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Journal of World History 12.1 (2001) 183-192

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Globalizing the History of Science *

Philip F. Rehbock
University of Hawai'i

Rarely in its own history has the history of science discipline been well endowed with engaging, up-to-date general textbooks. And the difficulty of writing them seems to increase with time. Professional historians of science have generally been reluctant to devote their energies to "mere popularizations" that, however essential to teachers and their students, earn no prestige among scholars. As David Knight, author of more than one successful text, bluntly put it, "One's departmental 'profile' would not be improved by the writing of textbooks because of the belief that there is no element of 'research' about them." 1 Popular writers, for their part, have rarely produced works deemed pedagogically acceptable by historians of science. The result of these forces was well summed up by Cambridge historian James Secord when he wrote in 1993, "At the level of secondary and university education, the lack of up-to-date surveys and general analyses in history of science is widely perceived as scandalous." 2 The irony, of course, is that the teachers who long for inspiring texts, and the scholars best suited to write them, are to a large extent the same folks. [End Page 183]

The situation for truly global treatments of the history of science has been especially barren. Ever since Europeans began to write it in the late eighteenth century, the history of science has meant the history of Western science. Like the courses for which they have been intended, textbooks in the history of science have largely followed this orientation (or rather "occidentalization").

A brief tour of the few global texts in the history of science available in English during the past half-century will document the problem. Stephen Mason performed a tremendous service for the discipline when he published Main Currents of Scientific Thought in 1953. 3 Although entirely without illustrations, this book (in its 1962 revised edition) has continued in print and has now been used by more than a generation of thankful students in need of a brief but competent priming on virtually every topic, from Greek, Chinese, or Hindu science to the steam engine, Darwinism, or quantum physics. The book's longevity has, however, been also a weakness, for it has not been updated during the past four decades--a period when the historiography of science has expanded exponentially in every direction and the foundations of the field have been reconstructed at least once if not twice. Nevertheless, Mason continues to be assigned by instructors who require a single text and have nothing more current to turn to.

During the early 1980s two new texts, both abundantly illustrated, attempted to refresh the available options. In 1982, the late Colin Ronan, a historian of astronomy known most recently for his very useful abridgments of Joseph Needham's great tomes on Science and Civilisation in China, published Science: Its History and Development among [End Page 184] the World's Cultures. 4 Three of Ronan's ten chapters dealt with non-Western topics: Chinese, Hindu, and "Arabian" science. And in 1983, John Marks followed with Science and the Making of the Modern World, a book designed especially for science undergraduates at British polytechnics. 5 Its focus was the period after 1600, so science in traditional societies (other than Greece) was not addressed; but there are chapters on the adoption of Western science in Russia, China, and Japan. Although the Marks book was the better received of the two, neither text caught on, and both are now out of print. Inexplicably, neither text was much reviewed. 6

A third work from the early 1980s, this one widely read, reviewed, and, at this writing, still in print, is The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself, by the distinguished American historian and Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin. 7 Reviewers praised the work as "witty, anecdotal, intelligent and well informed," but also called it "oversimplified, prejudiced and distorting" 8 --highly suitable for after-dinner...