Electronic Journal of Science Education V3 N1 - September 1998 - Crowther, Editorial

The History of Science - What a story!!

    The National Science Education Standards (NSES) (NRC, 1996) advise that within the Science Content Standards section that there are eight categories of content which must be taught in the science classroom. Many of us think of life, physical, and earth science as the "content of science," but what are the other five that the standards suggest that we teach in our science classrooms?? According to the NSES the eight categories are:

1. Unifying concepts and processes in science.

2. Science as Inquiry

3. Physical Science

4. Life Science

5. Earth and Space Science

6. Science and Technology

7. Science in personal and social perspectives

8. History and nature of science.

    As I read through the standards all eight categories do have great relevance to the scientific understandings of students, I just wonder how much of the other five content standards we are really teaching. In this volume of the Electronic Journal of Science Education (EJSE) the guest editorial by Dr. Ron Bonnstetter speaks about Science as Inquiry as one of the most misinterpreted or "missing" elements of the reform effort in the classroom.

    Of the other content standards, I think that unifying themes, such as evolution, are being taught, but are probably not being stressed as unifying themes from one discipline to another - or at least not yet (we will save this for another editorial!). As far as technology, I think that with the internet and other electronic resources many people are becoming familiar with the value of those resources. But another huge emphasis must be put on technology like Electro phoresis, DNA sequencing, etc. Perhaps if the general population had a better understanding of this technology the results may have been different in the O.J. Simpson case?? We already have a great precedent set by Robert Yager (et al.) and the Science, Technology, and Society (STS) model which also helps cover number 6 and 7.

    However, number eight. . . . How about the history and nature of science. Lets begin with some interesting history.

    I have always been interested in the stories behind the great scientists. We always hear things like Einstein flunked out of school or that Audubon ate several of the last species of birds, but are these accurate rumors and if not then what is the real story.

    In my attempt to do some recreational reading and engage in a hobby of looking into stories about some of the great scientists, as well as get some new teaching material for my science methods courses, I have come across a few stories that I had not heard and are very interesting. Perhaps in the sharing of these stories we can all incorporate more of the history of science into our classrooms.

    One of my favorite stories is about Beatrix Potter. I know - you are thinking - Beatrix Potter, wasn't she the author of Peter Rabbit? And what does she have to do with science? The quick answer is yes, Beatrix Potter did write and illustrate Peter Rabbit and she has quite a science story. . . .

    Beatrix Potter began her interest in science as an observer of nature and actually became quite the botanist. "In England in the 1890's Beatrix Potter studied the dual nature of lichens as part of her early interest in classifying, dissecting, and drawing fungi" (Sapp, 1994). Beatrix studied lichens during a time of great discussion on the dual nature of lichens. "Research on the dual nature of lichens grew with a new generation of botanists led by Schwendener (1829-1919), who established a leading institute of experimental botany at the University of Berlin, and by Anton de Bary (1831-1888), who did the same at Strassburg" (Sapp, 1994). Beatrix studied lichens at the same time as many prominent botanists of the time such as, " Albert Bernhard Frank, Ernst Stahl, and Johannes Reinke in Germany, Emile Bornet and Gaston Bonnier in France, Andrei Famintsyn in Russia, and Albert Schneider in the United States" (Sapp, 1994).

    However, this is where Beatrix's story takes a different path. Beatrix wrote her observations and research in a report to the Linnaean Society in 1897. Unfortunately, Potter was not able to read her report before the society. "She could neither deliver the paper herself nor attend the meeting at which it was discussed because women were unwelcome" (Sapp, 1994). Potter's paper was presented to the Linnaean Society of London by her uncle, Sir Henry Roscoe, a distinguished chemist at the time. Only to make matters worse for Beatrix, "Her presence as a researcher in the British Museum was also unwelcome, as was the support for the dual nature of lichens she offered to the assistant director of the Royal Botanical Gardens" (Sapp, 1994).

    Potter was very frustrated by these experiences and rejections. She was later to refer to this time as the "storm in a tea kettle." Beatrix continued her observations in nature, but abandoned a career in science and wrote children's books. Beatrix's intricate observations of nature are carefully detailed in the illustrations of her books, books which are still enjoyed today as bedtime stories by the young and old alike.

    Conclusion: Oh yea, Schwendener's dual hypothesis was confirmed by many botanists who isolated the algae which enter into association with various types of fungi to make particular kinds of lichen. And no - Beatrix Potter was never given credit for her contributions to the dual nature of lichens.

How about another story. . .

    We all remember Louis Pasteur; chemist, microbiologist, bacteriologist, and politician?? Did that say politician?? Yes it did - and now for the rest of the story.

    Louis Pasteur was born on December 27, 1822. "He was born in Dole, near Dijon in the east of France. Most of his childhood was spent 25km to the southeast at Arbois, amid the vineyard-covered slopes of the Jura Mountains" (Meadows, 1987). Just for some geographical information (which is relevant later in the story), this is the southern most region of the Burgandy region of France where some wonderful grapes varieties are grown (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gamay) which produce some of the worlds best wine varieties from that region including; Burgundy, Beaujolais, White Burgundy, and Chablis (Not to be mistaken for California versions of Burgundy and Chablis!!). As a youth, Louis' chief interest was in painting. Pasteur's father kept a tannery which may have played a role in Louis research in tartaric acid and crystallography (D- tartaric acid is separated from the wine in the fermentation process).

    Louis Pasteur began his formal higher education at the Ecole Normale (at the time, France's leading institution in the teaching of agregation). Pasteur's teachers included J. B. Dumas (1800 - 1884) and A. J. Balard (1774 - 1862) discoverer of the element Bromine (Meadows, 1987). An interesting thing happened here. When Louis took the entrance exam to get into the Ecole Normale, he scored 14th on the test. This infuriated him so he took the test again and scored 4th.

    Pasteur's extensive research in symmetrical and asymmetrical crystals and polarization in tartaric acid led to a new branch of chemistry called Stereochemistry (Meadows, 1987). Specifically, Pasteur noticed that when light was passed through tartaric acid that two (isomers) things happened. One plane turned to the right and the other created no effect at all. After studying the "no effect," Pasteur noticed that the innactive crystals were symmetrical and that the active crystals were asymmetrical. "Pasteur noticed by eye that there were , in roughly equal proportions, two different kinds of crystals in the same sample: both were asymmetric, but one lot were mirror images of the other. Pasteur then boldly concluded that since the former rotated the plane of polarization to the right (dextro form) , the latter ought to turn it to the left (the laveo form). Because each group of crystals was present in equal porportions in the inactive sample, polarization effects naturally cancelled each other out" (Meadows 1987).

    Pasteur was fascinated by the asymmetry or "handedness" in nature. In 1854, while teaching at the University of Strausbourg, he arranged for plants to be grown in sunlight whose rays were reverse by means of an optical device" (Meadows, 1987). The purpose of this experiment was to see if the asymmetry of the crystaline structure could be reversed. The results were inconclusive. Later we would discover that the DNA has a dextro rotary structure that can indeed be manipulated through an "intervention in an optically-active intermediate in the synthesis" (Meadows, 1987). This rather long plant study in conjunction with his research in tartaric acid led to interest in fermentation. Pasteur then found that during wine fermentation that bacteria naturally feed upon the dextro form - not the laveo form of tartaric acid. This discovery then led Louis into the study of fermentation as a chemical process and a biological process which was a key factor in his focus of study changing from chemistry to biology. (Meadows, 1987). Pasteur then went on and established that putrefaction and fermentation are caused by microorganisms. He introduced vaccination when he showed, in 1881, that sheep and cows vaccinated with the baccilli of anthrax became immune to the disease (Bodanis, 1995).

    Most people, however, when they think of Louis Pasteur think of pasteurization (after all the process is named after him!!); specifically, the heat-treatment of milk to destroy bacteria, such as those of tuberculosis, typhoid and brucellosis. I am not going to go into much detail about the French authorities coming to Louis because of the great spoilage of the French wine crops which was financially devastating, but it is safe to say that with the process of heat treating the wine before fermentation ol' Pasteur saved the day - big time!!

    Now think about the fact that Louis Pasteur was dealing with microbes at a time when the microscope was really improved from it's primitive form as used by Leeunehooke, and Hooke. In fact, just prior to Pasteur, Robert Brown (1822) (a Botanist) discovered the "sphere like shape" in plant cells thus naming it the nucleus, which still holds today. So, Pasteur then made a career studying these things that were not visable to the human eye, but were visable through microscopy. That sort of thing would freak a person out knowing that these microscopic organisms were everywhere and many were fatal to humans. This thought made Pasteur somewhat neurotic - or at least very compulsive as the following paragraph from Socialism and Bacteria (Bodanis, 1995) explains.

    "It was dinner time in the Pasteur house, and Louis was at it again. with his wife, daughters and sole son sitting in mortified silence around the table; with the usual dinner guest, Monsieur Loir, at the table with them; with the best tablecloth laid, the right plates out, the first course on, and the long-suffering maids in position at the side; with everyone set to begin the meal, the Professor began his hunt.

    'He minutely inspected the bread that was served to him', Monsieur Loir wrote much later, in old age, 'and placed on the tablecloth everything he found in it: small fragments of wool, of cockroaches, of flour worms ... I tried to find in my own piece of bread from the same load the objects found by Pasteur, but could not discover anything. All the others ate the same bread without finding anything in it.'

    Then Pasteur went to work on the glasses. He lifted them up, peered at them closely, and wiped down each one he was going to use, hoping to remove all the contaminating dirt, which again no one else could see. He kept his fingers clean for the wiping, by refusing to shake hands with strangers or even friends during the day. The family waited, the maids and guest waited too, for all were used to the great man's obsession. 'This search took place at almost every meal', Loir continued, 'and is perhaps the most extraordinary memory that I have of Pasteur.'"

    And this all leads to the socialism and politics in Pasteur's life. Read on. . . .

    There are many accounts surviving of what personal conversation with Pasteur was like. In his loud voice, and with his sombre expression (there is only one known drawing, photo, engraving, or sculpture of Pasteur smiling), Pasteur would continually harp on two themes. The first of course was his laboratory work. During dinner at home he would recount with great satisfaction details of the mice he had eviscerated that day, or the pur6es of vaccinated spinal cord he had prepared, or whatever else he had done in his continuing, remorseless battle against the bacteria. Those bacteria were tiny infecting creatures that most people couldn't see, but which were always there, ready to pounce, to enter us and take over and grow. The hunt inside the dinner bread was no aberration with them around.

    After the account of the day's laboratory work had run dry, Pasteur's monotone would turn to his second topic: politics. It was the only interest he held as strongly as bacteria. Some of his views were shared with all Frenchmen of his time, such as his great hatred of Germany, especially after the invasion of 1870-1 - It was so strong that he devoted months of free work to the perfecting of French beer, so loyal patriots wouldn't have to drink that Boche muck again. Yet his main political view was not quite so universally shared. Pasteur was-an extreme reactionary in politics. He ran (unsuccessfully) for the Senate on an extreme right-wing ticket, and in his letters recorded that the social high point of his life was a one-week visit with Louis Napoleon, at the Emperor's Palace in Compeigne.

    Well, for an editorial, I have really gone on far too long, but the stories of science are really fascinating and are missing from most science classrooms. The major problem is that the stories are not told in the sciences or methods courses where these teachers are taught the content and pedagogy of teaching science. Thus, we come full circle to the National Standards and changing our courses to include brief historical sketches that tell the story of science. There are many great books where you can get these stories and I have included just a few of them in the references section of this editorial.

    Finally, If you have a good story or reference for stories in science, I would be happy to make another section in the Electronic Journal of Science Education as a reference for all interested folks to share with one another. And, for those really serious history and philosophy folks, contact Michael Mathews who is involved with the INTERNATIONAL HISTORY, PHILOSOPHY AND SCIENCE TEACHING GROUP.


    Bodanis, David. (1995). Socialism and Bacteria. In The Faber Book of Science, John Carey (ed). Faber & Faber Ltd, London, England.

    Bolles, E. B. (1997) Galileo's commandment: An anthology of great science writing. W. H. Freeman, New York.

    Meadows, J. (1994).The great scientists. Oxford University Press, New York.

    Moore, J. (1993). Science as a way of knowing: The foundations of modern biology. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

    Sapp, J. (1994). Symbiosis: Evolution by Association. New York, Oxford Press.

    White, M. (1997). Isaac Newton: The last sorcerer. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA.

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