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Telling the Story of Science

The story of science is one that is often left untold in our classrooms today. This is an unfortunate situation, especially when we consider the words of Alexis de Tocqueville from The Old Regime and the Revolution describing the events leading up to the French Revolution.

History… is a picture gallery containing a host of copies and very few originals.[1]

The history of science is no different. Among the host of copies, we find scientists carrying out the normal processes of science to make slow and steady progress, but we also find mistakes that seem to be repeated again and again. The originals in science are rare, and these consist of those great scientific minds who changed the course of science by developing unorthodox theories or performing groundbreaking experiments. Among the originals, unfortunately, we also find new mistakes not seen before in the history of science and hopefully not to be repeated. In this picture gallery each picture tells its own part of a longer story, and it is a human story.

Students studying the history of science will develop a better understanding of the true process of science, something that no textbook or scientific method can teach as well. They will improve their judgment, learning from the mistakes of those that came before. And they will grow to appreciate the human story of science, being perhaps more likely to see themselves in those great scientists who changed the world.

Learning the Process of Science

Science does not consist of the catalog of scientific facts given in textbooks. The history of great scientific experimentation was not a series of prefabricated lab projects nor simply an application of the “scientific method.” Unfortunately, this is the picture of science presented to many students in the modern educational system. The various methods employed by scientists over the ages to solve the mysteries in science are so varied that no single method can summarize how science is done. Learning the true history of science, students see how theories are developed, trusted, and eventually proven incomplete. They understand the importance of carefully framing the right hypotheses to test. They see the critical role of precision and accuracy in the most famous experiments in the history of science. And they see the multifarious methods that scientists practice to produce great scientific achievements.

As the twentieth century approached, it seemed to many scientists that they were running out of problems to solve. In 1873, James Clerk Maxwell published his great “A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism,” in which he describes his theory and experiments that united the two fields of electricity and magnetism into one, namely electromagnetism or light. In 1869, Dmitri Mendeleev published his periodic table which, after a few subsequent revisions, became the standard into which all elements neatly fit. The Law of Definite Proportions dictated the ratio of elements in all compounds. The Law of Mass Action dictated the relationship between the concentrations of compounds in a chemical reaction and the rate of the reaction. Even a gas, the most illusive phase of matter, could be described by laws like Gay-Lussac’s Law, Charles’s Law, Boyle’s Law, and the Laws of Thermodynamics. As Bill Bryson describes it in A Short History of Nearly Everything:

Many wise people believed that there was nothing much left for science to do.[2]

This is, of course, an overstatement. The areas of biology and chemistry had many specific matters to deal with, but physics was different. Matter and energy are the two fundamental concepts dealt with by physicists. Matter seemed to have been mastered with the discovery of the periodic table and the body of laws describing the behavior of matter and chemical reactions. Energy seemed to have been mastered by Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory, Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, and the Laws of Thermodynamics.

Yet there were a few “anomalies” left to explain.

Albert Michelson and his assistant Edward Morley performed experiments over several months in 1887 to measure the speed of light from the sun at various times on the earth’s surface. Some of the time the earth’s surface was moving toward the sun, other times it was moving away. Newtonian mechanics predicted that someone moving towards the stationary source of light (the sun) should measure the speed of light to be greater than someone moving away from the stationary source. The result was surprising. They measured the speed of light to be always precisely the same in all directions. Thus, the first anomaly.[3] Even so, as A.M. Bradshaw writes in a recent Nature article,

Several noted physicists, including Michelson Morley, Lord Kelvin, and Philip von Jolly, had already agreed that the cathedral of physics was virtually complete, with only a few turrets and pinnacles to be added, a few roof bosses to be carved [4]

Secondly, Edward Pickering published observations on the splitting of hydrogen spectral lines emitted by a star. He theorized they were caused by a new form of hydrogen with half-integer spectrum transition levels. This strange splitting of hydrogen in a faraway star gave rise to the second anomaly.

The first anomaly would be explained by Albert Einstein. In 1905, his annus mirabilis, he published a series of four papers that described the theory of the photoelectric effect, explained Brownian motion, introduced the Special Theory of Relativity, and demonstrated mass-energy equivalence (E=mc2). Among these landmark papers, the Special Theory of Relativity explains the Michelson-Morley experiment, but also demonstrates that Newtonian mechanics is inaccurate for extreme cases.

The second anomaly would be explained by Niels Bohr, the first to present a quantum model of the atom with discrete energy levels, where the electrons orbit the nucleus like planets orbiting a sun. Max Planck and Albert Einstein assisted in developing this model to explain the interaction of an atom with light. This model and the field of quantum mechanics was developed by other great scientists like Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac, Louis de Broglie, and many others.

Most scientists viewed these two “anomalies” as just that, anomalies that would be explained by more careful experimentation or slight correction to the current theories. Albert Einstein, not even considering the anomaly itself, thought deeply about the current theories themselves and probed their limits. He did so not with the “scientific method,” but by playing with mathematics, doing various thought experiments in his head. He thereby developed new principle theories (based on a few empirically confirmed principles)[5] that fundamentally changed the course of science. Niels Bohr addressed the anomaly itself, and developed a drastically new constructive model (a model based on arbitrary constructions of the imagination)[6] drawing a beautiful analogy between the miniscule atom and the majestic solar system.

These two stories teach students that science can be done in different ways, and not just according to the scientific method. The twentieth century turned out to be the most productive century in the history of science. Albert Einstein later introduced the General Theory of Relativity, thereby uniting space and time in one entity, namely a four-dimensional spacetime, and giving a geometrical explanation for the cause of gravity. Quantum mechanics and the tools developed to research and experiment in this area led to novel technologies long strides ahead of what came before. Research into the structure of the nucleus of the atom led to the atomic bomb.

Learning from the Mistakes of Science

The astute scientist catches his errors and mistakes and corrects them. The wise scientist can see the direction his field is taking, and he can decide to comply or even to lead the charge or to counteract the agents of change in his field. History is replete with examples of scientists who swam against the current, sometimes leading to great discoveries that helped to correct mistaken notions in the scientific community. Students studying the history of science will grow in astuteness and wisdom, learning from the mistakes of their predecessors. They can even see how the entire scientific community can be wrong.

The Greek philosopher and mathematician Ptolemy (c. 150 AD) is credited with developing the geocentric model of the solar system to its furthest limits. The geocentric model was embraced by many as fitting with a humanistic worldview which saw man, and therefore earth, as the center of God’s creation. As more observational data came to his attention that challenged the geocentric model, held for so many years by so many people, he modified the model to fit the data. Ptolemy changed the model from one with the sun and planets simply orbiting the earth to these celestial bodies traveling in complex mathematical paths called epicycles. An epicycle trajectory can be mathematically described by a circular orbit traveling on the circumference of a larger circle. It turns out that these epicycle paths are a perfect description of the way the celestial bodies appear to travel across the sky. As a mathematical description of the data, Ptolemy’s model was accurate. It was his conceptual model that was mistaken, and to correct this required more accurate observational data.

Like many gems of the Greeks, Ptolemy’s model was inherited by the European West. The Catholic Church also embraced the model, but the distinction between science, philosophy, and theology grew dim for a time. Theologians elaborated on Ptolemy’s model and began teaching that beyond the celestial sphere, which contained the stars, were the heavenly spheres where the angels and God dwelt. Theologians explained that it is because man is the center of God’s creation that earth is at the center of the created universe. Thus, Ptolemy’s scientific model and Catholic Church teaching became intermingled, and to stray from science meant to stray from the teachings of many important members in the Church. Although no official Church teachings had ever been made declaring Ptolemy was correct, it was tied up with the beliefs of many in the Church. More importantly for our discussion here, the scientific community and the world embraced this geocentric model of the universe for centuries.

Copernicus is credited with presenting the first complete heliocentric model of the solar system. He published the model in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium ( On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) in 1543, shortly before he died. Copernicus’s publication was not declared heretical, though it did produce some controversy. This is because Copernicus published a purely scientific work that was even dedicated to the pope.[7] Copernicus thereby laid the groundwork for Galileo, whose observations and heliocentric model produced a more lasting change.

Galileo made remarkable observations with a telescope. Seeing the moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus led him to wonder if these planets were more like earth than people thought. His observations of the bumpy surface of earth’s Moon and dark spots on the sun discredited the common belief that these bodies were unchanging “heavenly spheres.” Though the tide of general opinion was growing in favor of Galileo since the publication of Copernicus’s work, the academics and authorities of the Catholic Church were skeptical. In the face of centuries of development and belief in the geocentric model, Galileo had to fight an uphill battle. Without the proper technology to reproduce his observations for demonstration to his opponents, Galileo’s conclusions appeared impulsive or impetuous. Galileo was quiet and understanding for some time, but eventually became bold in the face of his powerful opponents. In 1632 he published Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in which he criticized the teachings of the Catholic Church and compared it to the Copernican model of the solar system. He was imprisoned in 1633 on suspicion of heresy due to the criticism of Church teaching, not in fact due to his work on the heliocentric model. The imprisonment was short-lived, however, and was changed to house arrest. He continued to write, publishing Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Concerning Two New Sciences in Holland in 1638. He died four years later in 1642.

Eventually the scientific community came to accept the Copernican model of the universe. As more people were able to make the observations Galileo made, confirming his declarations about the “heavenly spheres,” the scientific community began to agree these objects were neither spheres nor heavenly. Sir Isaac Newton, who was born the year Galileo died, was able to produce his landmark work concerning the Law of Universal Gravitation, describing how laws governing the orbits of the planets are the same as those that govern our everyday experience of a falling apple.

Students can see with this story how members of the scientific community can be mistaken, and yet also how the scientific process, when carried out correctly, can be self-correcting. The story told in the first section about Bohr and Einstein explaining “anomalies” is another example. There are many others like this in the history of science: the theory of phlogiston, the theory of caloric, and the models of the atom, to name a few. No theories or facts in science should be viewed as settled. Galileo saw this clearly enough, and though he made mistakes himself, he was able to bring about a scientific revolution that changed the world.

Learning the Story of Science

Studying the history of science, students learn about the struggles, the difficulties, the failures, and eventual successes of the master scientists. Inspired by greatness, students can be helped to see that the process of modern science is a road fraught with hardship, requiring great patience and fortitude to reach the destination. They learn that it is a human endeavor carried out by real living people who did more than just laboratory experimentation or theory development.

John Dalton was mostly self-educated and earned his living as a teacher. He learned about atoms from the writings of Boyle and Newton, and in 1803 he developed the first fully scientific atomic model. His road was not an easy one, and he faced many difficulties. As Benjamin Wiker describes it in The Mystery of the Periodic Table:

Perhaps you feel you will never get anywhere in life because you are not rich. Or you are tall and lanky like a walking vine. Or you have a very gruff voice, and even worse, people start yawning and leaving the room when you speak. Or maybe your chin and nose are both so long and pointed that they almost touch each other. Perhaps you are color-blind. And maybe you are so busy that you cannot get your work done properly. If you had one or two of these problems, you might consider yourself quite unfortunate. But if you had all of these problems, you would be John Dalton…[8]

All his scientific claims about the atom turned out to be either correct or at least partially correct. And his theory was held as the scientific standard for approximately a century until experimentation could prove otherwise. Despite his problems, John Dalton will be forever remembered as one of the greatest scientific minds for his model of the atom.

Sir Isaac Newton too was born into a poor family. His father died at thirty-five, just months before Isaac was born. When Isaac was five his widowed mother remarried, and he was sent to live with his grandmother. When he was ten, his mother’s new husband died, and he went back to live with his mother, but was shortly thereafter sent to boarding school. After this he studied at Trinity College, but he was placed in the lowest position among the students. He ran their errands, served their meals, and ate their leftovers. But he studied hard and did exceptionally well in school. Newton, arguably the greatest scientist ever, was also incredibly distrustful of others and extremely introverted. After receiving a critical response to his manuscript “A Theory Concerning Light and Colors” from the Royal Academy of Sciences, Newton retreated into greater obscurity and introversion. He was also forever worried about other people stealing his work, and therefore wrote in cryptical, even coded scripts.[9] Looking at the originals of his workbooks, one first notices that they are in Latin, but upon closer inspection one also notices that there are symbols and abbreviations that would require a cipher to interpret them.[10] And yet, despite his odd idiomatic tendencies, Newton was able to produce incredible theories and do groundbreaking experiments.

Albert Einstein’s story also inspires students to seek greatness despite challenging circumstances. Einstein quit school in Germany at the age of fifteen because he detested all the rote memorization required. He transferred to a Swiss secondary school and went on to graduate in 1900 with a math and physics teaching diploma from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. He failed to get a job as a professor despite impressive grades, so he worked as a clerk in a patent office in Berlin. With his exceptional aptitude for math and science, he could not simply be an office clerk, and spent his free time thinking deeply about physics. Doing science with purely mental experimentation, he contemplated and developed theories about the interaction of light with matter, the limits of motion, the relations between space and time, and the nature of mass and energy.

These three stories and many, many others demonstrate that science is a human endeavor carried out by human persons, and these persons’ lives are complicated like the lives of all people. Bringing story into the history classroom is essential, and as Mark Grannis describes in his article “Keeping the Story in History” on The Heights Forum website,

The close identification of history with story is actually embedded in the etymologies of the two words, which share the same roots in both Greek and Latin.[11]

Everyone loves stories. Telling relevant stories in our science classrooms will complement the curriculum and boost our students’ love for learning as well.


Science and history, at first sight, seem to be disparate fields of study. But studying the history of science will not only help students to learn history itself. It will also better educate them in the field of science. Not only history but also ethics, philosophy, theology, and all fields should be brought into the science classroom, not as fields for scientific study but as fields of knowledge to be discussed and explored. Thus, students can be helped to see all disciplines as complementary and all truth as one.

[1] de Tocqueville, Alexis. The Old Regime and the Revolution. translated by John Bonner, 1st ed., New York, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1856.

[2] Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything. New York, Broadway Books, 2004.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bradshaw, A. M. “Physics from the Inside.” Nature, vol. 412, no. 6843, July 2001, pp. 121–122, 10.1038/35084119. Accessed 30 Oct. 2022.

[5] For more on constructive and principle theories see my article on “Science, Theories and Truth”

Or see Einstein’s article on this topic:

Einstein, A., In Ideas and Opinions, Crown Publishers, New York, 1954, pp. 227-232.

[6] ibid.

[7] User, Super. “The Papacy and Galileo.”, Accessed 29 Oct. 2022.

[8] Wiker, Benjamin, et al. The Mystery of the Periodic Table. Bathgate, N.D., Bethlehem Books; San Francisco, 2003.

[9] Gleick, James. Isaac Newton. Vintage, 18 Dec. 2007.

[10] “Introducing Newton’s Notebooks.”, 2022, Accessed 30 Oct. 2022.

[11] Grannis, Mark. “Keeping the Story in History.” Heights Forum, 16 Sept. 2022, Accessed 30 Oct. 2022.

About the Author

Dan Murphy

Teacher, Western Academy
Dan Murphy joined Western Academy in the Fall of 2015. He teaches math, science and Latin in the middle school as well as an advanced math class to 5thgraders. Mr. Murphy was fortunate to receive a liberal arts education at Trivium High School in Lancaster, MA. He attended University of Notre Dame, graduating in 2009 with a B.S. in Physics. He subse...

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