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Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Shaping the sciences

HSTM60262 (30 credits)

Semester Two

Classes: one weekly two-hour seminar, Tuesdays 10am till 12 noon.

Contact: Dr Vladimir Jankovic


The unit aims to

  • introduce students to interrelated developments in the physical sciences, and their relationship with the wider world, across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
  • provide an overview of the various practical and rhetorical methods used to develop disciplinary identity
  • engage students critically with the concepts of “pure” and “applied” science, and their relationship to scientists’ need to canvass support from non-scientific audiences
  • enhance students’ research and essay-writing skills, and provide suitable grounding for dissertation research into the history of the physical sciences.


Students should be able to

  • describe and analyse the development of the physical sciences, and their relationship with the wider world, in the period 1800-2000
  • construct and defend an argument according to the norms of scholarly historical research
  • critically examine the techniques used to build a coherent scientific discipline, and the rhetorical devices used to support particular developments or definitions
  • contribute to group discussion
  • read, summarise and critically examine source texts, and present findings orally in a group setting
  • conduct independent research on primary and secondary historical sources
    clearly present an argument in essay form using appropriate source documentation
  • critically and comparatively appraise source texts
  • give an oral presentation examining a source text, and respond to questions or comments from others
  • engage members of scientific and non-scientific communities in discussions about the development and status of scientific disciplines

It was in the late nineteenth century that the word “scientist” came into regular use, as a general term for the members of professional disciplines such as physics, chemistry and astronomy. This course examines how these scientific communities built their professional identities across the course of the nineteenth century, and how they made themselves crucial to the concerns of nations and empires in the twentieth. We pay particular attention to how scientists set boundaries, using various tools (publication, patronage, institutions) to establish people and practitioners as “inside” or “outside” their particular disciplinary areas or science in general.

We also consider how scientists and others have used demonstrations – from the electric light to the atomic bomb – to promote the usefulness or validity of science to various audiences, and how these claims have been challenged.

As this is a team-taught course drawing on staff research interests, the exact content will vary. However, it will typically include the following:

  • Tools of professionalisation: journals, societies, institutions and methods
  • The chemist as consultant
  • Research schools
  • Laboratory discipline and the universities
  • Scientific institutions and science reform campaigns
  • From “natural philosophy” to “physics”
  • Standards, measurement, accuracy and precision
  • Defining the status of science: “pure”, “fundamental” and “applied”
  • Big Science and the military-industrial-academic complex
  • Two Cultures
  • Physics dethroned? Technoscience, convergence and the rise of bioinformatics
  • Images of the scientist in non-scientific culture


Contact time is devoted to small-group discussion based on assigned readings. Students will regularly be asked to introduce the themes and arguments of readings to the rest of the class, and respond to comments. Some classes will also feature short video screenings.

Readings and other support materials are delivered via Blackboard, which is also used for essay upload. Students are encouraged to raise questions about the course in class or via email, and the group email list is used to continue general discussion on course themes. There will be occasional, informally organised visits to sites discussed on the course.


Two 3000-word essays (50% each)


The seminar discussion format of the course gives all students regular opportunities to discuss their ideas with teaching staff. Staff are also available to discuss essay proposals and general course performance by appointment, on a one-to-one basis. All coursework is double-marked, and essay scripts are returned to the students with both sets of markers’ comments.


Dr Vladimir Jankovic; Dr Jeff Hughes; others to be announced