From Our Readers: A Scientist Experiences Culture Shock at History of Science Meetings

by Herman C. W. Beijerinck

At science and technology meetings, contributed papers are presented in 20 minutes, with an excellent picture-rich Powerpoint slide show and and a well-prepared but off-the-cuff presentation. Sitting in the audience you learn about the highlights and are stimulated to read up on the details. So my experience at the HSS meetings came as a rude culture shock!

I found that the phrase to ‘read a paper’ was interpreted in a very literal sense. There were over-filled text-only slides, quite often read out aloud, by a speaker more engaged with his or her manuscript than with the actual audience. I was flabbergasted!

With a background in research and undergraduate teaching in a physics department, I first became involved in the history of science in 2003. None of my colleagues were willing to teach a 26-hour course in this field to third year students and so I took on the task. Based on this experience, I developed a love for the field and became a member of HSS. With more time for conference travel after my retirement, I visited the 3-Societies meeting in Edmonton in the summer of 2016 and then the 2019 HSS meeting in Utrecht. Interesting subject matter, nice people and inspiring contacts. But the talks were still being read out, and so the culture shock did not subside.

Why is there such a difference in culture in the format of presentations at scientific vs. history of science meetings? Of course, history of science is part of the humanities and not a STEM field of research. In its published papers, history of science is far more text-oriented than STEM, but still… paraphrasing an old adage, one excellent figure says more than a thousand words. In my opinion, the purpose of meetings is to communicate broad ideas, not to go into every detail of a subject.

Is it impossible to communicate ideas in history of science in a more lively and imaginative way? No, this is surely not the case, as proven at the opening session of HSS 2019 by young speakers presenting papers on such topics as circular economy and the great challenges ahead of us, in terms of climate change and migration. These young speakers showed that ideas can indeed be communicated in a style that connects to the audience in a more direct fashion, even in an overwhelming medieval church where the opening session was organized.

Let us also look at the bright side of meetings. The large amount of time—10 minutes for a 20-minute talk– allotted for answering questions from the audience is a blessing! STEM meetings should learn from you in this respect. The same also holds for open-format discussion sessions, such as the one on education at HSS 2019. It was a lively session, with a lot of introspection and wide participation of the audience.

This letter is an openly expressed opinion to help improve the impact and liveliness of presentations at meetings in an otherwise highly interesting field. The history of science serves as a whetstone not only for those in various STEM fields but also for mankind and society at large. Teaching the history of science to a wider audience is a positive and exciting challenge, and I am looking forward to the next international meeting of the HSS.

Prof. Dr. Herman C. W. Beijerinck is a Professor-emeritus of physics at Eindhoven University of Technology.