Suppose you were faced with the following examination question:

Which of the following statements do you think is more applicable to science? (1) "History is more or less bunk" [Henry Ford]; (2) "If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us!" [S.T. Coleridge].

How would most scientists answer? Some—such as those involved in taxonomy—might opt for the second alternative, but I suspect a majority would prefer the first. Yet it is difficult to avoid all history in science.

For example, astronomers often use a graph known as the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. This is not a plot of Hertzsprung against Russell—as one of my students once asserted—but of the brightness of a star against its surface temperature. The historical query here is not who Hertzsprung and Russell were, but why they plotted the graph in such a way. The values of brightness on the vertical axis increase in the...

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