When it comes to knowledge about the scientific pasts that might have been – the so-called ‘counterfactual’ history of science – historians can either debate its possibility or get on with the job. Taking the latter course means re-engaging with some of the most general questions about science. It can also lead to fresh insights into why particular episodes unfolded as they did and not otherwise. Drawing on recent research into the controversy over Mendelism in the early twentieth century, this address reports and reflects on a novel teaching experiment conducted in order to find out what biology and its students might be like now had the controversy gone differently. The results suggest a number of new options: for the collection of evidence about the counterfactual scientific past, for the development of collaborations between historians of science and science educators, for the cultivation of more productive relationships between scientists and their forebears, and for heightened self-awareness about the curiously counterfactual business of being historical.
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