Never say Never!

In the past I’ve blogged about various terms and phrases that people writing about the history of science should refrain from using or better still ban from their vocabularies completely, such as ‘the greatest’ or ‘the father of’. Today I want to add another to the list­ – ‘you’ve never heard of’. This dubious claim almost always turns up, mostly in titles, in combination with other phrases that should be avoided such as ‘the most important’, ‘the greatest’, ‘the most significant’ or other such empty superlatives, as the writer never actually clears up greatest/most in relation to what. These titles are in end effect just click bait designed to ensnare the unwary reader into reading the proffered article or post, which is almost inevitably about some scientist about whom there have only been a couple of zillion similar articles/post in the not too distant past. The particular article that triggered this post was one written by a Steven Poole in the New York Magazine to advertise his forthcoming book, Rethink: The Surprising History of New Ideas, entitled Grace Hopper: The Most Important Computer Pioneer You’ve Never Heard Of.

Grace Hopper working on the Harvard Mark I Source: Harvard Gazette

Grace Hopper working on the Harvard Mark I
Source: Harvard Gazette

Now I’m prepared to bet big money that Grace Hopper is one of the most well known figures for people interested in the history of computing, programming, information theory etc, etc. If you Google her name you get over half a million hits in about one quarter of a second. Now I realise that this is not very many in comparison to #histsci big hitters like Einstein (104 million in 0.68 sec) or Galileo (44 million in 0.39 sec) but the history of computing is not really one of the glamour subject in the popular history of science. Beyond Alan Turing (somewhat more than 2 million in 0.49 sec) and Johnny von Neumann (nearly 5 million in 0.75 sec) none of the major players in the history of computing since the Second World War are exactly household names. John Mauchly, one half of the team, which designed the first really influential electronic computers, ENIAC & UNIVAC, only manages 220 thousand hits in 0,51 sec. His partner John Presper Eckert a meagre 133 thousand in 0.62 sec. John Backus the developer of FORTRAN, an equivalent role to Hopper’s work on COBOL, manages a halfway respectable 430 thousand in 0.49 sec.

Enough of the boring Google results, Grace Hopper has a major Wikipedia article that includes a long and very impressive list of the honours she has received[1], can be found in quite a few Youtube videos including an appearance on Letterman, has articles about her life and work in numerous major newspapers and magazines and biographies on almost every major history of science and history of technology biography site. She is also the subject of several book length biographies. If anybody who takes an interest in the history of computers and computing has not heard of Grace Hopper they have been living at the bottom of a murky pond with their head stuck under a weed covered boulder for the last ten years. Grace Hopper is computer royalty and a much honoured and celebrated figure in computing circles. However as things stand, that the man behind the computerised cash-desk in you local neighbourhood supermarket has probably never heard of Grace Hopper, unless he’s an unemployed computer science graduate, is not the criterion under which one should be writing history of technology articles.

Interestingly, as I said above, the titles that use this device, ‘you’ve never heard of’, are almost always written by people trying to jump on the band wagon of a supposedly neglected figure in #histSTM when the band wagon is coming round the block for at least the tenth time, a fact that makes more than a mockery of the title.

All of this of course raises the question, at least in my mind, as to just how well known figures in #histSTM should be, who should they be known to and what do we mean by well known? I often have the feeling that historians in general and historians of science in particular live in a sort of scholarly echo chamber. We think that just because some historical figure is significant to our own work or line of research that everybody else should be aware of and acknowledge that significance. We express this view within the community of our fellow historians and receive lots of echoes back supporting that view. Of course they should! Oh I totally agree with you, they deserve to be much better known. Etc, etc… Of course there are also those who give faint support whilst loudly disclaiming that their latest discovery in their field deserve to be even better known than your chosen candidate. However in general we all agree, in a heady torrent of unanimity, that the history of our whole discipline and its practitioners should be much, much better known, but should it? Dare I express the heretical thought that we exaggerate the importance of our endeavours for the general public, the masses, or whatever cliché you prefer for describing the vast majority of humanity who are not historians (of science).

This is a problem that is by no means unique to #histSTM and its subject matter but one that exists in all branches of history, even in the often over emphasised political history that still builds the core of school historical teaching. To take just one simple example, I am relatively certain that if I went out onto the high street of Erlangen, a town with an extremely high average level of education – it largely consists of a big university and the research and development centre of Siemens – and were to ask the people who or what is Fürst Metternich then the vast majority would not answer, an important 19th-century European diplomat who was largely responsible for shaping the map of modern Europe at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 but would instead say, oh it’s a popular brand of German sparkling wine. History, of whatever sort, is not very important to the majority of non-historians even in an age where historical novels are extremely popular.

I both hold and also attend semi-popular public history lectures, and not just of science, and the audiences are mostly fairly small, one hundred attendees would be a lot, and to a large extent consist of retirees, who have the time and the desire to indulge in a little light education to while away the last years of their lives. Rather like the rock and pop concerts by the dinosaurs of the sixties music boom very few young people find their way to such lectures being more concerned with living in the here and now.

The next problem is who really should be better known? #histSTM is littered with literally thousands of practitioners, who have contributed to its evolution over the last four thousand years. How many of those should an average educated person know about and which ones. The Greeks of course, says one classicist very firmly. Stop being so Eurocentric says another historian breaking a lance for the Chinese, whilst his colleague along the corridor wants you to turn your attention to India. Islamic science does not get the attention it deserves shouts the Middle Eastern historian whilst, the feminist, quite correctly, bemoans the lack of attention paid to women in #histSTM. The historian of chemistry points out that the history of physics gets far too much attention paid to it at the expense of the other scientific disciplines. A not unjustified claim. Meanwhile the historians of all the other multitude of scientific disciplines are lining up to get their fair share of limelight, whatever that might be.

I became a passionate fan of the histories of mathematics and science as a teenager and have devoted nearly fifty years of study to that passion. I have studied both widely and deeply and am blessed with an elephantine memory, a prerequisite I think for any historian, but I still constantly stumble across new scholars, who I don’t know and who on closer examination appear to me to deserve to be much better known. Five years ago I had never heard the name Stephen Hales, but after stumbling across him whilst following my interest in the history of gasses in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries I began to delve deeper into his activities and discovered a man who made substantial contributions to a number of areas in chemistry and the life sciences and certainly, in my opinion deserves to be better known and so I wrote a blog post about him. Quite a few of my biographical blog post arise in this way.

Dr Stephen Hales FRS (1677-1761) Source

Dr Stephen Hales FRS (1677-1761)

How much #histSTM should people, that is non-historians of science, be expected to know and which bits of it? When should it be taught? In primary/grade schools? In high schools? Only at college level? And what should be taught? This post is more an attempt to clarify some question that have been rattling around in my head, in what passes for a brain, for quite sometime and I personally don’t really have any structured answers to my own questions. However I do sincerely believe that all people working within the field of #histSTM should seriously address these question, putting aside all personal prejudices in favour of their own research, and try to reach an honest answer.

Before I close I can’t help taking a pot shot at one statement in Poole’s article about another famous computer pioneer, Johnny von Neumann. Poole writes:

In 1944, Grace Hopper, a 37-year-old math Ph.D., joined the Navy as a lieutenant and was assigned to that lab. Her group also included the soon-to-be famous mathematician John von Neumann

In 1944 von Neumann was not soon-to-be famous but was already one of the most renowned mathematician in the world, which is why he was working on the Manhattan Project and came to Harvard in 1944 to run programs on the Mark I concerned with his work in Los Alamos. Grace Hoppers group did not include John von Neumann, she was an unknown associate professor from Vassar and von Neumann was a mathematical VIP.

John von Neumann and the Harvard Mark I Source

John von Neumann and the Harvard Mark I


[1] Whilst I have been writing this blog post it has been announced that Grace Hopper has been posthumously award the Presidential Medal of Freedom



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13 responses to “Never say Never!

  1. I couldn’t disagree more with your eminently sensible post.

  2. This retired COBOL programmer and follower of “The Renaissance Mathematicus” still remembers Grace Hopper!

  3. In your posting you ask the question what parts of histSTM should be taught and when. To answer this, I would like to start by going back to my own primary education more than 60 years ago. In those days, before one went on to study Biology in secondary school, one had what was called ‘nature study’ in primary school. In my case, and for many others, that included things like germinating broad beans on blotting paper in jam jars, so one could see the development first of the root and then the shoot. Nowadays one can see the same in films of the process, but it loses the immediacy of doing it yourself.
    Similarly, as a STEM ambassador in schools, I have found that showing late primary school children how to make a simple equatorial sundial is very effective in teaching how time used to be measured in the days before clocks and watches.
    Both examples stress the importance of observation, which is fundamental to science. There is no reason why this should not be started in primary school and continue through college, with the simpler examples introduced earlier and the more complex examples later. Medical students already take courses in medical humanities in which the historical development of medicine figures strongly. There is no reason not to extend this more broadly across science and technology, although it will require training for teachers and the production of appropriate learning materials.

  4. I have another example what is not in the lime light of historians, public and journalists, but should: It is software. Practically, software (and IT) is shaping the world, it is the bridge between science/technology and humanities, and de facto there is only physics (non-living) and software (living and thinking) in the universe. But the typical picture for physics is a beautiful galaxy, the really typical picture for software is a spaghetti clot or a hair ball: but all technical world is S/W, all biology is S/W (evolution is a giant developing S/W system) and our soul and intelligence is, technically speaking, S/W.

    Some shameless ego-marketing: I have written a book on this, hélas in German, Wechselwirkung, about the philosophical importance of software , published by Springer Heidelberg, March 2016.

    btw, I say this although I am enthusiastic physicist and hobby astronomer.
    and: I say “software” because life is a process.

  5. anonymist

    “In 1944 von Neumann was not soon-to-be famous but was already one of the most renowned mathematician in the world”

    In fact this was central to one of Eckert and Mauchly’s accusations against von Neumann in their priority feud with him, wasn’t it? IIRC they accused him of not just taking false credit for ENIAC and the stored-program concept but of regularly credit-stealing: using his status to find out where others were doing interesting work, turn up and generously offer to help, and leave with the credit, further adding to his status.

  6. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #14 | Whewell's Ghost

  7. I completely agree with your main point, but of course I did not write the headline. 😉 My first sentence, that Hopper is someone “most people have never heard of”, is I suggest considerably more defensible.

    As for von Neumann, yes he was a renowned mathematician in 1944, among people who followed mathematics, but he was not “famous” in the wider sense that he later became.

  8. No need to apologise, but in point of fact von Neumann was not actually famous in the sense of the average member of the public ever having heard of him in 1944. After the Manhattan Project and his activities as advisor to the US government through the 1950s, this of course changed. If you are really insisting that “famous” means “famous within the mathematical/scientific community”, that seems to me perverse.

    • Von Neumann has never been famous in the sense of the average member of the public ever having heard of him.

      • In contrast to Oppenheimer, who did become famous (in the US) in this wider sense after the end of WWII.

        It is true, though, that the “public at large” in the US showed a greater interest in science, and specifically in physics, in the immediate postwar years.

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