Why Should We Care . . .? Part IV Toward a Poetics of HSMT

Nathaniel Comfort

If you’re just joining us, I’ve been taking a first stab (the internet was invented for first stabs) at the context of justification for scholarly history of science. My simple premise: it should be beautiful or useful. The last couple of posts have reflected on ways in which scholarship in the history of science, medicine, and technology can be useful. Today I want to tackle beauty.

We don’t often acknowledge the aesthetic dimension of scholarship, and more’s the pity. The history of S, M, and T itself is beautiful. Who among us didn’t go into this field because of a romantic attachment to the objects? Dusty glassware out of bad sci fi movies, cold lancets in velvet cases, steampunk instruments, burnished walnut display cases, preserved specimens, rusty old ships and creaky clocks...the material culture—drop the jargon: the stuff—of old science is just cool. It’s all too easy to lose that aesthetic side in our drive to be taken seriously as professionals. I have seen too many scholars to count take a gorgeous subject and drain all the blood out of it. In the name of seriousness and professionalism we perfuse our rich, sticky, stinky historical worlds with rhetorical formaldehyde, producing for our colleagues an elegantly dressed corpse, eternally preserved but lacking the vitality—the sensuousness—of the original. I for one am more than willing to put aside sophisticated, austere high theory for a romping good story and rich description of cool artifacts.

Thus, by “beauty” I do not have in mind a high-falutin’, sentimental notion of aesthetics. Indeed, some of my more sober colleagues will likely take me for being less than serious. Have at it. In fact, I am prepared to go to the mat in defense of beauty—and, as we’ll see—good writing—as being just as rigorous as more conventional academic scholarship. By beauty, then, I mean everything that is aesthetic, sensual, and pleasurable about history of science writing. I mean the HSMT you read not because it helps you understand current events or guides your reproductive decisions or shapes your policies. I mean the stuff you read because you enjoy it. This broad sense of beauty is the principal justification for pre-18th century HSMT nowadays.

(Principal, not only. Darin Hayton’s excellent pieces on astrology on this website, for example, show that early science can have relevance to contemporary concerns. In fact, prove me wrong! I’d love to hear about ways in which ancient, medieval, and Early Modern science is relevant today. Just don’t be offended: I’m not saying that lack of relevance=lack of value. Beauty, in my view, is perhaps the highest justification.)

History has a unique aesthetic. Scientists take something complex and try to make it simple. They make simplifying assumptions, they isolate variables. This leads to an aesthetic of elegance and austerity. Historians, in contrast, like to take something that appears to be simple and show that it’s more complicated than you thought. The aesthetic of history is one of richness and texture. This puts HSMT in a tight and interesting spot. Nature is complicated. Science tries to impose simplicity on it. And we try to reimpose complexity on that enterprise, to show that science is not as straightforward as scientists tell us it is. I’m arguing that the most effective way to do that is by disciplining ourselves to express that complexity simply.

Which brings us to writing. We pay appallingly little attention to writing in our graduate education and our professional writing. We praise unstructured, tone-deaf, cliché-infused, malaprop-riddled graduate papers as “beautifully written.” We tolerate pompous, vacuous, pedantic prose from our leading scholars. We proudly defend our bad writing and lack of an audience as some sort of badge of scholarly honor, as an emblem of our seriousness.

In a previous life, I was a neurobiology student, in a specialty notorious for its dense, technical writing. When I wrote an article for publication, my advisor turned it back and told me, “It’s too well-written. No one will take it seriously.” That was the moment I decided to leave experimental science. History is somewhat better, but bad writing is much too often tolerated and/or ignored.

The aesthetics of historical writing, then, starts with narrative and argument. Either tell me a story or lead me through an interesting train of thought, á la Montaigne. Or both. Of course, narrative and argument are not mutually exclusive—I don’t think I’ve ever done one without the other. The relationship between them is part of the aesthetics. But I am likely to become drowsy or hungry or to suddenly remember some vital google search I’d forgotten to do when I read paragraph after paragraph of what are essentially transcribed research notes. Rambling prose is not a sign of textured sophistication, it’s a sign of sloppiness.

Next, put people in it. I need to put a face to a name. Minor figures may only need a phrase of identification, but major ones deserve a few sentences or a paragraph of context. Jim Schwartz’s In Pursuit of the Gene does a beautiful job of taking familiar, even boilerplate episodes from the history of science—Mendel’s peas, Morgan’s flies—and pulling out the rich detail that draws you in to the story. Whether or not you agree with his interpretation of the history, the book is worth reading on the strength of its aesthetics. Dry ≠ serious. Much of the above concerns accessibility. Academics can be foolishly snobbish about not making their work accessible. When you’re a small specialty like the history of science you can quickly write yourself into irrelevance. This disdain is based on a false unity between accessibility and dumbing down. Real scholarly integrity, the reasoning goes, means not pandering to people less knowledgeable, less serious, or less smart than you. The true scholar writes for the ages, not for any particular audience.


First, some scholarly ideas really are too complex. Clever academics easily hide behind complexity; “nuance” can be an excuse for not really thinking something through. And sometimes we just plain overthink things. Sometimes a cigar..., and all that. There is, then, a rigor in distilling one’s ideas. Recently I took a draft book chapter and turned it into an evening lecture for college freshmen and sophomores. I did not dumb anything down—I gave them the most sophisticated, textured argument I could, with real science and tough ethical questions. Maybe it only shows how simplistic I am, but anyway, I did not compromise my scholarly standards, and the students lapped it up with a spoon. In writing the lecture, I figured out what I am really saying in the chapter. Now I return to the chapter, drawing the main lines more boldly but also adding back shading and texture I didn’t have time for in the lecture, and the chapter is better for the experience. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but if your concern is extra work then don’t talk to me about lack of rigor.

Second, much of what makes scholarly writing inaccessible is jargon. Jargon is rarely if ever required to communicate subtle ideas. Technical terms of art can be a useful shorthand—I introduced “HSMT” above so that you wouldn’t have to read “history of science, medicine, and technology” fifteen times in this post. (And did you notice that I did it without having to put it in parentheses? But you got it, didn’t you?) But any terms one needs can be defined in what you’re writing, so that any intelligent, interested reader can follow you without taking three semesters of graduate coursework first.

It’s all too easy to use jargon to exclude readers and to cloak simple-minded ideas with the semblance of sophistication. I’m continually amazed at how many smart academics seem more concerned with establishing little tree-fort clubs with secret passwords designed to let in graduate students or keep out second-rate professors or stinky girls or boys with cooties than with actually talking about ideas.

Jargon actually tends to reduce sophistication. A lot of jargon amounts to cliché. It is a set of stock phrases that we reach for instead of thinking something through. I fear I’m going to choke the next person who “foregrounds,” “adumbrates,” or, god help us, “concretizes” something. Jargon is anti-intellectual.

Finally, there is an old-school scholarly ethos that is essentially antiquarian: the historian’s task is to uncover everything on a subject and record it for posterity. The reader is not the first consideration. This view places more emphasis on historical research; it implicitly treats historiography as a transparent record of historical evidence. In contrast, I am stressing historical expression and ideas. I see the value of history in terms of its effect on readers, and I see that antiquarian impulse as honorable but essentialist.

It is also becoming increasingly quaint. It is difficult to publish very long, abstruse books nowadays, and whether or not you think that is a bad thing, I insist that this trend does not necessarily reduce the rigor of the scholarship. It reflects a shift in aesthetics. Done right, making your work accessible is the opposite of dumbing it down. If an idea can’t stand naked, in plain standard English (or French or, yes, I insist, even German), it can’t be very important. Accessibility is a form of scholarly rigor.

One final thought on the aesthetics of scholarship concerns the role of ambiguity in our work. Scientific writing has a single intended meaning. Good scientific writing is clear, simple, unambiguous, and logical. On the other hand, poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, like all art, deliberately embrace ambiguity. The value of art can be measured by the number of its meanings, between members of one’s audience or even within an individual. History is somewhere in the middle, but it is more like art than most historians probably care to admit. No serious historian would argue that a given set of events has one unequivocal meaning. Indeed, it’s a cliché that history needs to be rewritten every 20 years or so. It would be radical to suggest that historical writing should be deliberately ambiguous. Clarity and simplicity are, as I’ve said, to be prized.

And yet, where is the harm in scholarship that is open to interpretation? Few historians would deny that the purpose of scholarship is to generate not answers but questions—to stimulate discussion and reflection. Attention to “beauty” is a way of allowing limited ambiguity into scholarship, loosening the joints in one’s interpretive structure. I’d even suggest that the historical interpretations that allow of multiple readings have longer lives than those that are unequivocal. If a book can have multiple meanings, it can adapt to changing times. As a footnote, this loops us back around to the importance of narrative. A good story can be chewed over, argued about, retold and reinterpreted, and become a guide to deeper reflection. Beauty can be useful.

As always, I have stated my views strongly, deliberately to provoke, in a spirit of inquiry. Although I care less and less about what counts as History of Science, or History of Medicine, or Science Studies, or any of the myriad splinters of this already-small field, I think it incredibly important and worthwhile to understand science, technology, and medicine in historical terms. It should be done both in the academy and outside of it, and it should be done so that anyone interested and dedicated enough can join the conversation without needing a diploma or a bibliography as an entrance-ticket.

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