Thursday, 22 November 2012

Science needs stories

Scientists are fond of moaning about science writers, saying we simplify the science too much. This is sometimes true, though to be fair, some science needs simplification, and it’s better to say something in a simple way that’s not the whole story than to say it in a way that is totally incomprehensible. But historians of science have a different complaint. They reckon we are too fond of stories.

So science books, for example, will tell you about Newton’s amazing breakthroughs (quite possibly inspired by an apple falling), or Einstein turning physics on its head. But the historians will grumble and groan saying, ‘No, it was more complicated than that. It wasn’t a straightforward story of one hero making the breakthrough, it was a whole lot of tiny steps, some of them backwards, by a whole range of people, that come together to make the big picture.’

There is an element of truth in this, but it is an argument that’s only any use if you have an audience of computers. People need stories. That’s how we understand the world. And science needs stories if we are to get a wider understanding of science. Because popular science is here to get the story of science across, not the story of history. If we have to slightly simplify history to do this, I think it’s worth it. The fact is, all heroes are human beings with flaws. All processes of scientific discovery are flawed and often piecemeal. But we don’t do harm by making a coherent story of it, we get the message across.

Sometimes the obsession historians have with denying the existence of story can go too far. I’ve seen, for instance, some dismiss the business of Newton and the apple. Yet this story is  not based on a book produced after Newton’s death, it’s taken from an account of a conversation with Newton from a (relatively) reliable source. I personally am quite confident that Newton said he was inspired by seeing an apple fall. (Not that one fell on his head – that is rubbish.) Whether he was storytelling himself, of course, we can’t know. But why must we assume that he was? Give the guy a break!

Here’s a different example of a good story being denied by a historian. British physicist Arthur Eddington led an expedition in 1919 to observe a total eclipse of the sun, which was intended to support Einstein’s general relativity. The interesting story popular science writers tend to tell about this is that the observations he took were insufficient to support the idea that Einstein was right – and results from another expedition at the same time told the opposite story. It has since been shown that the instruments used could never have produced values of sufficient accuracy to support or disprove the theory. Now that’s a good story, because it suggests that – as sometimes happens with science – Eddington was so enthusiastic to get the result he wanted that he didn’t worry too much about the experiment.

However, in an article in Physics World magazine in 2005, Eddington biographer and historian Matthew Stanley commented that this is a myth ‘based on a poor understanding of the optical techniques of the time’ and that Eddington did not throw out data that was unfavourable to Einstein. But that was never suggested. The suggestion is, rather, that Eddington based his analysis on too little data, ignored someone else’s contradictory data, and hadn’t good enough equipment to be sure anyway. It’s hard not to assume that Dr. Stanley was a bit too enthusiastic in sticking up for his subject.

Overall, I think historians of science are right that we should allow some ‘warts and all’ into popular science – and from my reading of it, there is more than there used to be. But we will always need stories to help us understand science and its context, and if those stories sometimes oversimplify the history to get to the science I, for one, won’t complain.

This piece first appeared on and is reproduced with permission.

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