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No. 3108:
Source Material

by Andy Boyd

Today, straight from the horse's mouth. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I knew it was a problem, but it's only recently that I've come to appreciate how bad it can be. Chasing down an idea for a potential Engines episode, I'll find an interesting fact or quote. If there's no reference to the source, I'll search for one. And often all I'll find are a dozen web pages with the same fact or quote but no reference. If I can't find a trustworthy source, I can't use the material.

William of Tyre. Photo Credit: Wikimedia

And it got me thinking about history and historians. One of the most highly respected activities historians perform is unearthing original source material. A forgotten or ignored manuscript hidden away in an archive. The lost letters of a foreign dignitary. An interview with someone who was there. Think about it. Without source material, there'd be nothing to tell. Once source material makes its way into a scholarly publication, it typically rattles around from book to book, website to website. But it had to begin somewhere. Historians and all good scholars carefully reference their sources. That leaves the reader able to evaluate their reliability. Simply finding something on the web doesn't make it true, nor does the fact that it's repeated on many different websites.

Of course, historians do more than publish source material. They analyze that material with the intent of weaving together a good narrative. Johannes Kepler writes that his astronomical work is in part built on the magnetic philosophy of William Gilbert. With written source in hand, it can be taken as fact. But in what way did magnetic philosophy influence Kepler? And was magnetic philosophy a broader theme accepted by the scientific establishment in Kepler's time? A historian seeks to answer these questions through a logically argued narrative.

Karion Istomin. Photo Credit: Wikimedia

A narrative may be more or less persuasive, and as new source material is uncovered it may need revision. But is any single narrative definitively correct? That's a fascinating question. The world is a complicated place. What happened is a fact. Pinning down why something happened is much harder. We can point to events precipitating the Second World War, but even the most scholarly narratives may differ as to the impact of these events. Historians are keenly aware of this aspect of their discipline. For example, historiography is the historical study of how historians have studied history. I'll leave you to think about that.

Voltaire. Photo Credit: Wikimedia

"Big picture" narratives are always open to debate. What were the four most important machines in the history of science? The clock, the balance, the steam engine, and the computer -- at least according to one historian. He's fully aware of the provocative nature of his claim. But if he can weave together a good narrative, we may learn something.

Here on Engines we carefully weave our own narratives. And of one thing you can be certain. We'll be diligent in tracking our sources.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work. 

(Theme music)

J. A. Bennett. 1981. "Cosmology and the Magnetical Philosophy, 1640-1680." Journal for the History of Astronomy, vol. 12: pp. 165-177. See also: Accessed February 7, 2017.

F. van Lunteren. 2016. "Clocks to Computers: A Machine-Based 'Big Picture' of the History of Modern Science." ISIS: A Journal of the History of Science, vol. 107(4): pp. 762-776.

This episode was first aired on February 9, 2017