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On the Beeb: Lisa Jardine on Jacob Bronowski December 12, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Update. Apparently the film is now available for a further week, through the 23rd

One position I hold on this blog is that historians need to worry less about their engagement with the realm of public ideas.  The main reason I hold this position is that I think there is a tendency — albeit by no means a necessary one — to measure the quality of professional work in term of what qualities it possesses that public ideas lack, rather than against its own internal standards.  Another important reason, though, is that I am generally satisfied with the quality of public presentation of science and its history.  Yes, there is much that is of low quality, but nothing I or my colleagues say is going to change that.  In fact, though, here in the UK, rather good history of science seems to be in the media perhaps even more often than the subject actually warrants!

Lisa Jardine, notably, seems to be a very public figure, and, in general, I am a fan.  (I thought this column for bbc.co.uk, wherein she argues that history “reminds us” that real people can get hurt by things, contrary to what budget-cutting politicians may think, was a particularly superficial case for the relevance of history.)  My new fun fact learned this past week is that Jardine is the daughter of Jacob Bronowski.  Bronowski was a mathematician who is best known for popular television programs on science, most notably The Ascent of Man.  She has just made a film about him for the BBC entitled My Father, The Bomb, and Me, which is available online here — but only until December 16th, so hurry!  (I’m not sure if it’s available outside the UK.)  The video below is a hopefully more permanent clip of Bronowski, which I will discuss in conjunction with Jardine’s film after the jump.


The Dart of Harkness April 5, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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Having finished up Deborah Harkness’ The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution, I must say that I am wowed—it’s really a superb book that should be read by anyone working in the history of science, any period or location.

The thing that really makes this book work so well is its economical pacing and the presence of the author throughout.  The subject matter—the knowledge economy of Elizabethan London as it pertains to the natural sciences—is necessarily diffuse.  There are a few big names who enter and leave the story, but for the most part one is dealing with a wide pastiche of authors, medical practitioners, and so forth.  The object is to characterize what these people did, how their communities worked, and how these communities intertwined.  This is what Harkness accomplishes very nicely.  Her expertise is constantly on hand to guide readers through the ins and outs of Elizabethan regulatory systems, investment schemes, and, of course, the London market place, and to leave readers with not only an argument, but a usefully organized knowledge about the subject matter.  She conveys her point, produces the pertinent information, and moves on, dwelling on details only so long as to demonstrate how they relate to the larger picture.

Harkness’ economical style allows her to cover a lot of ground.  She starts off with a discussion of the community of naturalists on Lime Street, but then goes on to chart the anatomy of London’s diverse medical market, the instrumentation market and the market for practical and theoretical mathematical education, the development of large-scale projects (mining, exploration, water works, etc., fueled by often suspect knowledge), and the compilation of practical knowledge in manuscript notebooks and printed books.

It’s all very well done, but my favorite bit has to be the discussion of one of Queen Elizabeth’s top administrators, William Cecil, and his efforts to come to grips with various issues relating to maintaining the value of currency, granting (more…)

Primer: Robert Hooke September 17, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Popular history rarely communicates the fullness of scientists’ careers, concentrating instead on key “contributions” as they are often called.  In the case of Robert Hooke (1635-1703), this would be an especially unfortunate approach, because he is an unusually vibrant figure in the “Scientific Revolution” era, a cultural-intellectual force who cannot be easily boiled down to a certain discovery or insight.  The casual observer may be familiar with Hooke’s Law, which states the proportionality of the force of a spring to the distance it is stretched.  Others might know a few other points, such as his authorship of Micrographia (1665), which was essentially a lavishly illustrated work of popular science extolling the importance of the activities of the then-new Royal Society of London, focusing on his own observations using a microscope he designed (above).  Recently, the literature seems to be encapsulating his diverse skills and interests by packaging him as a Leonardo da Vinci-type character.

Hooke initially gained a strong reputation as a designer of machinery and scientific instruments, and, beginning in 1655, he was employed by the royalist Robert Boyle in Oxford to design air pumps and air pump experiments, while the Cromwellian regime was still in place.  The effects of reduced air in an evacuated chamber in various kinds of experimental set-ups quickly became emblematic of the power of (more…)

The “Elegant” History September 8, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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Back in March, I suggested that some evaluation of the significance of a scientific or learned activity in society, say, in economic terms, would be very useful.  That is, an analysis of “science and technology in history” as opposed to “the history of science and technology”.  Commenter Daniel suggested I was being a little unfair—the connections between science and economic activities has been a frequent theme in the historiography for some time.  I, in turn, explained that I wasn’t talking about connections, I was talking about science as an actual part of an economy.  Nevertheless, Daniel had a good point, and had recommended a number of works, which I promised to check out.  I was especially interested in Harold Cook’s Matters of Exchange, about commerce and science in the early modern Netherlands.  So, I’ve finally picked up this volume and have started in.

I was excited to read this book, because I’ve long had the feeling the early modernists are more advanced than the rest of us in terms of understanding the scope and dynamics of their subject matter; because I know virtually nothing about Dutch science (except for a bit about Huygens and the fact that Descartes was there for a while); and because I think there are good insights yet to be derived about science as a formalization of practical activities.  Right now I’m about 170 pages in, and I have mixed feelings.  I’m inclined to really like this book, (more…)

Continuity and Discontinuity in class February 19, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in History 174.
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Sorry for the delay in posting–we just had the history of early modern medicine class today. At Harvard the history of medicine and history of science are sort of two separate worlds in the same department, so I had to do a lot of research to figure out what I was going to say today. Anyway, I enjoyed putting the lecture together and the students seemed to like it, too. In a nutshell, it was about the shift from the medical tradition corresponding to Galenic theory to anatomical-mechanistic views of medicine. The students are asking good questions–one student actually asked about a point I thought about including in the lecture but didn’t (if disease was seen as personal, what did they make of obvious contagions like plague?–Thank you Cambridge History of Medicine for preparing me for that one!); and, in response to my end of lecture homily about Robert Hooke’s self-experimentation with physic, another asked about the continuities with the Galenic tradition. I promised a blog post on it, and I think it’s worth reposting in full here, even though, again, it’s long and all pretty standard for the professionals.

Reposted from the History 174 class blog:

I want to take a look at a larger “historiographical” issue present in the last lecture on mapmaking and navigation and today’s lecture on medicine. By “historiography” I mean the art of writing history. One really big issue in historiography is whether to emphasize continuity or discontunity–is history (particularly the history of ideas) populated by gradual transitions from one way of thinking to another, or is it marked by sudden breaks? There is a traditional notion that in the 1600s we have what we call the “scientific revolution”–a sudden break with past philosophy and superstition marked by a turn toward experimental method and new theories. Some scholars have argued that the “scientific revolution” didn’t exist for various reasons. Some wish to emphasize the persistence of older methods and ways of thinking (the fact that Newton was into alchemy tends to get trotted out here). Feminist scholars point out that for women the scientific revolution might not only not have been a significant event, but may have been harmful (the turn from midwifery to authorized medicine, for example; or the growth of the prestige of science as validating a secondary position for women in society through theories in the social sciences, etc.)

I think it’s pretty clear that for practical historical purposes the scientific revolution existed, primarily because it was a self-conscious event. A socially significant group of people started turning to icons like Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes, and held them up as heading toward a new way of understanding the world, and, “inspired, they went out and performed wondrous deeds” (anyone ever seen 24 Hour Party People?–great movie; that’s a reference to the film’s narrator’s description of the musical reaction to the Sex Pistols’ first Manchester concert). Anyway, the participants in the scientific revolution saw themselves as revolutionary; and, as we will see with the French Enlightenment of the 1700s, the idea that modern science represented a clean break with the past had political implications.

Yet, I want to be sure and emphasize the continuities as well. Where Ptolemy’s Almagest was overturned by Copernicus and Kepler, his Geography set the pace for all later geography. There would be massive refinement of technique, but no sudden breaks in principles. Similarly, the turn from the Galenic theory of medicine to a mechanistic, anatomical model did not represent a clean break. Robert Hooke’s self-experimentation with physic and his careful recording of the results was clearly representative of the new experimental tradition, but the idea of promoting therapeutic flows of sweat, vomit, etc. through physic (and diet, environment, etc.) was still well-entrenched. Similarly, the example of Vesalius’ representing the vagina as an inverted penis in accordance with Galenic doctrine also shows how important entrenched ideas were in interpreting actual observations, such as those obtained through dissection. You see what you are trained to see (Descartes made the key philosophical critique of sensory knowledge, not that that necessarily made observation any more independent of ideas).

I chose this last example, incidentally, because it’s also a staple of feminist history of science, which I’m not integrating into the course as much as I might. You can find the argument in either Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex on the production of ideas about sex vs. gender, or in Londa Schiebinger’s (superior) The Mind Has No Sex? My go-to source for this lecture is the Cambridge History of Medicine edited by eminence gris historian Roy Porter, but Lisa Jardine’s wonderfully insightful Ingenious Pursuits on the scientific culture of the latter half of the 1600s also played a big role (as it did in the previous lecture).

On the idea of scientific revolution, by the way, the classic reference is Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which gives us the term “paradigm shift” which is applied to the alteration of entrenched interpretations of observation (e.g., the shift from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican world view). He claimed that science proceeds along a “normal” course until its underlying ideas are totally overturned. It has more to do with ideas and less to do with the establishment of new institutional programs (which I tend to emphasize). It is still influential among novice historians (and Al Gore), although most professionals have acknowledged its insights and moved on.

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.