STS Modules – HPSC0010 History of Modern Science


My name is Jon Agar, I teach a course
called History of Modern Science, course code HPSC0010. So it’s a
course that is taken by first years and it follows a course that had taken
students from the ancient world up to the Industrial Revolution. So my course,
which is on the modern world, goes from the Industrial Revolution – the end of the
eighteenth, beginning of the nineteenth century – up until the modern day, and it
provides an overview of the developments in the sciences in that period. It covers… well, so much happens in the sciences in the 19th and 20th centuries. You have the
rise of new network technologies like railways and telegraphy and those things
influence the physical sciences. In the life sciences in the 19th century we, of
course, have the discovery by geologists that the earth had a very long
history, and that gives a period of time of millions of years which people
could, like Charles Darwin, imagine that a process of evolution could produce all of
life on Earth. So those are some of the big 19th century developments, when we
get into the 20th century we have exciting new intellectual ideas
in sciences, things like genetics, for example. In the physical sciences we have theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. We also look at how scientists
fit into different national cultures because the 20th century is marked by the conflicts between nations and
science develops in very different ways in countries such as the United States
or the Soviet Union or Britain and Germany, so we look at science in
international contexts and we look at science and warfare. We look at science in
the First World War science in the Second World War – big
global conflicts – but also science in the Cold War which is a much
more extended period of conflict between East and West and ideological conflict,
one where the idea of the freedoms of the individual or planning of science,
all these things are very very key. Within that context of the Cold War, we have things like the space race, we have the rise of big science, we have all kinds of
very exciting, very interesting developments some of which are in secret,
and we’ve come up to the present day. Since the 1970s for example the life
sciences, in particular, have become much more commercial oriented. Patenting is so
much more important. You can patent life itself which is quite interesting, and we also have new debates, new phenomena, new issues,
things like the rise of climate change and big environmental phenomena and
issues being extremely important for shaping the sciences, late into the 20th
and into the 21st centuries. So the essay is one piece of written
coursework, which encourages students to think about history of science as a
whole, about presenting the key developments the 19th and 20th century
sciences to a public audience – it’s partly history of science, partly
sort of Museum exhibit design. It’s quite exciting. This always produces very
interesting results. It is quite a challenge but an interesting one for our
first-year students, and then there is an exam as well, which takes place in the
summer. Students don’t need to have any prerequisites, no assumption is made
about what kind of knowledge they have, people come to it from all different sorts of
backgrounds as school students coming into the first year, so there are no
prerequisites. If you’ve done the humanities, or you’ve done the sciences,
you’re all on the equal footing.

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