Month: June 2013

What Relevance does History (of Science) Have?

A recent exchange raised once again the question: what relevance does the history of science have in broader discussions about science and, I would add, about history, culture, society, etc.?

A recent conversation on Twitter about including historians of science in conversations about science.
A recent conversation on Twitter about including historians of science in conversations about science.

The conclusion seems to be: history of science contributes something to conversations about science communication and public engagement in science.[1] I would like to think there are more compelling reasons to include history of science in broader conversations. Just as I would like to think there are more compelling reasons to study history, the humanities, and liberal arts in general. But, as Tenured Radical has recently pointed out,[2] we too readily assume that the liberal arts are inherently valuable:

The song goes like this: liberal arts BAs are valuable in and of themselves. They don’t need to be justified in concrete, practical terms — and in fact, those of us who work in private education may think it is beneath us to explain why centuries of art, literature and culture are critical to an education. Sound familiar? Well, it’s a losing argument, not because the liberal arts don’t have transcendent value, but because we have been unable to make a case that is compelling enough to stop the loss of full-time jobs, much less get back the positions that have been lost since the 1970s.

These arguments are unconvincing because they fail to make a concrete case for studying the liberal arts. Indeed, they fail to make any case for studying the liberal arts. When we do identify skills studying the liberal arts encourages and develops, such as the ability to reason, analyze and debate, we pick skills that are not unique to the liberal arts. She encourages us to develop a set of arguments grounded in practical, real-world applications (she even suggests a topical course in history of medicine).

I want to ask how would we make real-world, practical arguments about the relevance of history of science. Rather than fall back on the “public engagement” and “science communications” arguments, which are different from history of science.[3] Moreover, both “public engagement” and “science communication” are too readily reduced to tasks that scientists can do and can do after they have done the real work, the science. I would like to think we can make a real case for the history of science as an integral part of doing science, not just communicating the results of having done that science.[4]

UPDATE: I was remiss in not mentioning philosophy of science (particularly since I was trained in a History and Philosophy of Science program): Similar questions could be raised about the relationship between philosophy of science and doing science.


  1. We might usefully interrogate both terms “science communication” and “public engagement.” Too often these seem to be platitudes that, while almost certainly true, are not terribly useful because they are unconvincing to people who don’t already accept them as true. Moreover, they too easily relegate history of science to an intellectual hobby, to be engaged in once the real work has been done.  ↩

  2. While Tenured Radical writes specifically about curricular reform in light of the media frenzy around MOOCs, her real goal seems to be a broader one about making the liberal arts relevant in a compelling way. ↩

  3. Let me stress, “public engagement” and “science communication” are incredibly important issues, and there are people out there expert in those domains. ↩

  4. For example, in a recent Scientific American post, “Science Communication Both an Opportunity and an Obligation,” scientists are encouraged to communicate their results to the broader public that funded their science in order to “report back to them [the public] when we [the scientists] uncover something they should know about.” ↩

Remedies for the Plague, ca. 1569—updated

In the preface to his The Gouernance and preseruation of them that feare the Plage, Jan van der Noot thanks the King and Lord Suffolk. In 1559 England did not have a king. A recipe at the end of his text for the medicine of King Henry prompted me to suggest that he was referring in his preface to King Henry VIII. The Lord Suffolk part was less clear. There is another passage in the text that seems both to reinforce the King Henry VIII connection and makes clear the Lord Suffolk reference. There van der Noot says:

All these premisses haue I my selfe experimented and founde true, in diuers regions and countrees, as in Rome, Italie, Lumbardye, Naples, Poyelles, Calabers, Almanye, Flaunders, and likewise in Englande this .xvij. yeares. I beynge sworne vnto the noble late Frenche Quenes grace my Ladie Mary, and my Lorde of Suffolke his grace.

This passage seems to suggest that he was writing in much earlier in the century. He seems to be referring to Mary Tudor, Queen of France, who later married Charles Brandon, First Duke of Suffolk. He also suggests that he had been in England 17 years by the time he wrote this text.

Yesterday’s post on van der Noot’s The Gouernance and preseruation of them that feare the Plage also included an EPUB3 version of the text. In the hopes of making it more useful, I have added references to authors, texts, and theories van der Noot cites. Next up, notes on the various herbs and recipes in the text.

If you are interested, here is the latest file:
Van der Noot, The Gouernance and preseruation of them that feare the Plage.
(I have not yet converted this into a Kindle version.) Let me know if you have suggestions for how to make this file more useful.

Remedies for the Plague, ca. 1569

In 1559 Jan van der Noot published a pamphlet offering his readers signs to predict an outbreak of plague, a list of causes, bedside techniques for comforting the afflicted, and ways of avoiding and curing the plague: The Gouernance and preseruation of them that feare the Plage. (available from EEBO if you are lucky enough to be at an institution that pays for access).

Jan van der Noot’s The Gouernance and preservation of them that feare the Plage (London, 1569)
Jan van der Noot’s The Gouernance and preservation of them that feare the Plage (London, 1569)

Along with the standard bloodletting and regulating diet, van der Noot encourages his readers to be “mery, glad, & be emong mynstrels Harpes, Lutes, and other melodies, reade fonde and mery stories and songes.”. He also gives them recipes for six different medicines and instructions on when to take them:

¶ The vsyng of these foresaid sixe medecines.
The first day early in the morning shal you take of the Syrop, & after sleape vpon it one houre or twayne.
The second day shall you take a dragma of the Triacle.
The thirde day shall you take a sponeful of Corianders confite.
The fourth day, shall you take the decoction agaynst wormes.
The fift day shall you take a dragma of the Pylles.
The syxt day shall you rest.
The seuenth day shall you take any of these.
And it is very good, for to take ones in a weeke one dragma of these Pilles.
When soeuer you doo take any of these Pilles, that day you shall take none other medecine.

Van der Noot concludes his text with an interesting remedy he attributes to King Henry:

A medecine of Kyng Henry for the Plage or Pestilence.
TAke Marigolds, Sorrel, and Burnet, of euery of them a handful, Rew and Fetherfew of euery of them an other halfe handfull, and of Dragons a quantite of the crop or of the roote, and wash them in running water all cleane, and seeth all them softly in a pot, with a pottell of runninge water, till it come to a quarte of licker, and then set it backe till it be colde, and then strayne it in a fayre linnen cloth, and then drinke it, if you cannot drinke it for bitternesse, put therto Suger Candy. And if this drinke be taken before the markes of God be vpon them, he shalbe whole by the grace of God.

Some quick looking around did not reveal any other remedies attributed to King Henry. Van der Noot does not make it clear which King Henry is the source of this remedy. By the time this pamphlet was published, Queen Eizabeth I was on the throne. In his preface, Van der Noot thanks “the King his highness” and “my Lord Suffolk” for their support. Perhaps van der Noot had come to London during Henry VIII’s reign and simply stayed around.

The van der Noot who wrote this pamphlet is not, apparently, the Dutch poet by the same name who also spent time in London. The author of The Couernance seems to have run afoul of the College of Physicians a couple times for practicing medicine without a license. He was fined the first time and died before a sentence was passed the second time.1

For various reasons, van der Noot’s The Gouernance seemed like a nice chance to see how hard it would be to create an EPUB file. So I put together an EPUB3 file (which should be compatible with any reading system that supports either EPUB2 or EPUB3—let me know if you have problems). I then converted it to a Kindle file (for some reason, some of the styling broke in the conversion, but not so badly that I can be bothered to fix it right now):

Looking forward, I think it would be interesting to add a glossary and perhaps reading notes to this EPUB file (until Kindle begins to support more of the EPUB standard, I can’t be bothered to work too hard on the that version). What would make this file more useful to you?

FOOTNOTES:
1See Bas Jongenelen and Ben Parsons, “Jan van der Noot: A Mistaken Attribution in the Short-Title Catalogue,” Notes & Queries (2006): 247 — PDF available here.

Baroque Sundials in Austria

As recent posts suggest, I spent the last month working in Central Europe. Here are a couple photos of sundials that can be found on many of the buildings in Austria.

At the monastery in Klosterneuburg there is, apparently, a pole-style sundial dating from the mid-fifteenth century. Another sundial from the late sixteenth century adorns the side of a building.

The newer of the sundials at Klosterneuburg dates from the 1570s.
The newer of the sundials at Klosterneuburg dates from the 1570s.

There are sundials all over Vienna. Tourists typically miss the one at the end of Stephans Dom in the center of the city because it is on the back of the cathedral avoided by most people. By contrast, many people do see the sundial and clock on the Hofburg, on the Amalienburg wing. The orb above the clock indicates the phases of the moon. Tour guides in Vienna typically attribute this sundial to Tycho Brahe (I have not bothered to confirm or disconfirm that claim—I merely report it).

According to tour guides, Tycho Brahe designed this sundial on the Hofburg in Vienna.
According to tour guides, Tycho Brahe designed this sundial on the Hofburg in Vienna.