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How Historical Experiments Can Improve Scientific Knowledge and Science Education: The Cases of Boiling Water and Electrochemistry

Abstract

I advance some novel arguments for the use of historical experiments in science education. After distinguishing three different types of historical experiments and their general purposes, I define complementary experiments, which can recover lost scientific knowledge and extend what has been recovered. Complementary experiments can help science education in four major ways: to enrich the factual basis of science teaching; to improve students’ understanding of the nature of science; to foster habits of original and critical inquiry; and to attract students to science through a renewed sense of wonder. I illustrate these claims with my own recent work in historical experiments, in which I reproduced anomalous variations in the boiling point of water reported 200 years ago, and carried out new experimental and theoretical work arising from the replication of some early electrochemical experiments.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    An overview of the group’s extensive ongoing and previous work can be seen on their website: www.histodid.uni-oldenburg.de.

  2. 2.

    It is interesting to note that a centerpiece of Heering’s pedagogical method was to encourage students to experience electrical shocks that were so important for the scientists of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century, while this was “specifically banned” in Devons and Hartmann Hoddeson’s course (Hoddeson 1971, p. 927).

  3. 3.

    See “SHiPS” (www1.umn.edu/ships), the Resource Center for Science Teachers using Sociology, History and Philosophy of Science.

  4. 4.

    For the work of this group, see www.ampere.cnrs.fr.

  5. 5.

    For the work of the Palmieri group and their ongoing work at the Pittsburgh HPSLab on this and various other experiments, see their “Experimental HPS” website (www.exphps.org).

  6. 6.

    For Newman’s experiments see also the “Chemistry of Isaac Newton” website (http://webapp1.dlib.Indiana.edu/newton/reference/chemLab.do).

  7. 7.

    See ‘Historical Experimentation, taught in 1999 by Jed Buchwald at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’, online syllabus at http://www.aip.org/history/syllabi/experiments.htm. At Caltech he has offered the course H167. Historic Experiment.

  8. 8.

    SP.713. Recreate Experiments for History: Inform the Future from the Past: Galileo (http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/special-programs/sp-713-recreate-experiments-from-history-inform-the-future-from-the-past-galileo-january-iap-2010/).

  9. 9.

    For a systematic review of research on NOS in science teaching, see Lederman (2007).

  10. 10.

    I have proposed an extension of this work, but I have not been able to carry out the experimental work yet; see Chang (2002, pp. 162–164).

  11. 11.

    Here I refer to the debate between Simon Schaffer (1989) and Alan Shapiro (1996) about the reception of Newton’s optics in continental Europe. See also Harry Collins’s (1985) sociological–philosophical studies of replications and tacit knowledge in experimental science.

  12. 12.

    This problem could be avoided by using a Beckmann thermometer, which has a larger and smoother glass bulb (as well as higher precision). However, I found that Beckmann thermometers were not so useful for the study of higher degrees of superheating, because of their small range (the two I acquired covered a range of 5°C and 6°C respectively); if I calibrated a Beckmann thermometer to set it at 0° at the normal boiling point of water, the temperature of degassed water easily went off the scale.

  13. 13.

    Most important among them were Steven Bramwell and Mike Ewing of University College London.

  14. 14.

    Catherine Radtka’s ongoing research is very instructive about the process of negotiating the content of school textbooks on this point; some of the textbook writers do know about the variations of the boiling point, but revert to the alleged fixedness of the boiling point due to rigid constraints of curriculum and textbook formats. See Radtka (forthcoming).

  15. 15.

    The nineteenth-century debates also concerned the mechanisms of electrolysis; see Chang (2011), Chap. 2.

  16. 16.

    It will take a little while before the bubbles start coming, if there is an oxide layer on the wire.

  17. 17.

    The other standard modern theory of acidity, namely the Lewis theory, is not very helpful in understanding this kind of case.

  18. 18.

    So much so, that the Daniell cell is often referred to as the “Voltaic cell” (e.g., Gilbert et al. 2009, pp. 894–895; R. Chang 2010, p. 841).

  19. 19.

    I have been working in the research lab of the electrochemist Daren Caruana, who has generously given me space and other support; some materials and apparatus have been purchased thanks to a research grant from the Leverhulme Trust. My most public interaction with chemists in this work has been a lecture I delivered to the UCL Physical and Chemical Society on 9 March 2010 (announcement on http://www.ucl.ac.uk/~uccacps/).

  20. 20.

    Here and below I will report illustrative data from typical individual experiments, rather than averages from the various runs I made.

  21. 21.

    Volta says that plain water will work, too, but salt water is better as it is a better conductor; on p. 404 he also mentions that an alkali (ley, la lessive) can be used.

  22. 22.

    Partington (1964, p. 17) also mentions that the Oxford dry pile continued to work for more than a century.

  23. 23.

    In an attempt to test this idea, I divided the electrolyte (HCl again) into two parts, connecting them with a gold wire; in this setup there was a good voltage (around 0.5 V); the current was so minimal as to be undetectable with a commercial ammeter with a resolution of 0.01 mA, which makes sense as one imagines that gold does not react with HCl. But it is not certain whether there isn’t some chemical reaction going on here. If the same kind of experiment is done with a bridge of copper wire instead of gold, we get a measurable current, accompanied by clear chemical changes. Leaving this experiment to run for a few hours creates a beautiful coral-like growth on the copper wire that is directly connected with the zinc wire. The copper accumulated there must be from the leg of the copper bridge in that pot, which gets visibly thinner. This experiment works best with a very weak acid (about 1% concentration) on the zinc side, in order to avoid a rapid wastage of the zinc.

  24. 24.

    Experimental extensions may also arise from an engagement with past theoretical claims, if we devise new experiments to test the old claims.

  25. 25.

    Complementary experiments may not always be historical; they can also arise from rejected questions regarding current science.

  26. 26.

    Although historical replications have undoubtedly superior potential for enhancing historical understanding, it is not clear that a better understanding of history, per se, is significant for science education. To the extent that historical replications help with the learning and teaching of better ideas on NOS, I do agree that they have an important role in science education. However, as explained below, I think that physical replications and extensions have at least as much potential to improve our views of NOS.

  27. 27.

    Heering (2000, p. 367) observes that students also became more willing to challenge authority figures in their own peer group when they were asked to make their own original theoretical engagement with the phenomena they produced in historical experiments.

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Acknowledgments

For their invaluable and generous help with the experimental work reported here, I would like to thank Daren Caruana, Andrea Sella, Rosie Coates, Crosby Medley and many others in the Department of Chemistry at University College London; I am also grateful to the Leverhulme Trust and the ESRC for their research grants. This paper would not have been written if it had not been for Ismo Koponen’s kind invitation to the Nordic Symposium in 2009, and for his gentle persistence in urging me to prepare a written version for publication in this special issue. I also thank him and various other participants in the symposium for their helpful comments and kind enthusiasm. I thank Michael Matthews and the three anonymous reviewers of this paper, who gave vital criticism and encouragement on the previous version of the manuscript. I would also like to thank Jed Buchwald, Elizabeth Cavicchi, Douglas Allchin, Peter Heering, and Jenny Rampling for their help, advice and encouragement over the years, which have fed into this paper in various ways. Gerald Holton has taught me more relevant things than I can list or even discern, so I will simply record a big “thank you” here.

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Chang, H. How Historical Experiments Can Improve Scientific Knowledge and Science Education: The Cases of Boiling Water and Electrochemistry. Sci & Educ 20, 317–341 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-010-9301-8

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Keywords

  • Science Education
  • Historical Experiment
  • Complementary Experiment
  • Pessimistic Induction
  • Chemistry Textbook