SHiPS Teachers' Network NEWS Vol. 9, No. 1 --- October, 1999

A Newsletter for the Sociology, History and Philosophy of Science in Science Teaching

  • News of the Network
  • Feature: Shelley Costa, "Our" Notation from Their Quarrel: The Liebniz-Newton Debate in Calculus Texts*
  • Rush into Chemistry? | Element #43 = ?
  • Book Briefs
  • Bioethics Case: "Futile" Medicine
  • *
  • Resources
  • Websights
  • Meetings
    * Satellite files require separate printing.
  • Every time the mind of the physicist is on the point of going to some extreme, the study of history rectifies him by means of an appropriate correction. History thus maintains him in that state of perfect equilibrium in which he can soundly judge the aim and structure of physical theory. –Pierre Duhem

    News of the Network

    We are going online!! This is posted on our growing website:

    We hope this will make resources more widely available—and less costly for teachers! So send us your favorite HPS links and, if you have relevant material posted on your website, your own URL. And please share our URL with colleagues. Special thanks to Fred Finley and the College of Education at the University of Minnesota for sponsoring us!

    After the next issue (9/2), publication will be fully online. We will notify members when each new "issue" is available. Please send your e-mail address to the Editor:
    (Note: no commercial access to addresses.)

    I have received many anxious messages since the last issue appeared in June 1998. My deep apologies for the extended hiatus in publication. Thanks for your patience and support. I hope our transition to the WWW will mark a new era, though perhaps something a little less sensational than millenium fever.

    Also, general (and continuing) thanks to our friends in the Education Section of the British Society for the History of Science, and to the editor of their newsletter, Isobel Falconer, for sharing information with us. ---Douglas Allchin, Editor



    Rush into Chemistry?

    Benjamin Rush (1745-1831) was among the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He was also the first professor of chemistry in America. He was appointed to the College of Philadelphia, now the University of Pennsyl-vania Medical College, in 1769, indicating that chemistry at the time was still often adjunct to other pursuits, such as medicine. Ultimately, Rush's work on insanity and his humane treatment of the mentally ill earned him renown in the mental health profession, and the American Psychiatric Association now features an image of him on their official seal.

    Last summer, Rush was featured in a 7-minute play, Vita Brevis, or a Day in the Life of Benjamin Rush, performed outdoors to the delight of audiences in Philadelphia.

    "Taking a cue from Rush's extraordinary productivity, [playwright Michael] Hollinger packed into one day even more than the good man could possibly have accomplished. After seeing a patient, Rush generates 'fixed air' (CO2) for his class at the College of Philadel-phia. Shortly afterward, he directs beleaguered patriots short on gunpowder on how to make saltpeter from cornstalks. Lunchtime permits him to recall his research on the chemical nature of digestion, and the afternoon continues at the same breakneck pace."

    Element #43 = ?

    Pieter Van Assche has recently profiled the work of husband and wife Walter Noddack and Ida Tacke in searching for and isolating new elements from manganese-heavy ore. Through spectroscopic analysis, they were able to identify elements 43 and 75, which they named after their homelands: masurium (Ma), for Masuren in East Prussia, and rhenium (Re), for the Rhineland. That was in 1925. In 1937 Emilo Segrè detected element 43 from deuterium-irradiated molybdenum. Since he believed the element could only be produced synthetically, he named it technetium (Tc)—and so it remains now. But will it remain so?

    Information and excerpt from Chemical Heritage (vol. 17, No. 3). For more information, contact Mary Virginia Orna.


  • James McAllister, Beauty and Revolution in Science
  • The Bakken Museum & Library, Sparks and Shocks

    Beauty and Revolution in Science. James W. McAllister. Cornell Univ. Press (1996/1999). ISBN 0801486254. 248 pp. $16.95pb.

    This book is a work of philosophy that concerns two things that are not often linked together: science and aesthetics. Despite the general lack of attention to this link, a number of scientists have written on the importance of aesthetic qualities in making scientific judgments. These include the physicist Subrah-manyan Chandrasekhar in his book Truth and Beauty (1987) and of the chemist Roald Hoffman in an article in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (1990). Both these Nobel Prize winners see aesthetic factors as important in keeping scientists at work and influencing what science they do and how they do it. While Chandrasekhar and Hoffman take pains to carefully describe what is so attractive about the work they do and about the ideas in their respective sciences, neither takes the analytical approach of a philosopher, the type of approach that James McAllister uses in Beauty and Revolution in Science.

    McAllister holds to a rationalist image of science and admits that fellow rationalists have so far failed to investigate scientists' use of aesthetic criteria in evaluating theories. His book is an effort to fill this gap and to relate the use of aesthetic criteria in science to the development of scientific revolutions. He provides evidence that scientific communities perform two kinds of evaluations of theories: the judgment of empirical performance and of aesthetic appreciation. The aesthetic properties of theories include symmetry, simplicity, innovation of a model, and visualizability; and McAllister goes into each of these in more detail that I can here. He then relates these qualities to the empirical by arguing that theories showing persistent empirical success have aesthetics properties that win favor in the scientific community. In other words, successful theories become more aesthetically attractive, and "scientists' aesthetic evaluations tend in the longer term to swing into line with their empirical appraisals" (p. 66).

    McAllister argues that a community of scientists compiles its aesthetic canon at a particular point in time by attaching to each aesthetic property a weight proportional to the empirical adequacy attributed to current theories that exhibit that property. He labels this process aesthetic induction. He contends that new theories are judged in terms of the aesthetic properties of previously successful theories, and thus there is an association of aesthetic properties of theories with expectations of empirical success. If a new theory is not considered aesthetically attractive, it can gain favor as more empirical evidence accumulates in its favor. And by its empirical success, a theory can predispose the scientific community to choose future theories with properties similar to its own. Thus successful theories tend to inhibit revolutions in science, but then, as a revolution progresses, the scientific community loses its commitment to its old aesthetic canon.

    To support his claims, McAllister presents various lines of evidence, including Jeremy Bernstein's comment that in the sciences as in the arts, sound aesthetic judgments are usually arrived at only in retrospect; a truly new art form or scientific idea is usually first seen as ugly. McAllister also goes outside of science to build an analogy in support of aesthetic induction. In a very entertaining and fasci-nating chapter, he analyzes the history of the use of cast iron in 19th-century architecture. Like almost every other building material when new, cast iron was first used only on the fringes of architectural activity until its utility was firmly demonstrated. As it came to be used more and more in architecture, cast iron gained greater aesthetic acceptance as a building material. McAllister's point here is that, as with scientific theories, empirical validity preceded aesthetic recognition. In both architecture and science, "the demonstrated practical worth of a work— empirical success in the case of scientific theories, utility in the case of buildings—is capable of reshaping the aesthetic canons on which subsequent work is evaluated and by which the line of progess of the discipline is partly determined" (p. 160).

    For a work of serious philosophy, McAllister's book is very readable, and he develops his case carefully and thoroughly. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the philosophy of science and, particularly, in the scientific aesthetic. I do find his description of the use of aesthetic qualities in scientific judgment rather limited; he writes little about the importance of the aesthetic in the development of theories in the first place. But despite this limitation, which is in part the result of his taking a rationalist stance, his concept of aesthetic induction deserves attention from the history and philosophy of science communities. —Maura Flannery

    Sparks and Shocks: Experiments from the Golden Age of Electricity. The Bakken Library and Museum (3537 Zenith Ave., Minneapolis MN 55416. 115 pp.

    This excellent book describes investigative experiments and demonstrations on static electricity adapted by the Bakken Library and Museum from the original studies of scientists who lived during the eighteenth century—the golden age of electricity. The book aims to give pupils a fundamental grounding in basic electrical concepts such as charge, potential and capacitance, which are often skipped over in the rush to get on to "batteries and bulbs," and also to help them realize that they can wrestle creatively and successfully with the same scientific problems that puzzled the great scientists like Benjamin Franklin and Alessandro Volta.

    The method used, of investigative experiments, is outlined clearly in the introduction: first ("preliminary observations"), do an expriment whose result the students are likely to find new or unexpected. This is largely where the demonstration experiments decribed in the book are useful. Then repeat the experiment, modifying conditions without any specific plan. A comparison of the data provides the basis for formulating a problem and selecting variables to investigate. Then ("main experiment"), investigate each variable by conducting preliminary observations, derive a hypothesis, test the hypothesis and decide whether it is correct or not. Six "main experiments" are described in detail, and many more investigations are suggested.

    After the introduction, chapters cover: Attraction, Conductors, Two Kinds of Electricity, Sparks, Shocks, Electrization by Induction, Potential, and Capacitance. Each chapter begins with a discussion of the historical background, which is followed by instructions for demonstrations of historical experiments. These have been adapted to use modern and readily available materials, while still retaining the "feel" of the originals. Next come the investigative experiments, either with a detailed description of the experiment or with suggetions of questions to investigate. As with the demonstrations, the investigations have been adapted to school use. The experiments range from the single demonstration of electrostatic attraction using amber, sealing wax or glass, to construction and investigation of Leyden jars and charging up a pupil (on an insulated platform) using an electrostatic generator.

    Chapter 11 adapts and simplifies many of the previous experiments for use in primary schools. Photocopiable record sheets are provided for these experiments in an appendix, the spiral binding of the book making photocopying particularly easy.

    This book is sold alongside the Bakken Museum 18th Century Electricty Kit [SHiPS 5/4], which contains all the equipment needed to conduct the experiments in the book. For those who do not want to buy the kit, though, Chapter 9 contains instructions for building all the apparatus required in the book, from a simple electroscope to an electrostatic generator. Chapter 10 contains tips on how to get electrostatic experiments to work, and an appendix contains a useful list of resources. Altogether this is an inspiring yet very practical book, which succeeds in integrating three key elements in science education: an understanding of hte nature of electricity, of scientific investigations, and of the historical context of science. I certainly hope to use it in my science club. --Isobel Falconer, reprinted from BSHS Education Forum, No. 20.


    The SHiPS Teachers's Network links science teachers interested in integrating history, philosophy and sociology into the science classroom. We share resources and provide updates on recent developments in science studies. To join the Network and receive the quarterly News or to submit articles, contact the Editor: Douglas Allchin, Minnesota Center for the Philosophy of Science, University of Minnsota, Minneapolis MN 55455.