Book review: The invention of science15/04/2012
The Invention of Science: Why History of Science Matters for the Classroom
Author: Catherine Milne
Publisher: Sense Publishers, 2011 ISBN: 978-94-6091-523-9 (paperback), 978-94-6091-525-3 (e-book)
Reviewer: Anne Hume, University of Waikato
I first came across this book last year at the European Science Education Research Association (ESERA) conference in Lyon, France, when I was browsing at the book displays. It caught my eye because it is a book about the history of science and is intended for the classroom, and also because of the inference in the title that science is something that has not always been around in our history.
By her use of the word ‘invention’ in the title, there is a strong sense that the author Cathy Milne is seeking to portray science as a means for meeting some need/ purpose and that it has come into being through some creative process rather than one of simple discovery. In reading the book, science clearly comes across as an evolving human endeavour whose form and practices have been reinvented over time and place as needs and purposes changed. The author goes to some length to present and define the knowledge and practice that is today globally accepted as science without ignoring the other forms of science that exist or have existed. This stance is very helpful in giving the reader deep insights into what most consider science to be today, the basis on which it is practised and how these developments came about.
What I found especially useful in my understanding of the origins of modern science was the author’s introduction of the term ‘Eurocentric science’. She used it to describe the science that was the outcome of a cultural-historical phenomenon that had its roots in many diverse cultures but crystallised in the 16th and 17th Century Europe. This period in history saw the merging of ancient practices and theorising about the seen and unseen world (from sources such as China, India, Africa, the Middle East and Europe) with the field of natural philosophy that was gaining popularity in Europe at that time.
The blending of ancient understandings with new approaches focused on evidence-based inquiry and validation processes; development of models as explanations and peer review was largely played out in the European arena by groups of like-minded people. These people (mostly men) came together to pursue similar lines of thinking, forming schools of thought in places such as Italy, France, Germany and Britain and ‘inventing’ a new form of systematic science knowledge. The term ‘Eurocentric science’ for this systematised science, with its accepted strategies for developing, validating and evaluating new scientific knowledge, is a very useful one in my view, because it captures something of the nature and origins of current global scientific practices.
Reading this book has raised my awareness of boundaries, which I think distinguish Eurocentric science from, say, indigenous forms of science and from religious worldviews. Clearly these boundaries are by no means set in concrete, but I think they are important to explore and discuss when we come to teach about the nature of science considering the diversity of our students and society – in my case my students are pre-service teachers.
The historical account of science from its beginnings in antiquity through to modern times is written in largely narrative form against the backdrop of human societies through those times. There are many interesting stories of how key characters in science, such as Democritus and Newton, lived their lives and came to contribute to scientific knowledge, and of many scientists we know relatively little about but whose contributions are significant in the whole picture of science development.
I found the author’s description of the philosopher Descartes and his thinking very enlightening. He had argued that true knowledge came from human reason, not from sense experiences, and his philosophy of determinism where all aspects of nature could be explained by the application of scientific laws, based on God’s plan, had many followers. His view of the cosmology as a machine able to be understood by mathematical laws and principles is at the heart of terms like mechanism and reductionism, which I’ve often come across in the science education literature before – it was interesting to learn the source of these terms.
What the author does very successfully in this book is her portrayal of the growth of science and scientific knowledge as a non-linear process, and also as a process involving real flesh and blood people. She demonstrates very clearly how the interaction of complex factors such as historical events, increasing mobility of people, religious views and social mores of the time, technological inventions, new freedoms and great thinkers at critical times culminated in the emergence of Eurocentric science.
A storehouse of science stories
I cannot do justice in this short review to the detail of the author’s narrative; suffice to say, that the text is peppered with references to scholarly works on the history of science, which gives real credibility to her perspective as science as an invention. The book is a storehouse of science stories that will enrich your lessons on the nature of science. Her description of how factions within science came and went as new interpretations of the cosmology appeared, and why certain explanations prevailed over others fascinated me. Scientists like Copernicus and Galileo displayed great personal courage in the promotion of their ideas at a time when such views were considered heretical. We learn how changes in social practices – such as the movement from writing scholarly texts in Latin and Greek to the vernacular, and inventions like the printing press – helped to open up opportunities for the sharing and dispersion of new ideas.
In my pre-service teacher education programme I intend making great use of excerpts from the book to clarify aspects of the nature of science. Specifically the timeline chart of worldwide science-related people and developments between 200 B.C. and 1000 A.D. on pp2-25; the differentiation of dialectical, analogical, deductive, inductive and abductive reasoning in Chapter 2; and the roles of models, principles and laws in Eurocentric science in Chapter 4. Throughout the book the author has posed reflective questions, and I must say I found them quite distracting at times as a solo reader – I needed the opportunity to discuss them with others, especially those questions that I couldn’t answer! This is a book that I’m sure I’ll return to frequently!
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