History of Science Lecturer Christopher J. Phillips researches the cultural authority of mathematics in modern America. Last semester, he co-curated an exhibition called “Cold War in the Classroom: The Material Culture of Mid-Century Science Education” in Harvard’s Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. Currently, he is teaching a class called “From Lab Rats to Venture Capitalists: The Making of a Scientist.”
The Harvard Crimson: Did you ever consider becoming a scientist?
Phillips: When I first started college, I thought I wanted to be an applied mathematician—but I realized that for me the most important and interesting questions were the relationship between mathematical models [...] and tools and the cultural, political, and institutional authority that they hold. It very quickly became apparent that my field was history of science as opposed to a scientific field explicitly, though I still teach math through the summer school and I’ve taught math in college as well.
THC: As someone who studies the scientific community and process from the outside, what have you noticed that most scientists don’t realize?
Phillips: What I’ve noticed most is the discrepancy between the authority and deference that science and scientists receive, and the lack of knowledge about science broadly in society and the community. It’s amazing to me that people will defer to mathematical methods or scientists or the authority of certain kinds of knowledge claims even though they have no idea where they come from and can give no account of them.
THC: Many Americans trust math without understanding it. Do you think this trust is misplaced?
Phillips: We defer to certain mathematical ways of knowing even though we are not always aware or made aware of the kinds of tradeoffs that occur…If you cared about poetry, or religion, or history, [you] might have completely different ideas of which decision to make. But there’s not really a conversation about those tradeoffs. We typically say that mathematical methods are more powerful, more accurate, and more precise without really investigating what it means.
THC: You teach a class called “From Lab Rats to Venture Capitalists: The Making of a Scientist.” What inspired you to teach the course, who do you think should take it, and is there a take home message that everyone should learn at some point?
Phillips: I was inspired to teach the course because I think one way of answering complicated questions about who scientists are historically is to ask how they’re trained … The take home—the thing I think people will get out of this course—is the ability to be reflective about what we’re learning, why we’re learning, the institutions in which learning takes place, and what is sometimes know as “the hidden curriculum,” the moral, political, and social standards that are communicated to us through these institutions.
THC: Do you have any advice for students headed for careers in science?
Phillips: I think as a historian of science, I would encourage all science students to know something of the history of science—to really think critically not just about the future of their field, but also about the history of the field and about what they are doing in the context of the larger development of science as an institution and as a practice.
THC: Many people become scientists, far fewer study science from a historical or social perspective. Why do you think this research is important?
Phillips: If you’re interested in the way we live now, then certainly it should matter to you what role science plays in our lives, and how science came to play that role. That’s the question that historians of science are constantly engaged with.