu de l’IEC, dins del cicle Comunicar la Ciència: Plaers i Obstacles de la Narrativa Històrica ,  va ser entrevistat per Jaume Valentines Álvarez i Jaume Sastre Juan, entrevista que transcrivim a continuació.

Interview with Professor David Edgerton, ChOSTM (Imperial College London)

by Jaume Valentines Álvarez (UPC) and Jaume Sastre Juan (UAB)

David Edgerton is Hans Rausing Professor at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, at Imperial College, London. Edgerton is one of today’s most original and well-known historians of technology, and his work challenges both the standard views on technology and the history of technology. His most famous book is The Shock of the Old (Profile Books, 2006), which was translated into Spanish as Innovación y tradición. Historia de la tecnología moderna (Crítica, 2007). In this book, he gives a new narrative for the history of technology in the twentieth century that stresses the need to differentiate technology-in-use from innovation. The picture we obtain if we look at the material composition of the twentieth century from this point of view is one that will have to include as crucial elements the poor world, women, maintenance and recycling, old technologies, etc.[1] Apart from The Shock of the Old, David Edgerton has written other books that reassess twentieth-century British history in terms of the material, such as Warfare State (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and Britain’s War Machine (Allen Lane, 2011).

This interview has been done in connection with David Edgerton’s participation in the seminar series “Communicating Science: Pleasures and Pitfalls of Historical Narrative” organized by the Societat Catalana d’Història de la Ciència i de la Tècnica ( The talk took place on December 20th 2010 through videolink due to the snow storms that collapsed British airports. The interview has been done via email in April 2011. This interview is conceived as having many voices, not only because there are two interviewers, but most importantly because each topic is dealt with through a question that in fact turns out to be two questions, different but harmonically interdependent. Just like the different voices in a musical counterpoint. Aldous Huxley used this musical metaphor in his 1928 novel Point Counter Point, in which he abandoned the narrative strategy of a single plot and chose to deploy a handful of interwoven storylines. Although in a much humbler way, of course, we have also tried to be a bit musical by practicing the textual counterpoint.


POINT. What was the biggest pleasure in writing “The Shock of the Old”?

It was learning about the histories of lots of things in many different countries, and feeling a big story emerge. Ships, Fray Bentos, rickshaws, delving into literatures I didn’t know – textbooks on maritime economics, studies of Dhaka…

COUNTERPOINT. What was the biggest pitfall in writing “The Shock of the Old”?

Being overwhelmed with cases, the tension between thematic and chronological development, in short, nothing special…


POINT. What is new in “The Shock of the Old”?

It would take more than a few sentences to give a convincing answer, but I would say much more than meets the eye. I am often assumed to be claiming novelty for this I don’t consider original about the book, while what I do consider original is ignored. There are many different kinds of novelties in the book. Some things are novel in some disciplines and not in others; some things are novel in the fact that I was the first to stop the problem, to note the significance for what we know. Also there are lots of novel arguments about lots of historical episodes, that is to say particular historian claims. Overall the big novel claims are that in a wide range of literatures the material is treated in systematically unsatisfactory ways, relying not on historical evidence but a general understanding handed down from the past. I claim that we need to understand this literature, and its influence on professional historical writing.

COUNTERPOINT. Are historiographic appropriation, maintenance, and recycling, ways of innovating?

Yes, most definitely, but especially because conditions of academic production have encouraged approaches which systematically downplay what should be standard methods for generating novelty in particular cases. We have much history writing which claims great ruptures from past understanding, claims which are dependent on the authors’ and readers’ ignorance of past understanding, and of the understanding in other areas.

“Historians are experts on the future; they know the most important thing about it, that it hasn’t happened yet, that no one is ahead of their time (or behind it) and that what will happen is highly uncertain. Forgetting this is a serious offence”


POINT. “The Shock of the Old” has shocked historians because of its project on global history. Does global history go far beyond from the sum of local histories and from the traditional “big pictures”?

Really? Why should historians be shocked by a global history?

I can’t answer in general, but in my case I can be very clear: “The Shock of the Old” is not a sum of local histories of technology, nor a traditional big picture. For two reasons. First, local histories are usually embedded in big pictures, often old-fashioned ones: big pictures of history and big pictures of the disciplines in which they arise. Secondly, the book was an attack on standard big pictures of the twentieth century – whether focused on the economy, war, production, or science or technology.

COUNTERPOINT. What is the place of the individual, and that of social minorities, in global history?

It obviously depends on the history and the historian –there are any number of global histories. I don’t see why the question would be any different if it were about national or regional or local histories. Where the issue can become relevant is in this: at global level the important individuals and social minorities are different from those in European national histories. In global histories whites should be treated as a social minority, for example.


POINT. And what is the place of the poor countries in global history?

Again it depends what you mean. Do you mean what the place is in actual global histories, or what should it be in ideal global histories? Global is sometimes used as an euphemism for poor countries.

In my view too many accounts of global world history of the twentieth century ignore the significance of the point that most of the world’s population is poor, and that the history of these poor regions has not replicated that of rich regions. The second half of the twentieth century has seen the emergence of a new poor world.

COUNTERPOINT. And the place of historians of the poor countries in global history? Other ways of knowing and doing history are possible from there?

Yes of course, but there are dangers of conflating historians of poor countries with historians from poor countries, and of where the history is being written. We need to recognise that there are all sorts of histories being written in all sorts of places already. But we need to recognise the extraordinary dominance of models of history generated in elite universities in the rich world, and that includes innovations which have led to very new ways of writing history, including provincialising Europe, and so on. These ironies are not lost on historians from the poor world.

Having said that I do think that our accounts of the rich world are very unsatisfactory, and that we would get a better account by starting with parts of the poor world – for many of the practices which we highlight in the poor world (imitation, maintenance, dependence, transfer), are also hugely significant in the rich world, if much less visible.


POINT. You have stated that you intend to do a history of things, not a history of technology. Why do you think it is better to speak about things instead of technology?

I am not interested in either the history of things or the history of technology – in fact I have no idea what such beasts would look like. My interest is in thinking about the material in history, which involves the history of the material of course. I don’t know what technology is, but I do know thanks to the work of scholars like Eric Schatzberg, that it is a concept with radically changing and complex and misunderstood meanings. ‘Technology’ today means something very limited while appearing to be something very general, it is also associated with general, often moralistic arguments of a very unhelpful sort. My point is that when we think of ‘things’ we think of them in a more intelligent, reflective and empirical way than when we think of ‘technology’. To think of things is to get at the history of the material in a much more effective way than to think of ‘technology’.

COUNTERPOINT. What is the place of the emotions, ideas, immateriality in this history of things?

Let us find out, but let us get a much better sense of the range of things first.


POINT. “The Shock of the Old” has confronted other accounts of history. Which benefits can “other histories”, or history, take from history of STM? And viceversa?

I think one needs to disentangle the corpus of work associated with history of STM and its relationship to the wider corpus of historical scholarship from the question what can the study of STM in history contribute to our understanding of history. To both questions there are many and varied answers, but they are not the same ones. My answer to the second question is that it will change our understanding of history, not because STM is absent from history, but because much history assumes dubious accounts of STM. A richer engagement with history as discipline will help the history of STM, by helping to make clear that there is a great difference between the worthy project of using case studies from the past to illustrate the nature of STM, and writing the history of STM.

COUNTERPOINT. Should history of STM disappear once it is inserted in a “single” history without subdivisions? What about the genealogies and languages of each subdiscipline?

Again it depends what you mean. If one takes a particular historical question, say how Britain fared in the Second World War, and one wanted to write a book about it, it would be good to see the economic, political, scientific, material issues addressed in a single interconnected book. But that is a different, though related, issue from how one organises the training and work of professional historians. I think it essential for the serious study of knowledge and the material that we have specialised training, specialists working together, in specialist departments and centres focused on particular issues of concern. There are also many important issues concerning the relationship of historical studies to the modern profession most concerned with it. What might be the most productive relations between professional soldiers, military academies and military historians, between diplomats and historians of foreign policy, between scientists and historians of science?


POINT. You have criticized the scientific and political consequences of what you term “technofuturism”. Should historians aim at changing popular ideas on technology or the elite’s ones? Among which audiences do you think historians could have a biggest political impact?

I assume your question is directed towards influence on popular ideas and elite ideas outside a pedagogical context, but it needs to be understood that this is central. Historians are employed largely by schools and universities to teach, and exert their greatest influence in that way. Some historians will write books which will affect what is taught by other historians, which can have a huge direct and indirect audience. Teachers of history are perhaps the most important audience for historians who want to change how the world thinks.

As far as the non-pedagogical context is concerned I think there is no ‘should’ for historians as a whole. Some historians may wish to write to reinforce existing popular and elite ideas; others may simply wish to earn a little extra income. Some historians will wish to try and change the ideas of the mass of the population (good luck to them!), others might wish to change elite views. None will really succeed, for history will form only a tiny input into what people know and believe.

To the extent that particular authors want to reach out to wider publics, choice of medium is a key issue. Books necessarily reach tiny numbers (though may have very substantial indirect effects); television is much more important, obviously, with museums in between.

COUNTERPOINT. In what sense, if any, is writing for a general public a political act?

All historical writing is to some degree a political act, though usually of miniscule political significance.


POINT. If you were to write a deontological code for historians, which sentence(s) would be your first one(s)?

Historians are experts on the future; they know the most important thing about it, that it hasn’t happened yet, that no one is ahead of their time (or behind it) and that what will happen is highly uncertain. Forgetting this is a serious offence.

COUNTERPOINT. What is not ethical in history?

(…) I can’t think of anything that is unique to history.


POINT. What books would you recommend as good narratives for a general public
in history of technology? And in any other academic field?

In Britain we are blessed with high quality history books for the general public written by specialists. Generally speaking – outside the area of contemporary British history – general history for the general public is dominated by specialists. In military history, transport history, history of science, history of technology, the position is quite different. I can’t think of a narrative history of technology I would recommend, partly because I don’t like narrative histories, and in the history of technology and science they are all too likely to be a collection of clichés. Mercifully there are good accessible histories of technology for the public to read and learn from: Tom Hughes’s American Genesis is an underrated example in this respect.

COUNTERPOINT. Which author would you not recommend?

I would never recommend that someone not be read but all works should be treated critically. Alas when we study the history of science and technology a deep knowledge of bad books is indispensable.


POINT. What do you think are the most promising fields or urgent issues to explore in the history of technology?

Most answers to such questions (and their analogues concerning science and engineering) are unoriginal and misleading and well past their sell-by date.

COUNTERPOINT. Which are the less promising and urgent ones?

I don’t know, but probably a significant proportion of those currently being studied and believed to be promising and timely.

[1] In 2008, a review of the book was published by Jaume Valentines Álvarez in Quaderns d’Història de l’Enginyeria (“Tecnologia criolla, femenina, pobra i vella. Una revisió de la imatge de la tecnologia del segle XX”, vol. IX, 313-324)