Topics in the History of the Physical Sciences
Electricity -- invention and discovery
Academic Year 2008/2009, term 1
(not offered 2009-10, offered again from 2010-11)
Prof. Hasok Chang
Dept. of Science and Technology Studies
University College London
Summary of course structure for 2008-09
Whole-group sessions: 11-12am on Wednesdays, Cruciform B.09
Small-group tutorias: one hour per week (12-1pm Wednesdays, 9-10am Fridays, or 10-11am Fridays), 22 Gordon Square, room 3.2 (Dr Chang's office)
Preliminary report due at the end of reading week
Coursework due on the Monday after the end of term
All additions and amendments to coursework to be submitted by the date of the exam in May.
Overview of course
In this course students undertake original research projects, which they inherit from students who took the course in previous years. In this way results of original research can accumulate from year to year. All students in the course work on related projects, so that the class also forms a community of researchers. In all essential ways, the group of students who take this course over the years constitute a real research community.
We are now in the second phase of this ambitious pedagogical experiment. In the first phase, 2000-05, students in this course conducted a set of research projects on the history of the chemical element chlorine. The results were published as a scholarly monograph in 2007 by the British Society for the History of Science: Hasok Chang and Catherine Jackson, eds., An Element of Controversy: The Life of Chlorine in Science, Medicine, Technology and War (see flier for more details).
In the current phase of the project, which began in the academic year 2007-08, we are investigating the history of electricity from various angles: philosophical, sociological, political, economic, and cultural. Although the course is billed as one in the history of the "physical sciences", we investigate broadly in all relevant areas of science, and technology and medicine. There is much to be gained from doing a series of interconnected studies that deal with various aspects of one material entity, in this case electricity; each study will enrich others, often prompting unexpected insights for them.
In order to give our collective project more analytical coherence, we also have a thematic focus, which is innovation: invention and discovery. We all know that electricity has been instrumental in shaping the modern world as we know it. The dizzying array of electrical innovations that have changed our lives range from the humble light bulb to the electric chair, from the invention of the electrical battery to the discovery of the electron. Our research projects get behind the coming of these innovations, and ask a variety of questions: how they were possible; why anyone bothered with them; which factors helped or hindered their wide acceptance; who promoted or resisted them, and why; what their impacts were; and so on. The history of science is a history of unceasing change and evolution. A great deal can be learned if we ask how new developments are generated and accepted, rather than assuming that they come to be dominant simply because they are correct or profitable.
As you can imagine, I offer this course only because I have sufficient faith that our undergraduate students have the ability and enthusiasm necessary to make it work. Realistically, I only recommend the course to those of you who are able and willing to work independently, and who have already gained sufficiently strong background in the history of science, or a related STS field. This is a half-unit course, but those who get captured by the spirit of it tend to end up doing more work than would be expected in a normal half-unit course.
The course is open to 2nd- and 3rd-year students in the STS department, and to students from other departments who have previously done some other STS courses (or equivalent) to prepare them for research in this area. Due to the nature of the work involved, only a relatively small number of students can be accommodated in a given year. Enrolment is by tutor's agreement, and preference will be given to those who present the most plausible plans for moving the existing work forward or opening up worthwhile new avenues of inquiry. Other things being equal, students will be enrolled on a first-come first-served basis. Those interested should contact the tutor with a brief proposal on which project they want to take up in which direction.
For descriptions of available projects, click here.
Desired products of our work in this course, and their assessment
At the end of the course, you will be required to submit an extended essay (minimum of 3,000 words) that contains a summary of the most important findings from your study. You will also be asked to submit all useful materials generated by your research (this constitutes the "second essay"), in a form that will allow another researcher to use them. This should include: a full annotated bibliography recording all the sources you have located and your action on them; a record of library and database searches; all reading notes; any photocopies you made; and the record of your own thoughts (including drawings, calculations, etc.). You can think of this collection of work as the "raw material" that went into the production of the extended essay. You should submit both an electronic and a printed version of the essay and research records. In the middle of the term you will also be asked to submit a preliminary report of roughly 2,000 words, which will not be assessed in itself but will be used in determining the content of the exam.
At the end of the academic year I will ask you whether you are willing to have your work incorporated into any collective publications that might result. If you do not give your permission, your work will simply be kept for a limited period of time like all other assessed work, and then discarded. Where permission is given, all students who have worked on a project over the years will be made co-authors in any publications resulting from their work.
Assessment is by two essays and an exam, and you must complete all assessed elements in order to complete the course. Given the unusual nature of the course, these will not be ordinary essays and exam. I will be giving you continual advice on the preparation of the assessed material, but the following are some basic parameters. Anyone who does not submit all coursework by the initial due date will be deemed "incomplete" and receive a mark of zero for the course.
Essay 1 (50% of the total mark): This is the final product of your work. It will be assessed on the basis of its scholarly merit (originality, systematic synthesis of material, quantity and accuracy of information given, understanding of technical points when relevant, methodological sophistication, effective engagement with previous work, etc.). If it builds on previous work, it will be marked on the basis of "value added".
Essay 2 (25%): This "essay" consists of research records. It will be assessed by three chief criteria (again considering "value added"). (1) Content: how much useful information and ideas you were able to gather and record. (2) Effort: often in real research, genuine effort may not produce much useful outcome; for the purpose of assessment in this course, you will be rewarded for all such "wasted" effort, too, as long as they can be demonstrated. (3) Presentation: the main concern here is that the information should be organised and presented in a way that is most convenient and useful for the next person who will be taking up the project.
Exam (25%): The exam has two parts. Part 1 tests "general knowledge" of the material covered in the course. Here you will be tested on the content of all of the preliminary reports submitted by the group, as well as any introductory material that I may present at the beginning. Part 2 of the exam is an essay on what you have learned in the process of doing your research, aside from the content of your essays. You may touch on any issues you consider important, but most welcome will be reflections on the following: historiography; the use of primary and secondary sources; the interaction between different STS disciplines; the connections and contrasts between science, medicine and technology; techniques of gathering and processing information; the process of defining, sustaining, and refining a research question.
Although this is a highly unusual course, it is still being offered in the general framework regulating teaching in the department and the college. The routine rules and customs will apply unless otherwise specified; these include the departmental rules on penalties for late essays, and the college procedures on plagiarism. Please see the departmental Notes for Guidance for advice on relevant departmental and college-wide regulations and resources.
More on the philosophy behind this course (for a more extended discussion, see my discussion paper or the last chapter of An Element of Controversy)
Aims of the course
1. To produce knowledge. The most fundamental premise of our work in this course is that undergraduate students are able to create knowledge, not merely absorb it. In fact you do create knowledge routinely, in writing your dissertations or any serious essays; however, most likely the fruits of your labour will end up scattered and hidden in piles of papers, studied by your tutors for assessment but never to be looked at again. In this course I orchestrate your efforts so that they can be pulled together into a recognizable product. Passive learning of existing knowledge is not our main goal here (though pushing the boundaries of knowledge does of course require first finding out where those boundaries lie.)
2. To learn, by doing, how to produce knowledge. The process of doing active research will also serve the purpose of training you for similar future work. The skills you will acquire include: searching for relevant materials; understanding primary sources; collaborating with others who are pursuing related projects; using other people's previous works (secondary sources) to help your enquiry; preserving and presenting the results of your work so that others (including yourself at a later time) can build on them effectively.
Modes of working
In this course we try to build a real community of scholars. The first thing this means is that you build on the works of your predecessors. As a group you have inherited the research done by the people who took this course previously. Your job is to improve and add to their work. Each of you will craft a particular research project, in close consultation with me. You will work on it independently, but in collaboration with any relevant colleagues. I will serve as the director of the whole collection of projects. My role will include the following:
In the few initial sessions, I will make an introduction to the subject and help people define their individual projects sharply. When we meet as the whole group, we will receive regular reports from individuals on the most significant things that they have learned since the last meeting; there will also be mini-lectures and workshops on various research skills. Everyone is encouraged to raise questions and points for discussion, which we will take up as a group. In the small-group meetings, we will focus on specific issues relevant to a particular subject area, and discuss the progress of individual projects closely.
Outside the formal sessions, I will meet with individuals or small groups as requested, to discuss further details. I can also read and comment on notes or short drafts. In addition, you are strongly encouraged to meet with each other to exchange information and discuss areas of overlap in your projects.