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MSc History of Science, Technology and Medicine / Course details

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
Shaping the Sciences

Unit code HSTM60262
Credit rating 30
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Centre for History of Science, Technology & Medicine (L5)
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


It was in the late nineteenth century that the word “scientist” came into regular use, as a general term for the members of professional disciplines such as physics, chemistry and astronomy. This course examines how these scientific communities built their professional identities across the course of the nineteenth century, and how they made themselves crucial to the concerns of nations and empires in the twentieth. We pay particular attention to how scientists set boundaries, using various tools (publication, patronage, institutions) to establish people and practitioners as “inside” or “outside” their particular disciplinary areas or science in general. We also consider how scientists and others have used demonstrations – from the electric light to the atomic bomb – to promote the usefulness or validity of science to various audiences, and how these claims have been challenged.


Pre-requisite units: HSTM60511 (except by special arrangement)

Co-requisite units: HSTM60521; HSTM60531 (except by special arrangement)


The unit aims to:

  • introduce students to interrelated developments in the physical sciences, and their relationship with the wider world, across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
  • provide an overview of the various practical and rhetorical methods used to develop disciplinary identity
  • engage students critically with the concepts of “pure” and “applied” science, and their relationship to scientists’ need to canvass support from non-scientific audiences
  • enhance students’ research and essay-writing skills, and provide suitable grounding for dissertation research into the history of the physical sciences.

Learning outcomes





As this is a team-taught course drawing on staff research interests, the exact content will vary. However, it will typically include the following:

  • Tools of professionalisation: journals, societies, institutions and methods
  • The chemist as consultant
  • Research schools
  • Laboratory discipline and the universities
  • Scientific institutions and science reform campaigns
  • From “natural philosophy” to “physics”
  • Standards, measurement, accuracy and precision
  • Defining the status of science: “pure”, “fundamental” and “applied”
  • Big Science and the military-industrial-academic complex
  • Two Cultures
  • Physics dethroned? Technoscience, convergence and the rise of bioinformatics
  • Images of the scientist in non-scientific culture

Teaching and learning methods

Contact time is devoted to small-group discussion based on assigned readings. Students will regularly be asked to introduce the themes and arguments of readings to the rest of the class, and respond to comments. Some classes may also feature short video screenings.

Readings and other support materials are delivered via Blackboard, which is also used for essay upload. Students are encouraged to raise questions about the course in class or via email, and the group email list is used to continue general discussion on course themes. There may be occasional, informally organised visits to sites discussed on the course.


Knowledge and understanding

describe and analyse the development of the physical sciences, and their relationship with the wider world, in the period 1800-2000

Intellectual skills

  • construct and defend an argument according to the norms of scholarly historical research
  • critically examine the techniques used to build a coherent scientific discipline, and the rhetorical devices used to support particular developments or definitions

Practical skills

  • contribute to group discussion
  • read, summarise and critically examine source texts, and present findings orally in a group setting
  • conduct independent research on primary and secondary historical sources
  • clearly present an argument in essay form using appropriate source documentation

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • critically and comparatively appraise source texts
  • give an oral presentation examining a source text, and respond to questions or comments from others
  • contribute to group discussion
  • engage members of scientific and non-scientific communities in discussions about the development and status of scientific disciplines

Employability skills

Analytical skills
Discussions during seminars and the essay writing require use of concepts and analysis to develop arguments.
Group/team working
Depending on the reading, students might be asked to contribute to group discussion.
Students are trained to develop own arguments and express views on set readings.
Project management
With the consultation of their unit coordinator, students research and write their essay projects independently.
Oral communication
Each seminar is reading-based discussion, students are asked to read and communicate their understanding of the texts.
Students need to complete two essays based on independent research in HSTM.
Written communication
Students write two essays for this unit.

Assessment methods

Assessment tasks:

Essay 1 - 3000 words in length - 50% weighting within the unit

Essay 2 - 3000 words in length - 50% weighting within the unit

Feedback methods

The seminar discussion format of the course gives all students regular opportunities to discuss their ideas with teaching staff. Staff are also available to discuss essay proposals and general course performance by appointment, on a one-to-one basis. All coursework is double-marked, and essay scripts are returned to the students with both sets of markers’ comments.

Recommended reading

  • Thomas J Misa, Leonardo to the Internet: technology and culture from the Renaissance to the present. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2004, chapter 3 onwards.
  • Ben Marsden and Crosbie Smith, Engineering Empires: a cultural history of technology in nineteenth-century Britain. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2005.
  • Jon Agar, Science in the 20th Century and Beyond. London: Polity 2013.
  • David Edgerton, Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2006.

Study hours

Independent study hours
Independent study 300

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Vladimir Jankovic Unit coordinator

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