My research concerns the history of modern science in its cultural and political context, with a particular interest in astronomy and space science in the twentieth century. Other work includes the history of universities and international aspects of science.

My leading question is always: what did various stakeholders expect from science, and how did this influence support for scientific projects (political support and funding, but also popular and intellectual support)? And how did this change over time?

Recent projects:

History of the IAU, together with Johannes Andersen and Claus Madsen

Astronomy is often presented as the most international scientific discipline. Who cares about earthly borders when contemplating the great beyond? The embodiment of this ideal is the International Astronomical Union, founded in 1919 to promote international cooperation. In this project, we will investigate how the IAU has tried to fulfil this task throughout the turbulent political and scientific developments of the twentieth century. We will also analyze how the IAU has increasingly focused on outreach and education in recent decades. This can be interpreted as a new take on scientific internationalism.

The project will result in a book, to be presented at the IAU centenary celebrations in 2019. I will also present our findings at IAU and HSS conferences.

History of Dutch astronomy

Ever since the days of J.C. Kapteyn in the late nineteenth century, Dutch scientists and institutions have played a prominent role in astronomy. It is not obvious why this is the case. The geographical circumstances in the Netherlands are highly unfavorable for astronomy (cloudy climate, no mountains). I have tried to answer the question how Dutch astronomy became so successful.

Of course, the presence of talented scientists is important, but I found that the way the astronomical community is organized, the institutional infrastructures and the pedagogical culture (the education of new generations of astronomers) were very important. I have also found that the development of astronomy is shaped to a large extent by the dynamics of large telescope projects: at the scientific level, but also at the level of long-term planning, funding, institutions, and careers.

Astronomy is a science with high cultural visibility. Popular and political support for astronomy in the twentieth century was solid and sustained. A closer look at the relations between astronomy, culture and politics reveals that they are much more complex than they appear at first glance, however. Throughout the twentieth century, the development of astronomy has been influenced by science, education and industrial policy, national prestige, international politics, and national security (think for example of space research during the Cold War). In this project, I analyze these influences and assess their importance.

So far, the project has resulted in a series of scholarly and popular papers (see publications) as well as a monograph: De Ontdekkers van de hemel. An English version is in preparation.

Science and modernity

In my dissertation Synthetisch Denken(Utrecht University, 2008), I analyzed debates about the role of science and technology in modern society in the early twentieth-century Netherlands. The spectacular development of science and technology led to debates about its social and cultural consequences. Didn't it go to fast? Was 'cold', disinterested science a threat to other cultural values? Or could science provide a solution to the problems of modern society? What were the boundaries of the scientific method, and what role could expert advisors play in a democratic society?

These questions are still relevant today; a century ago they were at the core of intellectual debates. They are also at the core of my masterís course Science and the Dilemmas of Modernity.

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Reviews Ontdekkers

Reviews Synthetisch Denken