Contemporary British Historiography of Science

On the whole, political, economic and social historians, tend to remain blind to the role of science in history. At the same time, historians of science tend to burrow in tunnels bounded by their specialist disciplines. A recent omnibus work edited by Olby et al (6) makes these valid assertions in the introduction, and then proceeds to review the burrowings, referencing the scientists who contributed the ideas, mostly however without attribution of origin or environment.

In this context, scientists having roots in, or connections with, Ireland get quite a respectable mention, as contributors to the mainstream of scientific work. Doing rough statistics on the index is not a vary satisfactory measurement procedure, but 'faut de mieux' let us see what it suggests.

There are some 16 items under Britain/British, 10 under France, 8 under Germany, 2 under Scotland and 1 under China. There are none under Austria or Italy, though if you search you do find the names of the 2 main Italian academic bodies. There are 4 under the USA, but none under Russia. Mendelyev gets a mention, Pavlov doesn't, nor does Kapitza; The Russian scientist Hessen gets 6 mentions, presumably because of his famous impact on the 1931 history of science conference in London.

Thus when we have a systematic compendium by the Leeds group, with 67 topics covered by 61 authors, we are presented with a reasonable sample from which the perceptions of mainstream science history can be culled. It is evident that science is centred in the European core-group of major powers: England, France and Germany, with the US coming in as a late arrival, and everyone else being peripheral.

The perception of Nandy, and indeed, McMillan(see below) of Baconian science as being an imperial tool would appear to have substance.

Now consider the name-index in Olby et al. Tyndall (Carlow) gets 3 mentions: the legendary 1874 Belfast Address to the British Association (where he banished the theologians from cosmology), and 2 mentions on the role of creative imagination and emotion in science. William Thompson (Cork) the Owenite gets a mention in the political ideology section. The other William Thomson (Belfast), without the p, later Lord Kelvin, gets 7 mentions. Larmor (Galway) gets 4, Hamilton (Dublin) gets 6, Boole (Cork) 2, Boyle (Lismore) all of 17, but then wasn't he among the founding fathers. Bernal (Nenagh) (7) gets 3 mentions.

Nowhere is there any mention that any of these significant contributors to mainstream science had a connection with Ireland; it is simply assumed that they were all part of the British mainstream, which, in a sense, they were.

Consider a few well-known names(8) in science associated with nations outside the Olby et al core-group. Arrhenius (Sweden) gets a mention, Berzelius doesn't. Oersted (Denmark) gets a mention, Eotvos (Hungary) doesn't. Bohr (Denmark) gets 10 mentions. Bose (India) gets 1.

What this (admittedly crude) analysis suggests is that in the perceptions of contemporary English historians of science, the contribution of scientists with connections with Ireland is considerable, and is comparable to or perhaps even greater than the perceived contributions by other comparable nations outside the core- group.

It is interesting that the Scottish identity is perceived and differentiated; this is perhaps because of the positive role played by the Scottish education system in enabling English dissenting scientists to get an education, at a time when the universities in England and Wales would have been barred to them. Scientists originating in Scotland are usually given credit for their nationality because of this perception.

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