Recently, on twitter, the demand was repeated that historians of science should have a background in science somehow implying that they wouldn’t be so critical of pathetic attempts by scientists to define science if they did. The strange thing is most historians of science do have a background in science along with one in history. This demand led me to consider what the real requirements would be for the ideal historian of European science. Those for a historian of, say, Chinese science naturally differ.
The ideal historian of science should be a consummate linguist. A good working knowledge, good enough to read and evaluate academic papers, of English, French, German, Dutch, Italian and Spanish together with university level ancient Greek and Latin is naturally a minimum. Ideally the addition of at least one Scandinavian and one Slavic language is to be wished for. Specific historical languages such as Old Norse, Mittelhochdeutsch or early 17th century Tuscan can and should be learnt as required.
Our historian should be fit in higher mathematics and know his or her way around the basics of physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, geology, geography and anthropology. An outline knowledge of the histories of science, mathematics, technology, medicine, and engineering in Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa from at least 4000 BCE to the present is a matter of course, as is an outline knowledge of the political, religious, cultural, social, economic and military histories of Europe during the same period.
Science is a cultural activity and does not exist in a vacuum so knowledge of the histories of art, music and literature are essential alongside the histories of the so-called occult sciences astrology, alchemy and the various forms of magic.
A basic training as a librarian and an archivist is equally essential.
A general background in comparative world history with more specific knowledge of the histories of science, mathematics, technology, medicine and engineering of China, India and the Islamic Empire and their interactions with Europe is of course another basic requirement.
A working knowledge of the history of European philosophy and a detailed knowledge of all the philosophies of science from the Pythagoreans to the Post Structuralists is a further indispensible requirement.
Our ideal historian should not be of a purely theoretical bent and so basic knowledge of the practical side of woodwork, metal work, pottery, spinning and weaving, glass blowing, surveying, cartography and navigation are a necessity.
Once they have acquired this basic training our ideal historian should now be in the position to begin specialising in the history of a single period or discipline and thus be actively engaged as a historian of science.