Between science and history

Last Friday, philosophers from the University of Leiden hosted the symposium ‘Between Science and History,’ in an attempt to figure out what the differences are between practicing scientists’ use of history and historians use of history.

The organizers had conjured up the nice experiment of letting a scientist and a historian in one session give a talk on a famous historical figure – Einstein, Darwin, Christiaan Huygens. (Plus there were a few idiosyncratic talks, interesting in other respects, but let me leave those out here.)

At first it seemed this would only produce what one would expect: famous string theorist/biologist is asked to talk about how s/he looks upon Einstein/Darwin, and you are offered little more than the claim that the theory of relativity/natural selection is really very, very important; to be followed only by the historian showing how Einstein actively shaped his own history and legacy, or setting out how in fact there are different Darwinisms.

But in between the lines common ground was found nevertheless. The recurring claim by the practicing scientists was that, say, Einstein changed the way at which all of us look at the world, as a result of which it is surprisingly easy today to explain the theory of relativity to high school students. The historians responded that all they did was to repeat this story of how the Einsteins fundamentally changed our view of the world in book–lengths form. (Well, of course they made it sound more complicated, but that’s what it came down to.)

Watching another round of European economic turmoil on the TV later that night I realized I liked that conclusion, despite all the subtleties and jargon one might want to add to it. We need enemies, as Tiago very well observed, but practicing scientists’ use of history should not be the target.

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