History of a Science Historian

I.B. Cohen, Harvard Press release

I.B. Cohen, Harvard Press release

It’s the birth date of the first American to receive a Ph.D. in science history. I’m surprised how recently he lived. I figured science historians have been around almost as long as science and history – but I. B. Cohen, born March 1, 1914, died in 2003.

His start at science history sputtered around unfocused for a few years. From Long Island, at age fifteen, Cohen entered New York University but dropped out after one semester. A brief attempt at veterinary medicine at an agricultural institute followed, then a stint at the Valley Forge Military Academy. He was 19 when he entered Harvard as a freshman in 1933 to concentrate in mathematics. He moved into Harvard’s newly formed History of Science and Learning program as a graduate student in 1937, getting his doctorate ten years later, in 1947. Long before his thesis was complete, he published his first book, Experiments and Observations on Electricity (1941), which grew out of his interest in Ben Franklin’s experiments.  Cohen’s second book (Some Early Tools of American Science) came three years after his doctorate. Then it was back to Franklin again, with Franklin and Newton in 1956.

I. Bernard Cohen’s amazing publication pace lasted his entire life. But he was also a teacher and, in his habitual checked sports jacket, was considered a somewhat flamboyant showman in the courses he taught. For two decades he also chaired Harvard’s History of Science department. Active in historical societies, Cohen received a lifetime achievement medal from the History of Science Society in 1974.

Although his 60 years of publishing focused largely on Franklin and Newton, his browsing interests ranged from the history of numbers to industrial age lab equipment. Not all his interests were locked in earlier centuries – he understood Einstein and relativity and, in fact, Cohen’s April 1955 interview with Albert Einstein was the last Einstein gave before his death that same month. While writing and teaching, Cohen also consulted to IBM on their history of computers project for a few years. That work eventually led to a popular book about computer pioneer Howard Aiken, released in 1999.

Cohen Rev in ScienceA year after retiring from Harvard in 1984, he released Revolution in Science, one of the two I.B. Cohen books which I have read and studied. My own history of science background is weak – I took a single (fascinating) undergraduate course while working on my geophysics degree. I have tried to fill some of the cracks in my education with books such as Cohen’s treatise. I strongly recommend Revolution in Science, one of the most lucid I’ve encountered from a science historian. Revolution in Science begins with a brief overview of Cohen’s position that scientific revolutions are more transformational than revolutionary, then works through major discoveries and their impacts, beginning with Copernicus and ending with plate tectonics. The book was written in 1985, so genomes, computers, the internet, and some other recent themes are absent. But this does not detract from the books message regarding the (sometimes slow) cultural transformations evinced by scientific “revolutions” and the simultaneous role played by society and culture upon scientific investigation.

Cohen's greatest contribution

Cohen’s greatest achievement

Cohen stayed busy to his final days. His manuscript of The Triumph of Numbers, a history of mathematics, numbers, and their impact on society, was sent off to his publisher one week before Cohen died at age 89. It was the last of 20 books. Many were intended for an educated general audience, but Cohen felt his greatest contribution was his modern English translation of Newton’s Principia, which he worked on for 14 years with Anne Whitman, a Latinist. Their 974-page book was the first English translation of Principia since 1729. Cohen published it in 1999, four years before his death at age 89. He felt that the Principia translation was his greatest achievement and believed it would be valuable long after his popular books and renowned utterances were forgotten. Lest we forget those utternaces, a few quotes from the famed science historian follow:

Although few expressions are more commonly used in writing about science than ‘science revolution,’ there is a continuing debate as to the propriety of applying the concept and term ‘revolution’ to scientific change. There is, furthermore, a wide difference of opinion as to what may constitute a revolution. And although almost all historians would agree that a genuine alteration of an exceptionally radical nature (the Scientific Revolution) occurred in the sciences at some time between the late fifteenth (or early sixteenth) century and the end of the seventeenth century, the question of exactly when this revolution occurred arouses as much scholarly disagreement as the cognate question of precisely what it was. (I.B. Cohen, 1980)

 All revolutionary advances in science may consist less of sudden and dramatic revelations than a series of transformations, of which the revolutionary significance may not be seen (except afterwards, by historians) until the last great step. In many cases the full potentiality and force of a most radical step in such a sequence of transformations may not even be manifest to its author. (I.B. Cohen, 1980)

Although Newton clearly sympathized with Galileo, he wrote virtually nothing critical of the Aristotelian tradition in philosophy, and the immense effort he devoted to theology was aimed not at challenging its epistemic authority, but largely at putting it on a firmer footing. Newton made no direct contributions to philosophy of a similar magnitude [to Galileo’s]. Indeed, from his extant writings alone Newton has more claim to being a major theologian than a major philosopher. (I.B. Cohen, 2002)

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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