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Ingenious Pursuits February 11, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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I’m preparing my lecture on “Navigation and Exploration” for Thursday, and it’s turned out to be a much more coherent topic in the history of science than I’d initially anticipated. Right now I think I’m going to do a two part lecture, 1) the 1500s; and 2) the latter half of the 1600s. Part I deals with the rise of cartography and the use of latitude and longitude, the importance of Ptolemy’s Geography (which I didn’t previously realize), and the close connection with astronomy in the field of “cosmography” (which I also didn’t previously realize is important). I’m using John Rennie Short’s 2004 book, Making Space: Revisioning the World, 1475-1600, which covers most of what you’d like to know, although it’s a bit short on the technical details and is more of a tour of different kinds of maps and atlases. Still, it’s useful.

For Part II, I’m talking about the competition for precision; so clocks, detailed observatory studies and the like. I’m using Lisa Jardine’s Ingenious Pursuits. Ken Alder assigned this book for my undergrad Intro to the History of Science course. I’m not assigning it, because I think the more you take into the book, the better it is, and my students are not taking much into the course. I remember not getting much out of it at the time. Now, however, I find it very interesting from a historiographical point of view. Basically, as a tour of a scientific culture, I really, really like this book. It very nicely shows how practical problems and theoretical concerns were totally intertwined in Royal Society culture. But the book is totally unstructured, and hard to follow unless you pay close attention and have some familiarity with the structure of 17th century society. But, just within the first several pages, you can see how the work of the Ordnance Office, the foundation of the Royal Observatory, and the writing of Newton’s Principia are all very closely related. By weaving these things so tightly together, it helps the reader get into the heads of the participants, and, if you pay attention, how they each had different concerns–the scholarly astronomer Flamsteed versus the worldly astronomer Halley for instance.

You sort of get the same picture out of a book like Smith and Wise’s Energy and Empire, on William Thompson, who is an equally multidimensional figure as the early Royal Society fellows. But that book tends to segregate its characters’ intertwined concerns, even as it emphasizes the importance of that intertwining. As a means of historiographical presentation, the differences of approach are worth thinking about.



1. Will Thomas - February 11, 2008

Incidentally, in one of my own areas, 20th century operations research, economics, and mathematics, Judy Klein has a book coming out, which I’ve seen parts of, called Protocols of War. It will show a similar picture of the intertwining of practical method and high theory, from yet another perspective. It should be very good, though I suspect it will be largely overlooked when it comes out.

2. Gustav - December 9, 2008

This intertwining of practice and theory, or scientists and technology/industry pops up in many places once you start looking for it.

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