Interview: Ted Davis, the Story of a Historian of Science

At a recent InterVarsity Christian Fellowship dessert, Ted Davis (left) connects with Messiah College alum Dwight Schwartz (right). Dwight, an ASA member (with a PhD in Chemical Physics from U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), currently serves as the Mid-Atlantic Area Director for InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty Ministry.

In preparation for next week’s 65th Annual Meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation,* I interviewed the outgoing ASA President, Edward B. (“Ted”) Davis.  As you may remember from an earlier post, Ted serves as the Distinguished Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College (Grantham, PA), and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.  Our conversation focused upon

  1. what sparked his interest in studying the History of Science,
  2. tips for Emerging Scholars seeking academic positions,
  3. recommendations for those who are curious about and desire to explore History of Science.

Today’s post gives attention to #1 and #2.  Next week, we turn to #3.

Thomas B. Grosh IV [TG]:  This morning as you presented on The Galileo Affair: What Really Happened,** I don’t think anyone in the packed room could miss your passion for the History of Science.  What sparked your interest in History of Science?  Did you grow up desiring to know about the History of Science?

Ted Davis [TD]: I didn’t know that there was a field called the History of Science until I was a student at Drexel.  I did take a couple of courses at Drexel in the History of Science, during my senior year.  They were taught by Dr. Richard Rosen, who has a doctorate in History of Science from Case Western.  So I got a formal exposure to it at Drexel — for which I have always been grateful.

I was majoring in physics then.  Originally I had intended to become an astronomer or astrophysicist, but by the time I took Dr. Rosen’s courses I was becoming more interested in the humanities, and I had decided to try high school science teaching for at least a few years.  I wasn’t sure how much I would like it, or whether I’d be any good at it, but I ended up spending another year at Drexel, taking some graduate courses in physics and some undergraduate courses in education in order to get a teaching certificate.

Dr. Rosen made the subject very interesting, but when I reflected on this later I realized that my interest in the history of science had actually been kindled in high school, though I didn’t realize it at the time.  In those days most college-bound students studied biology in tenth grade, chemistry in eleventh grade, and physics in twelfth grade.  I took chemistry as a junior and absolutely loved it, especially the parts about atomic theory and chemical bonding.  Over the summer, I read some books about those topics, some of them covering technical details at a basic level and others that were about the development of scientific ideas.

My interest in history of science grew out of reading some of those books, especially The Evolution of Physics by Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld, The Strange Story of the Quantum by Banesh Hoffman, and The Questioners by Barbara Lovett Cline. Strictly speaking those are not History of Science books; they are books about science that employ a quasi-historical framework.  They are not written in a way that a real historian of science would write them.   They tend to gloss over a lot of the aspects of the story that don’t point toward a straight forward scientific goal, they can be a bit sloppy about certain historical details, and they tend to ignore the important roles that cultural, philosophical, and personal elements can play in the story of science.  Nevertheless, they sparked my interest in the development of scientific ideas, an interest that remains paramount for me today.

I read such things when in high school and a decided to major in physics in college primarily because I was interested in those ideas, i.e., the development of physics in the 20th century — early quantum theory, later quantum theory, and the development of the general and the special theories of relativity.  I found those ideas fascinating, and I still do.  I didn’t actually study that much modern physics at Drexel, ironically, and most of what I did study was not presented as a set of ideas that had a history; that just isn’t how most scientists look at things, even though it can distort the picture of reality that they convey to their students.  I found this very frustrating at the time, and when I later taught physics myself both in high school and at Messiah College, I took steps to include some historical aspects of physics in my courses, even at the inevitable cost of spending less time on the nuts and bolts of certain topics that are standard parts of introductory courses.

You might say that I had a kind of academic conversion experience while I was at Drexel — and this is ironic, given that Drexel was and still is so strongly oriented toward scientific fields rather than the humanities.  One reason I choose to go there instead of to a liberal arts college (I had been admitted to a liberal arts college as well), was that I wanted to get away from the Humanities.  I knew two things when I went to Drexel as a first year student.  One was that I’d never be a teacher and the other was that I hated the Humanities.  Yet here am, a teacher in the Humanities, specifically the History of Science and of Science and Religion.  Socrates said to know thyself, and I found out who I really was in college.

A key experience took place in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Drexel requires all students to spend 18 months in co-operative education, what you would call an internship today.  My co-op experience was in Charlottesville, at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory because I was interested at that time in astrophysics.  I was a research assistant, programming mainframe computers in Fortran, searching for data in scientific journals, and even on one occasion making decisions about which radio sources to observe with the old 300-foot telescope (which fell apart several years later).

So, I was living very close to the campus of the University of Virginia.  During that time, the L’Abri lectures came to UVA [University of Virginia], and I heard some terrific lectures on art history by the late Hans Rookmaaker.  I was so fascinated by what he had to say that I took some art history courses when I went back to Drexel, and I even gave some thought later to doing graduate work in that field, though I ultimately chose history of science instead.  I also had been developing an interest in music history — even in high school I liked classical music, not rock — so I took a couple of courses in music history and did a senior research project on the composer Vaughan Williams.  Though I completed my physics major, I realized that my interests were changing fundamentally and that I no longer wanted to become a scientist.  I wasn’t yet sure what I wanted to do, but science teaching now appealed to me so I decided to try it.

My first job was to teach physics, chemistry, and mathematics at a Christian high school in North Philadelphia.  Soon I decided to add a month-long unit on science and the Bible at the end of the chemistry course.  Through the late Frank Roberts, a geologist who taught at another Christian school in the area, I was introduced to the American Scientific Affiliation (www.asa3.org), the premier North American organization of Christians in the sciences.  From attending their meetings and meeting their members, I started to read seriously about Christianity and science.  Much of that material had a large historical component, and at that point I realized that my original interest in the development of scientific ideas was closely related to the interests that I had been developing in the history of art and music.  The common element was the expression of ideas through culture.

Very soon I decided that I wanted to learn more about Christianity and science, and that the best way for me to do that was to undertake graduate work in the History of Science.  I was in my mid-twenties when I made that decision.  So I applied to graduate schools in the History of Science and I ended up going to the one that offered me a graduate fellowship, Indiana University.  I still didn’t know very much about the faculty at Indiana, and I didn’t visit the school before I accepted the fellowship.  I made a blind decision, in a sense.  Although it turned out very well—I ended up working with the great biographer of Isaac Newton, Richard S. Westfall — I don’t recommend this approach to anyone.

TG:  Were you married at the time?

TD:  Yes.  I met wife teaching high school.  She was an English teacher at the same school.  She knew that I did plan to go to graduate school in something, at some point.  We left for graduate school about fourteen months after we got married.

TG:  As you reflect on your journey as academic, what tips do you have for Emerging Scholars seeking academic positions?

TD: If you want to become a scholar or a scientist in an academic context, then it’s good to have a clear idea whether you want to work in a more high pressure research university context or in a lower pressure undergraduate college context, whether or not it’s a religious college.  Some people have probably made that decision a long time ago, while others might not have made it yet.  You want to have a clear idea, and help from good advisers in graduate school.  Some people are open to either one, but career tracks at these two types of institutions will look a lot different.  If you don’t like teaching, you have no business going the small college route.  Even if you’re a very, very good researcher, if you’re not a good teacher, you’re going to have difficulty at a small college.  Vice versa for the research university track.  It doesn’t matter how good a teacher you are, you’re going to have difficulty if you’re not a successful researcher and a successful grants writer.  It’s not completely unfair to say that teaching doesn’t matter very much at some research universities, for a junior faculty member.  In some places it will matter, but at some places it won’t matter at all — unless one is just a terrible teacher, in which case there isn’t much hope.

TG:  As always, I enjoy hearing what a scholar who has gone before us can share about the academic journey and the dynamics of higher education as a vocation.  Next week come back to learn how you can explore History of Science.  If you’re already familiar and/or studying History of Science, please feel free to share your story in the comment section below and/or provide additional recommendations/insights to this series.  Also, if you have specific History of Science questions, i.e., particular figures, ideas, ‘conflicts,’ post them below and we’ll look to explore them in future posts.

* Wrestling with Science, Faith, & Public Policy in D.C.

** Part 2 of a 4 part series on A Short History of Christianity and Science.  Pennsylvania Chautauqua, Mt. Gretna, PA.

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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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