What Does a Historian of Science Actually Do?

Gibraltar2

Gibraltar Neanderthal from Busk’s papers, Royal College of Surgeons London

If you follow me on twitter (@FossilHistory) you may have seen I’ve been doing some writing outside of my blog. Today I wanted to share a piece I recently wrote for  SAPIENS–but also I’d like to use this to briefly illuminate what it is I do as a historian of science, and why I think it’s the best job ever.

I’m psyched on this piece, not only because SAPIENS is an incredible project to be part of  (it is a Wenner-Gren funded project dedicated to communicating anthropology to the public). I’m also excited about this piece because it provides a glimpse into what I do as a historian of science.

For those who haven’t seen, the SAPIENS piece is called The Birth of the Neanderthals; Library archives reveal the Gibraltar skull’s role in the discovery of our sister species, and it centers around one particularly fun moment I had as a historian. In the piece, I write about how I was doing archival work when I stumbled upon a couple pictures of a Neanderthal skull from Gibraltar. These pictures probably wouldn’t mean much to the average person, but to me they were loaded with significance.

Busk

George Busk

When I stumbled upon these pictures, I was looking through papers of a scientist who lived during the 19th century. His name was George Busk and he was one of the early scientists who studied Neanderthal fossils. My main goal? To see Neanderthals through his eyes. To try to understand Neanderthals the way he understood them in the 1860s. To do this, I scour his old letters, his notebooks and journals, his drawings, and his extensive charts where he measured every aspect of Neanderthal skulls and compared them to living humans and chimpanzees. Here’s what I love about doing that work:

3 things I love about being a historian of science

  1. You get to fill in stories. As far as I’m concerned, history is the act of collecting interesting stories. While these stories can teach us things, I must also admit there is a part of me that enjoys the stories in and of themselves. When I work in archives I seek to fill in stories of things I’m interested in. For example, I’m interested in the first ever recognized Neanderthal skull, and I want to know–how did people come to learn about it? It was discovered in Germany, so how did knowledge of it spread to London, Ireland, and beyond? Who got to see the fossil, and what did they think of it?
  2. You learn about incredible people. The scientist who studied some of the first Neanderthal skulls, George Busk, was truly an incredible guy. His friends described him as kind and generous, a man interested in knowledge for it’s own sake. A friend once wrote about Busk “I never knew a man possessed of a more genuine love for science.” Yet Busk has been written out of many textbooks and histories. I feel fortunate that I get to learn more about him–and maybe I will get to bring him back to life in some small way, and write him back in to the history books.
  3. You come to understand how we know what we know. Believe it or not, how people thought about the Neanderthals in 1864 influences how we think about them today. Shocking, right? Our knowledge of them has grown and shifted in various ways, but it always builds on the original foundation laid down by people like Busk. With that in mind, I think we need to better understand how and why people formed the opinions of the Neanderthal they did back then, in order to better contemplate how we understand them in 2016.
Gibraltar

A photo of the Rock of Gibraltar from Busk’s papers, Royal College of Surgeons London.

That’s a brief introduction to the kind of work I do in the archives. So far, I’ve had the opportunity to visit some very incredible places, and this archive work is definitely my favorite part of being a historian. I get to look at these old documents and try to see the world through the eyes of people like Busk, attempting to understand the larger issues of the time. Then…I write about it! In addition to this recent SAPIENS piece, I’ve been drafting some pieces elsewhere about history, so stay tuned for more to come!

One thought on “What Does a Historian of Science Actually Do?

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #43 | Whewell's Ghost

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