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Why good science needs good history

Yesterday was Earth Day, and to commemorate the event, scientists across the United States turned out in force to protest the Trump administration’s proposed cuts in science funding and professed hostility toward climate science. The main March for Science was in Washington, DC, but there were hundreds of other demonstrations in cities across the country, including a sizable one in Los Angeles, which I attended.

My reasons for attending the march were part conviction, part curiosity. I wanted to show support for funding scientific research, and I wanted to see what a pro-science protest looked like. I didn’t have any illusions that this single protest would save research funding. Marchers can’t cause change, especially if they come from outside, participate in the protest, and then leave (as many people did for, say, the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, and as I did yesterday in LA). Activists, whose day job is organizing communities and placing pressure on political leaders, can cause real change—sometimes. But most people, even those with good intentions, can’t afford to become activists.

With these reservations, I went to Los Angeles and marched, without a protest sign, from Pershing Square to City Hall. Thousands and thousands of other people were there too—some scientists, many obviously not; some carrying signs or wearing costumes, others not. From time to time, someone would start a call-response chant in the crowd. My favorite went like this:

What do we want?

Science!

When do we want it?

After peer review!

The poor meter and overall nerdiness of this chant made it seem particularly appropriate for the setting.

The March for Science had been organized on the premise that science is real and should be trusted. This theme appeared in the speeches delivered before the march in Pershing Square, as well as many of the marchers’ signs. Almost all the rhetoric I saw or heard at the march portrayed science only in a positive light, an interpretation that eighteenth-century European Enlightenment thinkers would have appreciated—before World War I, the atomic bomb, and all that. I did see one sign warning that much evil had been done in the name of science too.

For all the rhetoric about how the United States government needs to fund and pay attention to good science, I was disappointed to encounter a considerable amount of bad history at the march. Galileo Galilei was held up (literally, in the case of at least one sign) as a brave champion of science against the oppressive Catholic Church. This characterization of Galileo is well-known, but in fact the Catholic Church was early-modern Europe’s biggest funder of scientific research. The Gregorian Calendar, the modern international standard, was developed based on measurements taken in solar observatories built inside Italian cathedrals. (There is a good, if dense, book about the Catholic Church and astronomy: The Sun in the Church, by J.L. Heilbronn.)

I made mental notes of signs that annoyed me. The sign I hated the most said this:

WE TRIED ANTI-SCIENCE ONCE. IT WAS CALLED THE DARK AGES.

This is so false, I don’t even know where to start. Assuming this is referring to the European Dark Ages (and not some other dark age like the one that occurred in Greece between the archaic and classical periods), this sign is an outrageous abuse of history. The European Dark Ages, which took place roughly between the years 500 and 1000, were a result of the collapse of the political order in western Europe after the fall of the western Roman Empire. With no unifying imperial power in place any more, Europe broke up into countless tiny kingdoms with largely self-contained economies and little trade or communication between them. Even the larger kingdoms formed during this period, such as France or the Holy Roman Empire, remained internally divided between the jurisdictions of local lords. There was much less literature and scholarship produced in Europe during the Dark Ages than there had been during the Roman Empire, but this was a result of economic collapse, not anti-scientific sentiment. And at any rate, the science defended by the March for Science did not exist in the Middle Ages; empirical, experimental science originated in Europe in the seventeenth century.

The March for Science was not all bad history. There was plenty of good history there too; it just didn’t catch my eye like the abuses did. But for me the lesson of the march was this: If you are going to start a movement defending facts, then you should check the facts you are using first. If the facts are outside your discipline, then ask an expert for his or her opinion. I can’t speak for all historians, but I for one would be happy to advise scientists about history.

View of Vienna from Stephansdom.

From fortress to boulevard

The most picturesque part of Vienna, a city known for its beauty, is Ringstrasse, the Ring Road that encircles the oldest part of the city. The broad, attractive road wraps around three sides of the historic city center, with the Danube River closing the loop to the north. Many of the city’s most important cultural and civic buildings line Ringstrasse, including the opera house, Rathaus (town hall), the Austrian parliament, and an assortment of museums and libraries.

Ringstrasse is a legacy of the Austrian Empire, when Vienna was the capital of a multi-ethnic, polyglot empire eight times the size of Austria today. Emperor Franz Josef, who reigned from 1848 to 1916, spearheaded the development and beautification of his capital city early in his reign. In 1857, he authorized the most dramatic change to the city: demolishing the old defensive works to make room for Ringstrasse and the buildings alongside it.

But what were these defensive works that made way for Ringstrasse? When I first learned about Ringstrasse on a wonderful but brief visit to Vienna eleven years ago, I had the impression that they were medieval walls, made of stone. This didn’t really make sense to me, though, because medieval walls, such as those that still stand in Rothenburg, do not take up much space—not nearly as much as Ringstrasse and the neighboring buildings. In fact, Vienna had been defended by early-modern fortifications. The city’s medieval walls had been torn down and rebuilt in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to defend against the Ottoman Turks. A large open area in front of the defensive works, known as the glacis, was kept clear to offer a clear field of fire. The buildings of Ringstrasse were constructed on the land that had been kept open for the glacis.

Early-modern defensive works had a low profile and a large footprint. Consisting mostly of large earthen berms, the fortifications were designed to defend against the offensive weapon of the age: the smooth-bore cannon. The earthworks absorbed the impact of cannonballs, which could easily shatter stone defenses. These early-modern defenses were in vogue until the introduction of rifled-bore artillery, which made its debut in the American Civil War.

Many (but not all) early modern-fortifications had triangular projections at regular intervals along the berms or walls—the origin of the nickname “star fort.” The projections allowed soldiers standing on them to shoot at attackers from either side, trapping them in enfilading fire. An 1858 map of Vienna, drawn before the old defenses were demolished, shows triangular projections at regular intervals along the wall.

Another city that once had early-modern fortifications, but does no longer, is Frankfurt. The German city’s approach to using the land freed up by the demolition of the defenses was different from Vienna’s. The land once occupied by Frankfurt’s defenses is now taken up by a park that wraps around the historic city center. Even some of the triangular star-fort projections have been converted into parkland. They are visible on modern maps of the city—a telltale sign that this park was once an early-modern fortification.

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Front facade of Teen Murti Bhawan, New Delhi.

A tryst with research

When he served as the first Prime Minister of independent India from 1947 until his death in 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru lived in Teen Murti Bhawan in New Delhi, a palatial residence originally built for the British Commander in Chief of India. Teen Murti Bhawan sits on a large landscaped plot due south of the president’s palace (Rashtrapati Bhawan), formerly the Viceroy’s House. A long circular drive leads from the compound gate to Teen Murti house itself. Behind the house is a formal garden planted with rose bushes. After Nehru’s death, the house was preserved as a memorial to the man and his times, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Schoolchildren flock to the free museum, tramping through the big house’s empty corridors and taking in a show in Hindi or English at the planetarium on the grounds (built after Nehru’s death).

Behind and to the east of the house, tucked in among the trees, is a remarkable research institution, the library of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Housed in a modern concrete building with dark wood paneling on the interior, the Nehru Library has an elite air, fitting for a place established in memory of wealthy, England-educated Nehru. The regular collection of the library is focused on modern India, and the Nehru Library is without a doubt one of the best places in India to study the late colonial and independence periods. In the back of the library, reached by its own stairway, there is also a small reading room for the library’s archival division, which is supposed to hold the world’s largest collection of manuscripts related to modern India.

The lobby of the library sometimes hosts public exhibitions, but the main stacks are only open to serious researchers, who have to apply for a membership and pay a nominal fee. (When I did some research for my dissertation at NMML two years ago, I paid Rs. 300 for a two-month membership. There are also options of a one-week membership for Rs. 100 and six months for Rs. 500.) Getting permission to access the archives requires its own application, with a letter of introduction from the researcher’s home institution and a form from the researcher’s diplomatic mission in India (for international scholars; I used a photocopy of a form I got for the National Archives of India).

The Nehru Library has open stacks, which is a rare treat in specialized research libraries. The archives, of course, are not open, and the holdings can only be accessed by filling out a request slip. Not all of the archival records are accessible even to legitimate scholars. The papers of Jawaharlal Nehru are only open to 1947. Nehru’s papers from his tenure as Prime Minister are off-limits because they are still classified. (The Indian government’s policy for declassification is not transparent. Even though Nehru has been dead for more than fifty years, his papers are kept out of public view because they theoretically still hold state secrets.) But scholars of modern India need not despair, because the papers of many other post-independence leaders are accessible.

When I did my research at NMML, I ran into two challenges that made my work there harder than I expected it to be. The first was just getting there. Teen Murti Bhawan is located in the sprawling neighborhoods of colonial bungalows on the south side of Rajpath in New Delhi, an area that is poorly served by the city’s metro. I rode the 604 or 620 city buses from Sansad Marg (still sometimes called by its English name Parliament Street) to Teen Murti Circle, but the street was frequently blocked by sit-down protests staged by one or another disaffected part of the population. When that happened, the bus would be routed down a different street, and I never did figure out where.

The other challenge was a result of my not understanding how government business works in India. The National Archives of India is closed for only a few holidays every year: Republic Day (January 26), Independence Day (August 15), Gandhi Jayanti (October 2), and the lunar festivals of Holi (February or March) and Diwali (October or November). NMML and most other offices are also closed on India’s many regular gazetted holidays, which are posted online on the official government calendar, but are not posted anywhere in the building itself. This was at least the case two years ago. I kept making the long trek to Teen Murti Bhawan only to find that the library was closed for a religious holiday celebrated by one of the minority communities. One day, the library was dark and empty for Mahavir Jayanti (Jainism), and the next it was closed for Good Friday (Christianity). If I had known to check for gazetted holidays, I could have planned accordingly and used my time better.

These challenges aside, researching at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library was a rewarding experience. The private papers I read at NMML provided a human counterpoint to the formal, technical documents I found at the National Archives. The landscaped setting of Teen Murti Bhawan was a refreshing place to research. When I needed a break from manuscripts, I could go walking outside. I enjoyed spending a few weeks at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library while researching my dissertation, and I hope I get the chance to return there for a future project.

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