TITLE: How Science -- and Computing -- Are Changing History AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 13, 2012 12:02 PM DESC: ----- BODY: While reading a recent Harvard Magazine article about Eric Mazur's peer instruction technique in physics teaching, I ran across a link to an older paper that fascinated me even more! Who Killed the Men of England? tells several stories of research at the intersection of history, archaeology, genomics, evolution, demography, and simulation, such as the conquest of Roman England by the Anglo Saxons.
Not only in this instance, but across entire fields of inquiry, the traditional boundaries between history and prehistory have been melting away as the study of the human past based on the written record increasingly incorporates the material record of the natural and physical sciences. Recognizing this shift, and seeking to establish fruitful collaborations, a group of Harvard and MIT scholars have begun working together as part of a new initiative for the study of the human past. Organized by [professor of medieval history Michael] McCormick, who studies the fall of the Roman empire, the aim is to bring together researchers from the physical, life, and computer sciences and the humanities to explore the kinds of new data that will advance our understanding of human history. ... The study of the human past, in other words, has entered a new phase in which science has begun to tell stories that were once the sole domain of humanists.
I love history as much as computing and was mesmerized by these stories of how scientists reading the "material record" of the world are adding to our knowledge of the human past. However, this is more than simply a one-way path of information flowing from scientists to humanists. The scientific data and models themselves are underconstrained. The historians, cultural anthropologists, and demographers are able to provide context to the data and models and so extract even more meaning from them. This is a true collaboration. Very cool. The rise of science is erasing boundaries between the disciplines that we all studied in school. Scholars are able to define new disciplines, such as "the study of the human past", mentioned in the passage above. These disciplines are organized with a greater focus on what is being studied than on how we are studying it. We are also blurring the line between history and pre-history. It used to be that history required a written record, but that is no longer a hard limit. Science can read nature's record. Computer scientists can build models using genomic data and migration data that suggest possible paths of change when the written and scientific record are incomplete. These ideas become part of the raw material that humanists use to construct a coherent story of the past. This change in how we are able to study the world highlights the importance of a broad education, something I've written about a few times recently [ 1 | 2 | 3 ] and not so recently. This sort of scholarship is best done by people who are good at several things, or at least curious and interested enough in several things to get to know them intimately. As I wrote in Failure and the Liberal Arts, it's important both not to be too narrowly trained and not to be too narrowly "liberally educated". Even at a place like Harvard, this can leave scholars in a quandary:
McCormick is fired with enthusiasm for the future of his discipline. "It is exciting. I jump up every morning. But it is also challenging. Division and department boundaries are real. Even with a generally supportive attitude, it is difficult [to raise funds, to admit students who are excellent in more than one discipline, and so on]. ..."
So I will continue to tell computer science students to take courses from all over the university, not just from CS and math. This is one point of influence I have as a professor, advisor, and department head. And I will continue to look for ways to encourage non-CS students to take CS courses and students outside the sciences to study science, including CS. As that paragraph ends:
"... This is a whole new way of studying the past. It is a unique intellectual opportunity and practically all the pieces are in place. This should happen here--it will happen, whether we are part of it or not."
"Here" doesn't have to be Harvard. There is a lot of work to be done. -----