SHiPS Teachers' Network NEWS Vol. 9, No. 2 --- December, 1999

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

News of the Network
Commentary: Stories & Science


  • From the Lipid Bilayer to the Fluid Mosaic: A Brief History of Membrane Models*, by Phillip Eichman
  • Bunsen--Without his Burner*, by Colin Russell


  • Science Dramas
  • Book Briefs
  • Ethics Case*
  • Resources
  • Websites
  • * = Print from separate file.

    We must expect changes in the theory in the future. If a theory is taught and learned dogmatically as it stands, without regard to its origins, then it is in danger of becoming fossilized and of being finally an obstacle to further progress. Science, and even quantum mechanics, is not a body of revealed truth to be piously preserved. We must understand what is essential in the theory and what is not, and the best way to reach such understanding is by studying its history. ––Freeman Dyson

    News of the Network

    If you have not already done so, please forward your e-mail address to the Editor, to be notified when future issues are published online and/or when major updates are posted on our website.

    As I assemble each new issue of the SHiPS News, I am reminded of the expansion of HPS in mandated curricula, coupled with the increased availability of resources via the internet (see Websights!). Accordingly, SHiPS itself is shifting focus. One change, of course, is our new online Resource Center, a more permanent and widely accessible hub for finding information and centralizing curriculum ideas. I hope that you will find it a convenient reference and source of ideas. Please also encourage colleagues to use it as well. I sense that many teachers now find themselves responsible for teaching "history and nature of science" and are wondering what to do or are feeling ill-equipped. We need to lead the way.

    We also need to keep in mind that historical and philosophical research does not stop. New, sometimes revolutionary, findings emerge, just as in science. We would be in dire straits, for example, if we depended on the narrow philosophy and images of science popular a half-century ago. We will continue to provide updates on what is current in these fields, much as Science News and other magazines keep teachers abreast of develop-ments in science itself. We will also post information about professional meetings and associations, and encourage teachers to link with historians, philosophers and sociologists of science locally.

    Another area of growth is in providing and sharing curricular exemplars for teachers who want or need an introduction to new ways of teaching. Can you help?
    --Douglas Allchin

    Commentary: Stories and Science

    Douglas Allchin

    I am holding a small, fragile 5"x7" volume, a mere 32 pages—the September, 1906, issue of The School World, the two O's of "school" overlapping. The cover boldly reminds the reader that it is published monthly, from September to June, by D•H•Knowlton•&•Co, Farmington•Maine. Art deco flowers border each side. Only 35 cents. Above the table of contents, this issue's theme: "Stories of Science."

    Here, nearly a century later, one might reflect on why this magazine offered stories to teach science. Surely now we've outgrown such primitive pedagogy at the secondary level. The Discovery Channel and NOVA do not replace school. Still, the narrative format is incredibly powerful, even among adults. (Witness how such TV shows succeed.) Students, too, listen. Indeed, I think this may explain their often favorable response to history of science.

    "Stories" cannot substitute for learning about scientific concepts, one hopes. But can stories be vehicles for such lessons? Fables have "morals": is that a model for teaching? Are there also lessons in the narrative itself, as in literature—for example, that scientists err, have personalities, may be motivated by ambition as well as passionate curiosity, apply certain problem-solving strategies, assess puzzling results and try again, etc.? Many indigenous cultures record their natural knowledge in myths or narratives (see SHiPS 8/2 on Science and Culture). What makes stories sometimes as cognitively powerful or memorable as abstract principles?

    The topics in the modest School World are simple, but provocative. Consider, for example, "The Beginning of Chemistry." We certainly know where most textbooks begin. How often do we consider, though, where chemistry "begins" for our students—as they see it? How did concern for chemistry originate historically? How did it become relevant enough to motivate inquiry? Metallurgy, pharmacy, ceramics, mortars, glass-making, dyes, even cosmetics: these are the origins of chemistry. Indeed, many early chemists (well into the 18th century) made their living in one of these trades, where chemistry as a pure theoretical pursuit was adjunct. Yet in teaching, we invert the relation-ship. History reminds us how science connects to our lives—that is, our students' lives. History is a window to "relevance."

    Another section details "The History of Air." Nowadays, every school child could tell you that air is not an element, not a simple uncompounded thing. But how many could tell you how we know that? Some students (alas) will point plainly to the periodic table, implying that it's not listed there, so why did you ask? But the concept is not simple, unfolding historically over several decades as the emerging "pneumatic" chemists realized, first, that there could be different "airs" (with distinct properties) and, then, that recognizably different gases mixed to form a still transparent air. The notion that air has weight is equally cryptic, and was tied to the story of pumping water from mines. The history reminds us of how such questions became meaningful and how the answers can be genuinely surprising. Sometimes, historical perspectives—rather than show that "we know better now"—expose common ignorance. That may apply equally well for the next topic, "The "History of Water."

    The volume concludes with a biography of Michael Faraday and one of his renowned public lectures. Faraday was perhaps the Carl Sagan or Stephen Jay Gould (or Bill Nye the Science Guy?) of his day—a spokesperson for and promoter of science. Did he succeed in part because, as this excerpt illustrates, he could mix fact, demonstration and story-telling elements into vivid, engaging occasions?

    One should not idealize outside the social structure shaping teachers' options and responsibilities. How does one cope with prescribed curriculum and an atmosphere of accountability to standardized tests or evaluations? While these contexts are real, I think common perceptions may overstate the limitations. Teachers at alternative schools, for example, seem to help students master the requirements in about 40% of the time. So precedents seem available, if students (even non-academic ones) elect to focus. Where, then, is the place for stories of science in today's classroom?

    Women who packed explosives during World War II had unusually low blood pressure. Nitroglycerine releases nitric oxide, which relaxes smooth muscle and hence dilates blood vessels. Alfred Nobel, the discoverer of nitroglycerine, apparently treated his own heart problems this way. --Chem New Zealand 66(1997): 13

    Science Dramas

    Bertold Brecht has his Galileo. Now British playwright Michael Frayn has set two famous chemists together on stage:

  • Copenhagen. Michael Frayn. Methuen (1998). ISBN 0-413-72490-5.

    This well publicized new play is worthy of all the critical acclaim it has received. It deals, in fictional form, with a historical event—the visit of Werner Heisenberg from Nazi Germany to Neils Bohr in German-occupied Denmark in 1941—and the reasons for the visit.

    The three characters, Heisenberg, Bohr and his wife Margarethe, are drawn into a verbal attempt to reconstruct the visit, what happened and why it happened. In the process they bring vividly to life the nature of Heisen-berg and Bohr's earlier collaboration, the foundations of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and the elements of their own life stories, characters and approaches to science. Central concerns are the relationship between science, scientists and society in wartime, and the extent of a scientist's responsibility for weapon's development.

    The play is firmly based on later, published recollections by Heisenberg and Bohr, on recent biographies and on the Farm Hill Transcripts (transcripts of secret recordings of discussions among Nazi scientists interned at Farm Hill, Cambridgeshire, at the end of World War II). In a detailed Postscript, Michael Frayn outlines where fact ends and fiction begins, discusses his sources, and provides a bibliography which would be useful for anyone interested in Bohr or Heisenberg.

    The script provides a thought-provoking insight into issues of science and society, and a powerful humanizing of two scientific heroes. It deserves to be a must for all high school students focusing on science, twentieth-century history, English or general studies.
    —Isobel Falconer
    reprinted from BSHS Education Forum

    Book Briefs

  • Remarkable Discoveries! Frank Ashall. Cambridge Univ. Pr. (1996). ISBN 0-521-58953-3.

    In 1966 Charles Huggins was awarded the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine. He had discovered a way of controlling cancer of the prostate. In the same year, President Lyndon Johnson claimed that "too much emphasis is being placed on basic research at the expense of immediate medical problems." Alistair Cooke regarded this as "senseless, mis-leading and wildly impractical." He then traced a series of events which led to this discovery. He started with Fohn Hunter, who was interested in the physilogy of bulls, introduced one J. Griffith, who hoted the change in the size of the prostate in moles and hedgehogs with seasons, to the effect of the female hormone on the size of the prostate, to two types of phosphatase to Huggin's work. This is the theme which pervades Ashall's book. In the preface Ashall states that "obody can predcit what benefits will come from pure research." "Who can put a price on Faraday's curiosity?"

    The first chapter is devoted to Faraday. A short introduction reminds the reader of the range of domestic devices which are derived from Faraday's discoveries. This is followed by a "Hisotrical Context," the state of scientific understanding before Faraday. The work of Thales, Gilbert, Von Guericke, Franklin, Volta, Galvani and Oersted is discussed. A short biography of Faraday is included. (Unfortunately, other sicentists do not receive the same coverage.) Finally, we have an account of Faraday's discoveries: electromagnetic rotation, electric motors, dynamos and electromagentic induction. Students of physics of age 14+ will have met many of the experiments described.

    In contrast to Chapter 1, devoted to one scientists, Chapter 4 is a wide sweep of the work of sveral scientists in the field of radioactivity. The 14+ student should be able to follow the methods used to establish the "Becquerel Ray." The work of the Curie family is discussed. I hope the 14+ student will reflect on the difficulties faced by Marie Curie in the isolation f radium. Here, Ashall introduces a moreal imperative to science: the Curies did not patent or profit from their discovery!

    There are 18 chapters in the book. The works of Maxwell, Röntgen, Planck, Einstein and de Broglie appear. There are chapters on the Big Bang and Relativity. Lavoisier, Priestley and phlogiston are included; so are Buckyballs. The biological entries include Pasteur and his germ theory of disease and fermentation, Robert Koch, Edward Jenner, milkmaids and cowpox, malaria and Ronald Ross, Fleming and penicillin. There are three chapters on DNA, a recent entry in the history of science.

    Ashall leads the reader through the developments of many remarkable discoveries. It is a book I will use with my 14+ students.
    —Campbell Boag
    reprinted from BSHS Education Forum

  • The Trouble with Science. Robin Dunbar. Harvard Univ. Pr. (1995). ISBN 0-674-91019-2.

    Dunbar claims that the trouble with trying to inform the public about science— epitomized in Snow's characterization (accurate, it seems) of the two cultures—is that our brains just aren't evolved to deal with extremely rigorous quantifi-cation, abstract theories and logic. (I know students who would like that as a defense.) If true, the outlook for science teachers is pretty dismal indeed. Oddly, Dunbar doesn't seem to explain why some individuals seem to have a knack for science: maybe they got the "rigor" genes—or maybe it has nothing to do with evolution at all. The speculation is provocative, but the evidence wanting. —Ed.


  • Topical Essays for Teachers
    Kenneth Manning on race, gender and science; Frederick Gregory on religion and science in western history; Stanley Goldberg on atomic bomb research and high energy physics; and Edmund P. Russell III on science and the environment. Available ($8) from the History of Science Society, Univ. of Washington, Box 351330, Seattle WA 98195-1330, or

  • The Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions has just released a new monograph addressing death and dying, The Social Face of Death: Confronting Mortality in Paoli, Indiana. "Americans die badly," they conclude—suggesting that we need better efforts by the helath care system in informing and empowering families in advance of need, training programs for patient advocates, expanded options for end-of-life care and more discussion within families.
    Contact: Poynter Center, 410 N. Park Ave., Bloomington IN 47405, or

  • Physics teachers in search of historically oriented texts, be on the lookout for:
    Harris Benson, University Physics (Wiley, 1996) (integrated historical approach)
    H.C. Ohanian, Principles of Physics (Norton, 1994) (historial notes and illustrations)
    As yet, we have no formal reviews.

  • A special issue of the journal Ethics and Behavior (Vol. 7, No.2) focuses on "Ethical Issues in the Use of Animals in Research." Contributions address the concept of animal rights (pro and con), religion, the role of institutional review boards, the design of experiments using animals, and the work of Harry Harlow, who examined the effect of depriving monkeys of maternal care in the 1950s-60s.


    (Ratings are on 4* scale.)
    Note: We will incorporate all these links into the SHiPS website (distributed to the appropriate pages). The quarterly News will continue to profile new sites and annouce the URLs as links are added.

    What Side of the Fence for Linus Pauling?
    Linus Pauling earns renown for his two (unshared) Nobel Prizes. He was invited to the White House in 1962 to celebrate his award in Chemistry along with other laureates, but by then he had also been awarded the Peace Prize for his efforts to ban nuclear testing in the atmosphere. Hours before the reception, Pauling demonstrated in front of the White House to support the ban. Pauling was among those amused by the resulting headlines.
    --- Chemical Heritage, 13(#2): 12-13.

    Note that this issue has 3 files which must be downloaded and printed separately (see contents*). 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 Minnesota, Minneapolis MN 55455.