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Can (and Should) Historians do Science and Engineering

Updated on January 29, 2015

How the Heck does a Computer Work Anyway?

“Many people who celebrate the arts and the humanities, who applaud vigorously the tributes to their importance in our schools, will proclaim without shame (and sometimes even joke) that they don’t understand math or physics. They extoll the virtues of learning Latin, but they are clueless about how to write an algorithm or tell Basic from C++, Python from Pascal. They consider people who don’t know Hamlet from Macbeth to be Philistines, yet they might merrily admit that they don’t know the difference between a gene and a chromosome, or a transistor and a capacitor, or an integral and a differential equation.”

  • Walter Isaacson, from The Innovators

    This quotation partially applies to me. I enjoy and appreciate the benefits that science and technology bring, and I admire the people who have made and continue to make these wonders possible. I also talk at length about the economic and social effects of technological innovations in the history courses that I teach. But when it comes to understanding the scientific and engineering principles that underlie these amazing innovations, I do not have a clue, and I have been generally okay with my ignorance, chalking it up to a brain that is much better at understanding the abstract than the mechanical. I love to use computers and the internet, but I have no clue how the hell either of these things really work.

    So when I started reading The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, I had no intention of trying to understand the intricacies of computer hardware and software. I just wanted to get a general understanding of the basic timeline in the evolution of computers and the internet. This way, I could accurately place these events in their general historical context and sound like I know what I am talking about when we discuss the Information Age in my classes. I was reading this, therefore, as a history book, not a computer science book.

    The only problem, as I found out early in the book, is that it is impossible to understand the history of computer development without knowing at least the basics of how a computer works. So as I was reading his detailed descriptions of the earliest mechanical computers; inventions of transistors, microchips, and microprocessors; and the packet switching that makes the World Wide Web operate, I struggled to get a handle on what the hell he was talking about.

    My first instinct was to do what I have often done when a history book forced me to think about science or engineering: just try to get the gist of what it is talking about and move on. But in this case, I actually found myself caring about the mechanics, and before I knew it, I was browsing web sites that tried to explain how a transistor works and how these could be tied together into circuits. For probably the first time in my life, I actually found engineering to be interesting, and one thing became clear fairly quickly: if you really want to understand the engineering, then you also have to go back and understand some very basic scientific principles.

    It might take a lifetime, an extremely high IQ, or both to really get a grip on how a computer actually works. But there is no inherent reason why a social scientist like me can’t at least get a general idea of what is going on inside of the machine. Few of us “soft” scientists and liberal artists, however, ever care enough to try, either because we have bought into the modern notion that knowledge must be compartmentalized or because science, math, and engineering are just too damn hard. When I switched from computer science to social science all of those years ago, after all, it wasn’t just because social science was more interesting. It was also a hell of a lot easier.

    What makes history such an endlessly fascinating topic to study and an intimidating subject to teach is that it is basically the study of everything. Because every human endeavor has played a role in shaping the past, a competent history teacher – particularly a teacher of broad survey courses – needs to have at least a working knowledge of a wide range of topics. Since I will never come remotely close to knowing everything, I constantly struggle to figure out how to use the limited time that I have for reading, listening to podcasts, watching documentaries, or doing whatever I can to be less ignorant. So how much time should I spend trying to get a working knowledge of math, science, engineering, computer science, and other technical subjects? Whatever choices I make in the future, I need to shake off two basic tendencies: first, the belief that it is acceptable for a historian to know little about subjects outside of the social sciences; and second, the belief that my brain is not hardwired to think in certain ways. If I expect people who struggle with history to pass a college level course, then I should be willing to struggle with stuff that I find difficult too.


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