This course explores the history of science through the people, places and ideas of three topics that are important now. The first topic is responses to infectious disease, from the identification of 'germs', through the anti-biotic revolution, to the current global problems of infections such as Ebola and HIV. The second topic is energy and climate, which we explore from the early days of steam, to the nuclear age and to current concerns about the environment. The third topic is computers, from their origins, to the information superhighway, to the role of computers in tackling global problems such as disease and climate change. The course is run by experts from the Centre for the History of Science, Technology & Medicine at the University of Manchester.
There have been many ideas and beliefs about the causes of disease. Some societies have considered evil spirits to cause disease, or seen poor health as a punishment from a god. Others have argued that poor health arises from an internal imbalance, or from external factors such as 'bad air'. The idea of disease as caused by 'germs', minute living particles that invade our bodies, brought about far-reaching changes in our understanding of how diseases spread, and how they can be treated.
Before World War II, a bacterial infection could easily be lethal. Diseases caused by bacteria, such as tuberculosis, were the greatest killers of the Victorian age. But even a simple cut, a wound, or any invasive treatment could prove fatal if it allowed an infection to take hold. The great potency of penicillin and other 'antibiotics' made them the 'wonder-drugs' for the post-war generation. Not only did deaths from infection become rarer, antibiotics also enabled surgeons to undertake interventions they could have only dreamt about without these. But antibiotics found uses not only in medicine, they were widely applied in farming. Less than a century on, these drugs are losing their power, and new concerns are raised about what a world without antibiotics might look like.
With international travel and migration carrying diseases around the globe, infectious disease remains a problem for us all. Viruses such as HIV continue to challenge scientists, policy-makers and the pharmaceutical industry, and bacterial infections in the poorer regions are still a significant cause of death, placing a further demand on stretched resources.
JAN 25 - THE POWER OF STEAM
The steam engine is the icon of the industrial revolution. Britain's natural resources of coal and water were fed into elegant, awe-inspiring and often ferociously noisy machines that pumped out mines, drove looms, and powered trains, transforming our work, landscapes and way of life.Steam is a story of aristocratic entrepreneurs, evolving ideas about physics, and a conviction about a new type of society based on a new economics of manufacture. For the ordinary working people, however, the impact was often neither happy, healthy nor welcome.
FEB 1 - THE NUCLEAR AGE
Ideas about nuclear power have their roots in the speculations and experiments of a century ago.
With the urgency and resources of World War II, the 'atomic bombs' showed both the astonishing
power of the nucleus, and its devastating effects. Many claims were made after the War for the
potential of nuclear power, not least in providing electricity 'too cheap to meter', but few of these
promises have been realised. With nuclear power once again being hailed as a solution to the
energy crisis, we face a new era of controversy about the power of the nucleus.
FEB 8 - ENERGY AND THE ENVIRONMENT
Our industrial and technological lifestyle brings its rewards, but it also comes at a price to the
environment. Pollution, poisons and gases that alter our atmosphere have been silently building
up problems that now seem real and immediate. Concern for the environment, once the province
of activist groups, is now a matter of policy – but one that stands uneasily, on a global platform,
between the aims of economic growth and the hope for a healthy planet.
FEB 22 - INVENTING COMPUTERS
The origins of computers lie partly in the steam age: nineteenth-century visions describe 'engines' to
do arithmetic and logical decision-making quickly and automatically, replacing human effort. The
electronic computers of the mid-twentieth century were mostly promoted as useful number-crunching
tools for science and business, but quickly gained more negative associations – as all-powerful
'electronic brains', agents of government surveillance, and harbingers of mass unemployment. As
the technology became cheaper and more convenient, however, its defenders found new ways to
promote it as something which ordinary people could use, control, and even enjoy.
FEB 29 - COMPUTERS, INFORMATION AND NETWORKS
Computers now work not only with numbers, but also with words and pictures that everyone can
use and understand. The storage capacity of the internet, and its accessibility to both writers and
readers, has created, in a very few years, a body of information that is unprecedented in human
history. We can use this information in many ways, for learning, shopping and leisure, but it can
also be used in ways we can not readily see, including mass surveillance. It also exacerbates the
inequalities in the world, as poorer nations and regions, and less information-literate communities,
are distanced from the possibilities this technology brings.
MAR 7 - COMPUTERS AND GLOBAL PROBLEMS
For scientists and policy-makers, computers offer unprecendented possibilities of forecasting and
surveillance. They can ask challenging questions about the outcomes on a global scale of small
changes – in the natural and social worlds - that previously were only dealt with by speculation.
Scientists can now monitor the climate, and tell us, for example, how a small change in our
behaviour now could transform the planet in the future. Thus computers play an important but also
controversial role in our planning for the global challenges of food, water, health and climate.
MAR 14 - WHERE IS SCIENCE HEADED?
The 20th century is seen as a century of profound change. So now, in the 21st, how do we live in
this new world? We invite your views on the place of science now, and where it should be headed.