History of Science Recommendations from Ted Davis

In Summer 2010, Ted Davis (History of Science, Messiah College) presented a series of four free lectures on ‘A Short History of Christianity and Science’ for the Pennsylvania Chautauqua, Mt. Gretna, PA.  Interested in having Ted speak on your campus?  If so, you might consider 1 or more of the topics from this series, http://www.messiah.edu/godandscience/fall10/short_history.html.

Last week, Edward B. (“Ted”) Davis, Distinguished Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College (Grantham, PA) and outgoing president of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), shared with us how he became interested in History of Science and some tips for Emerging Scholars as they seek academic positions. In this second post, we explore recommended resources for those interested in the History of Science. Let’s get started …

Thomas B. Grosh IV [TG]: For members of ESN with an interest in History of Science [HSC], what resources would you recommend as a place to get started? Would you have a book recommendation for a campus discussion group?

Ted Davis [TD]: Unfortunately many of the best historians of science write little or nothing for “popular” audiences, i.e., non-scholars. Ironically, the book that has probably sold more copies than any other book in my field, Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (more than one million copies are reported to be in circulation), was written in terse academic prose for a very narrow audience, namely positivist philosophers of science—whose work was, equally ironically, all but undermined by Kuhn, even though he had not intended to do so. Readers who like Kuhn should be able to handle almost anything else in HSC, regardless of the audience for whom it was written. I had to read two of Kuhn’s books in Dr. Rosen’s course at Drexel, and I found both of them fascinating despite my very limited acquaintance with HSC at the time.

The kind of literature that could attract a person to HSC, however, might actually be something that was not written by a professional Historian of Science, such as the books on history of physics that I mentioned in the first part of this interview. A perfect example is Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter:  A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love. Sobel is neither a professional Historian nor even a scholar; she is a science writer who reads the professional scholars very carefully, understands them, and presents a very persuasive picture of Galileo life and his interactions with others in that book. I think that she’s a little too uncritical of the relationship between Galileo and his daughter, but overall the book is a very fine book. Anyone who likes that book might be interested in studying HSC.

Some other writers have written some excellent popular books about HSC.  For example, Dennis Danielson’s book, The First Copernican: Georg Joachim Rheticus and the Rise of the Copernican Revolution, about the Lutheran scholar who persuaded Copernicus to publish. It’s not going to sell as many copies as Sobel’s book, but it’s a very approachable, well written, and accurate book about an important aspect of Copernicus’ ideas and their reception. Danielson is a professor of English literature, but also trained in philosophy and intellectual history. He understands the early modern period, but he also understands how to write a good book.

Since we’re talking about history of astronomy, perhaps the best study of that for the general reader is still the book by Arthur Koestler called The Sleepwalkers. It’s a massive book, more than 600 pages including lots of technical details, yet so well written and interesting. Actually, it’s several different books under one cover, relating the story of astronomy down to Newton from the ancient Greeks. Koestler was a major novelist, but he also did his homework quite well for that book. The interpretations he provides for Copernicus and Galileo are highly questionable. He calls Copernicus “the timid canon,” which has some plausibility but he’s not very sympathetic with Copernicus. His strongly negative picture of Galileo is partly accurate, but I don’t think that it’s that well balanced. On the other hand, the picture he provides of Johannes Kepler is nothing short of brilliant. Published separately as The Watershed, it’s a wonderful, novelesque piece of nonfiction.

Anyone interested in HSC could get into it through these kinds of sources.  The professional historians are still not writing very much along those lines, though there are some outstanding exceptions, such as Edward Larson’s superb book on the Scopes trial.  That’s part of the reason we’re not highly visible—we don’t usually try to write for popular audiences. It’s our own fault, and I don’t hesitate to apply this observation to myself. I’ve written a few blog posts and a couple of chapters for trade books, but nothing has gotten much attention except an essay I wrote many years ago about modern Jonah stories. That one was featured on a couple of BBC radio programs, and I still get inquiries about it from people who stumble across my name. In many cases, I sense that scholars are simply not interested in writing something that isn’t seen as scholarship in the traditional sense; certainly many research universities aren’t ready to give them credit for it, though perhaps that will change as the internet becomes more important to scholars.

In my case, I’m torn between trying to help create a new history of Christianity and science—a crucial job that has to be done mostly with traditional scholarship, in order for the ideas to be taken seriously— and wanting at the same time to get the word out to the general public, including Christians with an interest in science. Allotting time to disparate tasks is a zero-sum game, and a lot of my time already goes to students, family, church, and the ASA. I can’t be the only scholar who feels pulled in different directions. The Templeton Foundation has been able to free up scholars for a few key projects that might help alter the general situation, but what is really needed in my opinion is a group of young Christian writers who will devote their careers to doing what Sobel has done: to take the best scholarship and write about it in the most interesting ways they possibly can.

TG: If some members of ESN have friends who desire to get together to discuss topics from History of Science, how about Galileo Goes to Jail?

TD: Something like Galileo Goes to Jail could be good. Incidentally, that book resulted from one of the projects that Templeton has supported. It was expensive to do, but it’s a rare example of scholars trying to reach a general audience with current knowledge, without watering it down but also without getting bogged down unhelpfully by the kinds of arguments between specialists that scholars like to get into. The book covers a lot of interesting topics, and there’s enough of them that readers can just go for the ones that catch their attention. Perhaps this book will prove to be a good introduction to HSC, but as a compilation it lacks the unity and energy of Sobel or Koestler; of course, not just anyone can write as well as they can.

InterVarsity Press has a very good book on HSC: The Galileo Connection, by the late Charles Hummel. He was a chemist, but he consulted with a lot of people in HSC about the chapters as he was writing. It’s a very good book that I still use as a textbook in my History of Modern Science course. I like the fact that it takes a biographical approach to the history of Copernican astronomy. The Copernicus-to-Newton story is told primarily through the biographical type of approach. He then jumps into some issues which are more contemporary, but there he drops the biographical approach, so you could say that it’s really two different books in one cover.

Owen Gingerich has done some writing that’s a little more accessible, such as articles in Scientific American and other places about people such as Galileo, Tycho, or Kepler.  His recent book, God’s Universe, isn’t really HSC, but does have some historical reflection on some of the science and religion issues today, especially those related to origins.  I recommended it unreservedly over at “First Things”.

TG: It was great to hear you once again address The Galileo Affair: What Really Happened. For those interested in this topic what would recommend they read?

TD: Above all, I would recommend the Dava Sobel book Galileo’s Daughter:  A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love.  Anything by Ernan McMullin or William Shea is also worth reading.

TG: In addition to The Galileo Affair: What Really Happened, what are other topics that you’ve explored and are open to speaking on?

TD: I’ve written and spoken about Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, the History of American Religion and Science — not focused on a specific individual, but a broader cultural history of religion and science in America.

TG: For campuses seeking to create a guest series on the relationship of religion and science, who would you recommend they consider inviting?

TD:

  1. Owen Gingerich, Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and of the History of Science at Harvard University and a senior astronomer emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.
  2. Ian Hutchison, Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, Nuclear Science and Engineering, Alcator C-Mod Plasma Confinement Experiment Co-Principal
  3. Jennifer Wiseman, an astronomer of NASA, who as of this year is the new director of the AAAS office in charge of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion, and she is the current ASA President.

TG: You’ve once again mentioned the ASA. If one’s a young Emerging Scholar in the sciences, what would one take away from participating in the upcoming meetings in Washington, D.C.?

TD: I think the biggest benefit to someone from InterVarsity attending the ASA meeting would be awareness raising: simply the experience of discovering that there’s this sizeable community of Christians who are seriously engaged with the issues of faith and science from multiple points of view as Christians. There are a lot of other people who not only share this interest, but also actually devote some time to thinking and writing about these things. That can be very helpful to know. Let alone the chance to get to sit down and talk with some of them, hear some of them speak. Come just to have the whole general. We bring together people with common interests and faith, even though our opinions on specific topics range widely.

TG: If an interested scholar misses this year, what future opportunities where there be? When are the meetings in 2011?

TD: The next conference will be at North Central College, in the Chicago area, from July 29-Aug 1, 2011. We sometimes have regional meetings in the Washington D.C. and Philadelphia areas, but these are sporadic. Some of the events sponsored by the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science are in coordination with the Eastern Pennsylvania Section.

Thank-you Ted!  Looking forward to being with you at the ASA meetings (July 30 – August 2) and a number of the special events which you’re planning in the fall for the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.  For those with interest in these opportunities, please check out the websites and/or be in touch with one of us.

Tom Grosh IV

Enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa, four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he hosts the Christian Scholar Series), on campus as part of InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministry (serving fellowships such as the Christian Medical Society/CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine), online as the Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network, in the culture at large, and in God's creation.

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