Making Connections: "The Big Picture" and the History of Science
Last weekend I attended a conference entitled “Science and its Histories” at the Huntington Library. The conference itself was impressive—with some provocative think-pieces on the role of the history of science in reaffirming disciplines and political structures, but also on ways in which to broaden the lens of what we call the history of science to make it relevant to a broader public.
The theme has stuck with me. It seems to me that we at CHF in general, and in the fellowship program in particular, continue to attempt to address some of the issues and answer some of the concerns raised at the conference. We seek ways to reach broader audiences within the field of history and beyond and to expand the scope of our histories themselves to tell “big picture stories.”
Our most recent Brown Bag Lecture (BBL) and writing group (CALCIUM) offered proof of some of these efforts to, in some sense, make connections and think big. John Stewart's BBL argued for contextualizing chemical affinities, looking at their uses in agriculture and mineralogy, tracing their social history. Meanwhile, Evan Ragland's CALCIUM paper claimed that sensory analyses common to chymistry (particularly taste) were integrated into medical practice in the late seventeenth century.
At both events I watched people from diverse backgrounds, nationalities, and disciplinary perspectives who are interested in different historical periods (and some who are not historians at all) grapple seriously and meaningfully with detailed, technical, and slightly obscure subjects. The genuinely good and engaged discussions shared by these wide-ranging audiences that, in the case of CALCIUM, involved nearly everyone in the room, reassured me that our discipline is in fact a relatable one, one that makes connections to other disciplines, one that can reach and interest a variety of audiences. Such discussions are the fun stuff of academic life, I think. And the big picture can be found in scholars’ arguments themselves, which—absent jargon—should justify interest and allow for engagement.
Although it can be useful to contemplate broadening the history of science in one fashion or another, hand-wringing seems unnecessary at this point. I think we have good examples, even in our small institution, that the broad history of science in one form or another is alive and well.