Sunday, January 19, 2014

Beginner's Guide to the History of Science

Previous I've written about the places to start if you're interested in the history of espionage, but don't really know where to start. Today I thought I would write a similar piece on getting started on the history of science.

The history of science is a huge field, even limiting it by excluding material that is more about the history of technology, philosophy of science, or other 'science studies.' Still, there are a lot of resources out there. I'll start by outlining some sources freely available on the Internet, then move on to some personal recommendations. As with the history of espionage recommendations, nothing here will assume any more than a basic, high school level of knowledge about either history or science.


One great place to start is the list of recommendations from the History of Science Society, which helpfully breaks things down into the following categories:
  1. Reference Works [encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc.]
  2. General Works and Overviews [multi-period or multi-disciplinary histories]
  3. Classical Science [science in the ancient and medieval West, to c. 1500 AD]
  4. Early Modern Science [the "Scientific Revolution" era, c. 1500-1700]
  5. Physical Sciences since 1700 [histories of physics, chemistry, astronomy]
  6. Life and Earth Sciences since 1700 [histories of biology, geology, ecology]
  7. Human Sciences since 1700 [histories of psychology, anthropology, etc.]
  8. Science and Society [science and institutions, laws, and governments]
  9. Science and Culture [science and literature, religion, philosophy, and art]
  10. Lives in Science [representative biographies of individual scientists]
If you're looking for other recommendations, a solid general tip is to try googling for a syllabus on the topic you're interested in and see what's required. For more advanced lists, you can try googling for "orals lists" - basically, history PhD students have to pass oral exams after a few years of study, in preparation for which they read dozens of the top books in their fields. For example, a search for "history science orals list" brings up options like the following:,%20Techonology%20and%20Imperialism_.pdf
Podcasts and Lecture Series

It's 2014, and as much as I love reading history books, not everyone does. So, let's talk other options!

One great option for well-researched, excellent audio content is BBC's In Our Time, which posts its episodes online for free download. Loads of these have to do with the history of science, so it's well worth your time to scan through them. Here are some particularly applicable ones:

Astronomy and Empire
Calculus - Newton vs. Leibniz
Darwin: Life After Origins
Darwin: On the Origin of Species
Darwin: On the Origins of Charles Darwin
Darwin: The Voyage of the Beagle
The Search for Immunisation
Lamarck and Natural Selection
The History of Pi
The Four Humours (Medical theory)
The Lunar Society
The Natural Order (Taxonomy)
The Royal Society
The Royal Society and British Science: Episode 1
The Royal Society and British Science: Episode 2
The Royal Society and British Science: Episode 3
The Royal Society and British Science: Episode 4
The Scientific Method
The Scientist - Origins and Roles

Second Law of Thermodynamics - Steam Power to Big Bang
Romanticism and Science
Science in the 20th Century
Thomas Edison
Vitalism - Search for a Spark of Life
Women and Enlightenment Science

Philosophy of Science: Karl Popper
Philosophy of Science: Baconian Science
Philosophy of Science: Empiricism
Philosophy of Science: Laws of Nature
Philosophy of Science: Logical Positivism
Philosophy of Science: History of Logic

Beyond these, here is a great interview-based podcast series called "How to Think About Science" that looks like a great introduction to a lot of philosophy and history of science and science studies topics.

A podcast called BackStory out of the University of Virginia has historians discussing American history topics, some of interest to us:
Contagion: Responding to Infectious Disease
Science and Religion in America
Jefferson: Then and Now (Pt 1)
Jefferson: Then and Now (Pt 2)
A History of Health Care
The Idea of Racial Purity
Environmental Crisis in America

Finally, some audio lecture series on iTunes U, freely available:
History of Modern Physics, as taught by Prof. Cathryn Carson of UC Berkeley, Spring 2008
Oxford University Museum of the History of Science lecture series
New Books in Science, Technology, and Society - Hear about the cutting edge of the history of science and technology from the authors of new books themselves



The Day After Trinity
A documentary about the development of the atomic bomb, the efforts of scientists to organize and gain political influence regarding the development of atomic weaponry, and the costs of those efforts for Robert Oppenheimer, "father of the atomic bomb."

Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery
Directed by Ken Burns, gives an overview of the history of one of the most important scientific expeditions in American history.

Beginner's Guide to the Understanding Espionage through History

There's been an awful lot of 'non-fiction' written about spies and espionage. Some of it is terrible. An immensely larger amount is mediocre and barely worth your time. So - I've been asked many times - where would an interested layman start in learning the true history of spies and spying? This post is for the complete beginner (or reasonably informed reader wanting more) who genuinely wants to know about the real, non-crackpot, not-just-Hollywood, academic-but-not-boring history of espionage and its role the world around us.

Some guidelines: I'm going to take a baseline of books that would be appropriate for an undergrad class on the history of espionage - having academic merit, well-researched, well-referenced, and assuming no more than a basic high school knowledge of US or world history. I'll emphasize the big names in the field, so that if you like something, you can probably find more valuable stuff just by punching the author into Amazon / AbeBooks / whatever bookstore. I'm also going to emphasize readability - nothing here should be full of academic jargon or any more difficult to get through than, say, a David McCullough airport book (which is not meant as a stab at McCullough, by the way, whose work I really enjoy). Finally, I'm going to limit myself to just the bare minimum. Often, too many choices can mean no choice at all, so I'll pick for you. Yes, there is a lot of other great work out there - please feel free to point out any favorites I've missed in the comments.

With that said, let's get started.

1.  Christopher Andrew, For The President's Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush (1995).

As close to a textbook as this field gets, but in a good way! Andrew is one of the great names of the history of espionage, and For the President's Eyes Only goes president by president through American history, charting its on-again, off-again (currently VERY on-again) relationship with spying.
2.  Jeffery Richelson, A Century of Spies: Intelligence in the 20th Century (1995).

A Century of Spies takes a broader view than FtPEO over a shorter period, looking at espionage on the world scale across the twentieth century. Richelson has also written a few great books on the technological side of espionage - a history of spy satellites, a history of the CIA's office of science and technology, and all the efforts used to gain nuclear intelligence about other nations - so anyone on this blog should definitely explore his bibliography.
3.  John Earl Haynes, Hervey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (2010).

After the end of the Soviet Union, the KGB found itself with some serious pension funding problems. They struck a deal with a Western publisher to allow a team of historians - one Russian researcher paired up with Western historians of espionage - to research the history of the KGB, using its own archives with nearly unlimited access, in exchange for some serious money to flesh out retirement plans. As the research went on, the political mood turned sour, then dangerous, and the researcher - Alexander Vassiliev - fled with his notebooks of archival notes. This book builds from his notebooks, documenting the history of KGB espionage in the US.

It's a shocking, fascinating set of discoveries. More than a few myths are busted for those more deeply into the field, but the biggest take-away for everyone is the enormity of Soviet infiltration in America, especially in the 1930s and 1940s. McCarthy was a dangerous egomaniac who had no idea what he was talking about in terms of Soviet spying, but spy they did, and this lengthy book documents the cutting edge of what we know. It may well be all we know for a very long time, at least until the Putin regime ends and Soviet archives begin opening up again.
4James Bamford, The Puzzle Palace: Inside the National Security Agency, America's Most Secret Intelligence Organization (1983) / The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping of America (2008).

These books are actually part of a trilogy, and I've left out the middle book, Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency, not because it's in any way bad, but simply because you can probably afford to skip it if you read the others. Puzzle Palace will take you through the origins and development of the NSA, today one of the largest and most important aspects of our intelligence/surveillance apparatus, while Shadow Factory will bring you up to the present.
5. Sergei Kostin and Eric Raynaud. Farewell: the Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century (2011).

For most people, history is at its most memorable and interesting when it's on the human scale, so I've added this one to put a more human face on Cold War espionage. Agent 'Farewell' was Vladimir Ippolitovitch Vetrov, a KGB agent who decided to pass information to France, and this book does a fantastic job of telling his story as fully as we can currently hope, using sources from the KGB, France, and the United States.

Bonus choices: Where to start on spy fiction! Here, I'm even less of a true expert than with academic issues, but some choice entry points: