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History of science, a bridge between the 'two cultures'

In an academic and public discourse still dominated by the "two cultures" divide first diagnosed by C.P. Snow in 1959, the history of science occupies a crucial place. Snow, focusing largely on the British educational system, argued that the higher value placed on the humanities has led to a comparative devaluation of scientific literacy among the general public. Today, even though much has changed in secondary and higher education—one rarely, if ever, sees a curriculum dominated by Latin and Greek classics. For instance, Snow's general diagnosis is still accurate. Numerous indicators point to a low or even dismal comprehension of science among large parts of the population and university campuses still are, by and large, divided along the science vs humanities divide.

What has changed, however, is that this separation of the sciences and the humanities is increasingly seen as a serious problem. The main issues facing the world today all require multiple and integrated approaches that involve both scientific and humanistic perspectives. Real world problems, such as climate change, poverty, unequal distribution of wealth, global health, etc., do not fall neatly within disciplinary boundaries. Addressing these global challenges requires new avenues in research and education.

Such interdisciplinary perspectives are easy to proclaim, but difficult to realize. Simply combining researchers or courses from different domains only leads to misunderstandings and dilettantism. Here the history of science can play an important role in bridging the gap between different traditions, perspectives, and methodologies. And it can do so in both research and education. It can provide interdisciplinary researchers and students with a better understanding of the core assumptions, concepts and epistemological foundations of different disciplines and how these have changed as each science developed in a specific social and cultural context. And it can also show how the intricate and richly contextual processes of science generate insights that transcend their contingent origins. The principle of natural selection can serve as and illustration here; historians have shown how it is on the one hand a product of a specific Victorian culture and its values. However, history also shows how this insight then became the foundation of a mathematical theory of evolutionary transformations.

History of science thus combines scientific and humanistic perspectives and allows us to bridge the still existing gap between these two approaches.

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