Reflecting on the first issue of Nature and science through the ages

Issues of science education and gender discrimination still relevant today

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The original logo of the scientific journal Nature.
Courtesy of Nature

In a tweet celebrating its 148th birthday, Nature announced the release of a digital edition of its first issue, published in November 1869. While a scan of this issue has long been available, Nature took the occasion to dedicate a small webpage to the text of this issue. What were scientists discussing and thinking about 150 years ago? This issue may provide insights into the thoughts and culture of the scientific community long ago.

To put this time into scientific context, Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, Maxwell published his theory of electromagnetism in 1864, and Mendeleev presented the Periodic Table in 1869. In the next few decades, Gibbs would develop his phase rule, Boltzmann his statistical theory of entropy, and Michelson and Morley an experiment contradicting the concept of luminiferous aether.

Despite decades of scientific advancement that separate us from the researchers in 1869, a quick look at the articles in the first issue of Nature shows that we can still relate to many of the challenges and opportunities scientists faced then.

One article considered issues in science education: “[T]he method and details of [teaching science] ... are points which can be decided only by experiment, and have not yet been decided at all.” How do you balance experiments and lectures in science education? How do you provide resources for teachers and students to conduct experiments? How much time should be devoted to teaching science? These are all questions we are grappling with today. The writer of the 1869 article recommended experiential learning by conducting classroom experiments, taking nature walks in the country, and using microscopes to allow students to see what they were studying.

After reading a few articles in this issue, it isn’t hard to notice the implicit assumption that women were not a part of the scientific profession. The article about science education referred to the students as “boys,” and an article that summarized the proceedings of a meeting said that in attendance were “800 ... men of all sciences, often with their wives and daughters.” We cannot neglect that science was patriarchal. Today there is still significant institutional discrimination against women in science.

The first article in the issue was half poem, half essay, and begins with an evocation that likely echoes a frustration and awe researchers still feel today: “Nature! We are surrounded and embraced by her: powerless to separate ourselves from her, and powerless to penetrate beyond her.” The author posed a thought experiment: If we look back on scientists fifty years ago, their greatest achievements and discoveries may seem commonplace today. Likewise, fifty years from now, scientists may look back on us and think of our best work as commonplace. But by looking back, we can see the progress that has been made to better understand nature.

Is there value in looking back at the progress of science? One potential value is to put the great discoveries we learn about in courses into context. During my E&M course, Maxwell’s equations were just a set of equations. What work led to these equations, and how did the scientific community respond?

Researchers facing challenging problems may also find a look back refreshing. Knowing that people have struggled with generating hypotheses, designing experiments, and interpreting data for centuries can put the challenges of the research experience into perspective.

Of course, no MIT student has time to study historical scientific literature exhaustively. But maybe reading an old journal article or two will provide some context to the scientific process.