Cosmos: A History of Modern Astronomy
Once again this fall I am offering a series of free public lectures for the The Wagner Free Institute of Science. This time I have selected six different themes from the history of modern astronomy (i.e., astronomy since 1600): the telescope, nebulae, planetary discovery, time and commerce, the Great Debate, and extraterrestrials. For more information, see The Wagner’s adult education page.
I joined some excellent scholars at February’s DVMA meeting.
The Case of the Missing Byzantine Astrolabes
At February’s DVMA meeting I spoke about Byzantine astrolabes. Or rather, I spoke about the lack of Byzantine astrolabes and wondered aloud about how to account for their absence. Why, in other words, does only one astrolabe (and a part of a second) survive from the Greek empire while hundreds survive from the Islamic and Latin worlds? Spoiler alert: I don’t really know, but I suggested some plausible ideas.
I not only enjoyed airing my thoughts, I benefitted from the audience’s insightful questions and the conversations that followed. Thanks to everybody who participated.
Numbering Our Days in Sixteenth-Century Europe
We’ve long recognized the transformative role that the clock and keeping time played in regulating society. I want to ask about a similar role for calendars. The spread and success of print in the 16th century made yearly calendars increasingly common. In addition to seemingly banal quantified information, e.g., what year it was, these calendars contained an array of more personal, quantified guidelines: when to let blood, when to bathe, or wean a child. What happens when people begin to rely on these calendars to regulate their activities? And what happens when that regulation becomes centralized and standardized?
Historians of Science Watching COSMOS
I joined a roundtable discussion at the History of Science Society’s annual meeting to discuss the challenges and opportunities that last year’s COSMOS presents. Historians of science, often a nitpicky bunch, alternately derided and praised the show. We at the roundtable tried to move beyond mere criticism and think about how we could use COSMOS’s strengths and weaknesses as an opportunity to contribute to a wider discussion about the history of science.
Measuring the World With Second Graders
One sunny Thursday in the fall I taped/glued gnomons (little sticks) to large, inflated exercise balls. I took my model earths to a local grammar school where I met a class of second graders and helped them recreate Eratosthenes’ method for calculating the size of the earth. The previous Thursday I had visited their classes and explained who Eratosthenes was and how he had calculated the circumference of the earth. This week we got to go out and try it ourselves. Divided into small groups, I sent them off with a model earth and a set of instructions (here’s a jpg of the instruction sheet).
On the World Cafe Live stage (April 2014)
Sounds Made Up (True) Tales from the History of Science
Once again I had the chance to work with Secret Pants, a local group of comedians, to put together a show that takes a lighthearted look at episodes from the history of science. This year I will be talking about 17th-century extraterrestrials. Three other historians—returning again are Elly Truitt, and Mike Yudell, and newcomer Audra Wolfe—will pair up with other comedians for a two hours of fun. Sounds Made Up has become one of the most popular parts of the Philadelphia Science Festival. Buy your tickets here and come learn a little about the history of science and have a good laugh at the same time.
A Biography of Humoral Medicine
As part of a mini-course on the history of medicine, I spoke to middle school students about the theory of humoral medicine from antiquity through Benjamin Rush. We talked about what the humors were and how they seemed to be related to certain season, how physicians tried to regulate the humors through diet and activity, how physicians resorted to more interventionist techniques such as purgatives and the ever popular bleeding, and how bleeding patients was perfectly reasonable in this context. The students got a chance to read and wonder at clinical observations from the medieval world. All this was in preparation for a visit to the Mütter Museum.
The Black Death
I had the opportunity to speak to a local 6th-grade about the black death—its purported origin, spread, and guesstimated mortalities. The best part was giving them a chance to hear contemporary accounts about the advent, spread, treatment, and prophylactics measures. I used the occasion to make a short movie illustrating the spread of the plague from 1346 until 1351 (see here). They asked some great questions about how and why it began, how we know, why it spread so quickly, and why it died out.
Byzantium: The Other East
In November I participated in an excellent panel on “Re-Thinking Medieval and Early Modern Science” at the History of Science Society annual meeting. I spoke on Byzantine science, which does not fit neatly into our standard histories of science. To the extent that we recognize any Byzantine science, it is neither properly “east” nor properly “medieval.” Moreover, Byzantine scholars were not particularly innovative, preferring to comment on Plato an Aristotle in archaic Greek. Beyond preserving various classical texts, they contributed little to the development of science. We too readily dismiss Byzantine science because it does not contribute to scientific progress. I suggested that we should take Byzantine science more seriously. If we see the production of scientific knowledge as a culturally meaningful activity, Byzantine science is interesting precisely because its relevance does not derive from technical innovation or scientific progress.
Philadelphia Science Festival: “Sounds Made Up: Tales from the History of Science” (April 2013)
I once again had the opportunity to take part in the Philadelphia Science Festival’s program that pairs local historians of science with local comedian. As with previous shows, we once again had a great time dragging history of science into a new forum and bringing it to a broader audience.
STS in the Liberal Arts
Last April I spoke at and participated in a workshop at Vassar College that explores pedagogical and curricular issues related to teaching science and technology studies at liberal arts colleges. Some of the questions and issues we will be addressing are listed in this post.
The State of Scholarship on Medieval Science
At the DVMA’s 30th Anniversary event last spring at Penn I spoke on trends and developments in the scholarship on medieval science.
Astrology, Kingship, and Scientific Advisors in Fifteenth-Century Hungary
In December I spoke to a great audience of former scientists, academics, and interested people at The Quadrangle, a local senior community. Using astrology in Renaissance Hungary as an example, I outlined how Matthias Corvinus, the Hungarian King, used his patronage of astrology and astrologers as a mechanism for asserting his authority and shoring up his right to rule. In this we see, I argued, an early example of a prince publicly relying on scientific advisors to accomplish his political and dynastic goals.
Maximilian I—The Last Medieval Knight, Then and Now (September 2012)
In September I spoke at the Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group as part of a panel that explores medievalisms in scholarship and popular culture. I want to show how and why Emperor Maximilian I is considered simultaneously the last medieval knight and the first renaissance man. In particular, I will link these seemingly contradictory identities to nationalist myths and traditional historiographies. For more on this conference, see 2012 Meeting
History of Museums—Wagner Free Institute of Science
On 9 May I am spoke at the Wagner Free Institute of Science to a class from Drexel University on the history of museums and collecting. The Wagner is a great place to talk about museums, collections, and display (and the gerunds: collecting and displaying). It celebrates itself as a museum of a museum. It’s main gallery is still laid out much as Joseph Leidy arranged it in the late 19th century. See Speaking at the Wagner for thoughts from the event.
“Life, Sex, Death and Food: A Historical Look at the Science That Drives Us”
On 26 April 2012 I spoke at the Philadelphia Science Festival. Once again, historians of science were paired with comedians from the Philadelphia Improv Theater to explore in a humorous and serious way episodes from past science. I spoke about a woman who in 1569 gave birth to a cat. For more information and tickets, see here.
“Politics as Astrological Expertise in Renaissance Hungary”
On 23 March 2012 I will speak at the Renaissance Society of America annual conference on how politics shaped scientific knowledge in Renaissance Hungary. By examining how and why the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus enlisted scientific authority, we can see how the exercise of political authority establishes scientific authority and, in turn, how scientific authority is used to legitimate political authority.
“Empiricism, Prediction, and Instruments: The Creation of Expertise in 14th-Century Constantinople”
On 19 March 2012 I spoke at Penn on technical expertise in Byzantine politics. This presentation examines how Nikephoros Gregoras constructed his technical expertise and how he defended it against competing claims to expert knowledge.
“What is an Astrolabe and How is it used?”
On 27 February 2012 I spoke to 4th graders at Friends’ Central School on astrolabes, scientific instruments, and the history of science more broadly. See “Taking the History of Science to ‘Them’” for why I feel this outreach is so important.