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With relevance to the history of science and mathematics, "history" seems like it can be much more recent than for general history classes. For example, the first isolation of graphene by the scotch tape method was in 2004. They won a Nobel Prize for this in 2010. While this is surprisingly recent, the study of nanomaterials (which is unarguably science and/or engineering) is so rapid, questions about what happened then are miles apart from questions about what is happening in the field now. Can a question about something that recent be considered history?

Examples:

If making graphene was as easy as removing layers with scotch tape and it's structure was postulated for years, why was it so difficult to discover? (a question I had already posted as I was wondering this)

When was the first patent on mass production of graphene published?

Should alpha or beta graphite be used to extract graphene by the scotch tape method? (I would argue this is off topic as it asks about the science, not how it was done.)

Proposal: History of Science And Mathematics

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  • 1
    A very necessary question, but I'm not sure how to answer it yet. I think it's as much about the nature of the question as it is about the time period. I agree with your two examples. – Jack M Apr 7 '14 at 8:07
  • This is now also a conversation on HSM meta. – HDE 226868 Nov 25 '14 at 21:39
7

Science idealistically always aspires to be up to date and thus it does not need to care about its history. Or with other words: Science cares about how our current view of the world is and how it is backed up¹, but not about how it came to be. Relatedly, the existing scientific Stack Exchanges mainly have questions about our current state of knowledge² or in the case of Academia about the current state of the scientific community.

In contrast to knowledge, society – the main subject of regular history – cares a lot about its own past. Hence it makes some sense that recentness is not the same to history of science than to history of society a.k.a. history.

Thus I would define history for our purposes as everything that is not about the current state of knowledge (or the scientific community) but about how it evolved or how it was. As another criterion, the best answer should only be able to change due to new insights on past events and should not even be conceivable to change due to new insights on how reality works (i.e., scientific progress).

To give an additional criterion for questions like (heavily exaggerating)

How did the theory of X change during the last week?

one could require that there should be some reason to assume a relevant change of the state of knowledge in the respective time frame. However, I do not expect such questions to pose a big problem and I think that they wouldn’t be asked like this in the first place, if there were no such reason.

Some examples:

  • Why do we assume X?

    is off-topic;

    When and why was X first assumed?

    is on-topic. However, for the latter, X should not be such an entirely brand new concept that there is no doubt that the answers to both questions are the same. In a rapidly evolving field, a few years might suffice for this, though.

  • What is the prevalent theory for X?

    is off-topic;

    What was the prevalent theory for X, Y years ago?

    is on-topic. Again, there should be a reason to assume that there was a significant change in the last Y years.

  • Making graphene was as easy as removing layers with scotch tape and it's structure was postulated for years, why was it so difficult to discover?

    is clearly on-topic by the above definition as it is about the past state of knowledge.

  • When was the first patent on mass production of graphene published?

    is on-topic as it is not asking for the currently existing patents. (However, it might not be that interesting a question.)

  • Should alpha or beta graphite be used to extract graphene by the scotch tape method?

    is clearly off-topic as it is about the current state of knowledge. Also it is conceivable³ that new discoveries reveal that the respective other type of graphite is best.


¹ and of course how it can be improved
² unless they are specifically about history and thus are what we want to adopt with this proposal
³ at least from my very limited understanding of this topic

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  • This agrees with my understanding and should be the policy when we move to beta to determine what is on topic. – kaine Apr 17 '14 at 13:51
  • This crystallizes what I wanted to say put couldn't put into words. – Jack M Apr 19 '14 at 21:21

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