History of Science: Antiquity to 1700

Course No. 1200
Professor Lawrence M. Principe, Ph.D.
Johns Hopkins University
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Course No. 1200
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Course Overview

"All human beings, by nature, desire to know." —Aristotle, The Metaphysics. For well over 2,000 years, much of our fundamental "desire to know" has focused on the area we now call science. In fact, our commitment to science and technology has been so profound that these now stand as probably the most powerful of all influences on human culture.

To truly understand our Western heritage, our contemporary society, and ourselves as individuals, we need to know what science is and how it developed.

  • Who, in fact, were the scientists of the past?
  • What was the true motivation for their work?
  • Is science characterized by lone geniuses, or is it tied to culture and the needs of a particular society?
  • Does science really operate in a linear progression, from discovery to discovery?
  • What does history reveal about the nature of religion and science?
A Complex Evolution Made Clear

In this course, an award-winning professor leads you on an exploration of these issues as he traces this complex evolution of thought and discovery from ancient times to the Scientific Revolution.

Professor Lawrence M. Principe, who is Professor of both Chemistry and the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology at Johns Hopkins University, is a winner of the Templeton Foundation's prestigious award for courses dealing with science and religion. He has also won several teaching awards bestowed by Johns Hopkins and in 1999 was chosen Maryland Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation.

Dr. Principe gives living order to science's story by considering it in terms of several penetrating questions, two of which are especially important. Who pursued science—and why? What happened—and why?

As he notes, "Science is a dynamic, evolving entity, tightly connected to the needs and commitments of those who pursue it. The real context of even familiar scientific developments will frequently come as a surprise and can suggest alternative ways for present-day thinking and science to develop."

You will see how many scientific discoveries originated from ideas that might be considered ridiculous or humorous from today's perspective of "cutting-edge technology," as science's earliest thinkers worked under the limitations imposed by the knowledge and culture of their times.

But you'll also see that many of these early principles are still relevant and embraced today.

Follow the Transition from "Natural Philosophy" to "Science"

Our notions of "science" and "scientists" date only to the 19th century. Before then, "science" simply meant knowledge; the label of "scientist" did not exist.

Instead, the study of the natural world was known as "natural philosophy." And even the great philosophers Plato and Aristotle are considered two of the most influential figures in the history of science.

Dr. Principe examines scientific thought and activity over nearly four millennia, beginning in the time of the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians.

He restores the vitally important context he believes has been lost from this discussion in recent times.

To cite just two examples:

Johannes Kepler's laws of planetary motion are still taught today. But can we really assume he formulated them primarily to advance an understanding of orbital mechanics? Did his actual reason even involve the urge for scientific discovery, at least as we know it?

Isaac Newton is considered to be the first "modern" scientist. But is this true? Or have we sanitized him by glossing over certain aspects of his personality, such as his obsessions with alchemy and the biblical apocalypse?

Ideas Linked Through Time

With Dr. Principe's guidance, you will see that science is often characterized by ideas that have an enormously long shelf life, linking widely separated eras.

For example, the ancient Greek theory of atomism, though rejected in its own time, survived through the ages to play a central role in prominent theories of the 17th century.

Similarly, a variety of themes reverberates through the history of science. Among those central to this course are:

  • the emphases that civilizations have placed on either theoretical science or practical technology
  • the effect of culture on the questions that science asks
  • the relationship between science and religion.

You may be surprised by what you learn about that last point.

Today, we tend to see science and religion as separate and even antagonistic. But this has not always been the case. For much of the history of science, theology was actually seen not only as compatible with science, but as the principal motivator of scientific inquiry.

From Plato to Descartes; From Babylon to Paris

This course covers a vast historical landscape. In every lecture, you will find yourself thinking about science from a fresh perspective, aided by a wealth of interesting information.

You'll learn about:

The Babylonian base-60 math system, still in use today for telling time (60 minutes in an hour), measuring angles, and performing astronomical computations (60 minutes in a degree).

The thinking of Plato and Aristotle, which served as the foundation for all scientific inquiry until the Scientific Revolution. You'll learn about Plato's concept of the Forms, how he was influenced by mathematics, and his geometry-based account of the creation of the world in the Timaeus, as well as Aristotle's theory of matter and the four causes of all things.

The Hellenistic-era achievements of Hipparchus, Archimedes, Eudoxus, and Ptolemy in such fields as mathematics, mechanics, and astronomy.

The contributions of the Romans, including hydraulics, road and building construction, their marvelously engineered aqueducts, the Julian calendar, and even the first "standardized" school curriculum.

The role of Christianity and Islam in staving off complete disaster for scientific learning. After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the two monotheistic world religions provided the stability to preserve at least part of the natural philosophy of the classical period, including translations of important texts and the creation of vital centers of scientific thought.

The development of the medieval university method of Scholasticism, which based the study of any subject on oral disputation and written commentary and made a vital contribution to the development of the scientific method of inquiry.

Controversies surrounding heliocentrism. You will encounter a fascinating, in-depth discussion of the facts behind the publication of Nicholas Copernicus's De revolutionibus, which proposed that the earth circles the sun, and of the church's subsequent condemnation of Galileo for supporting Copernicus's views.

Seventeenth-century theories of nature, including the revival of ancient atomism by Pierre Gassendi; the "Mechanical Philosophy" of Rene Descartes and Robert Boyle, which proposed that the world is a giant machine functioning like clockwork; and the "Vitalism" of Jan Baptista Van Helmont, who saw the world operating under the direction of active, living forces.

The rise of scientific societies in Italy, London, and Paris, creating a public focus for the fostering of scientific collaboration.

"We need to understand scientific study and discovery in historical context," notes Dr. Principe. "Theological, philosophical, social, political, and economic factors deeply impact the development and shape of science."

This course provides a comprehensive survey of that process in action. Its 36 lectures can change not only the perspective with which you look at science's past, but the way you understand its present, as well.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Beginning the Journey
    This introductory lecture asks fundamental questions about the nature of science and its development, its importance to human civilization, and the reasons for studying its history. This lecture also introduces themes that will recur throughout the course and provides an overview of the epochs and subjects to be covered. x
  • 2
    Babylonians, Egyptians, and Greeks
    This lecture explores the origins of man's study of the natural world. The Babylonians, with their complex mathematics and astronomical observations, and the Egyptians are considered first. We proceed to the earliest Greek thinkers and consider their first "scientific" theories about the natural world and how these were distinct from earlier ways of envisioning and conceptualizing the world. x
  • 3
    The Presocratics
    Several Greek philosophers before the time of Socrates (d. 399 B.C.) grappled with issues that laid the foundations of Western natural philosophical thought and method: What is the world made of? Where did things come from? Do our senses show us reality? We study their explanations for the physical changes around us, their ideas on the origin and end of the world, and the new concept of atoms. We consider how the influence of Presocratic ideas has resounded in Western thought ever since. x
  • 4
    Plato and the Pythagoreans
    Plato, a student of Socrates, was one of the most influential thinkers in history. This lecture recounts his responses to Presocratics and his contemporaries. Key to understanding Plato and his scientific impact is his view of reality and how it affects the value he places on observation, the nature of true knowledge about the world, and how that knowledge is to be acquired. The influence of the secretive Pythagoreans is important both directly on Plato and through him, to the relationship between mathematics and the study of the natural world. x
  • 5
    Plato's Cosmos
    This lecture begins with a study of Plato's Timaeus; he describes the cosmos and its creation, its fundamental building blocks, human anatomy, and other scientific topics. Plato's interests are not only natural philosophy but also ethical and social. Partly on account of Timaeus, the pagan Plato found acceptance among Christians, Muslims, and Jews and was, thus, enormously influential in a range of areas. x
  • 6
    Aristotle's View of the Natural World
    Like his teacher Plato, Aristotle had tremendous impact on the development of natural philosophy. This lecture introduces Aristotle, his writings, and his ideas as a response to his predecessors, the Presocratics and Plato. We focus on Aristotle's views on the value of observation, the nature of change, the composition of matter, and what constitutes real knowledge. The characterization of Aristotle as a "biologist" helps to make sense of his worldview, contrasted with the modern worldview based instead on physics. x
  • 7
    Aristotelian Cosmology and Physics
    This lecture looks at Aristotle's impact and activity in cosmology, physics, and dynamics, bearing in mind his key interest in biology as a means of explaining his intentions. We explore the structure of Aristotle's cosmos, show how this relates to his physics of motion. We conclude by demonstrating Aristotle's system to explain everyday observations. x
  • 8
    Hellenistic Natural Philosophy
    Like Plato, Aristotle founded a school, the Lyceum, in Athens that perpetuated his work and ideas. This lecture also surveys the wider world of Hellenistic science that developed in the expanded Greek world created by Aristotle's student Alexander the Great. Emphasis is paid to Alexandria, with its great library and museum, and to the work and legends of Archimedes. x
  • 9
    Greek Astronomy from Eudoxus to Ptolemy
    This lecture examines the development of systems of astronomy, from Eudoxus and other followers of Plato to the one proposed by Claudius Ptolemy in Alexandria during the 2nd century A.D. We examine how and why these systems were devised and used. The differences in goals and claims between classical and modern astronomy are highlighted. x
  • 10
    The Roman Contributions
    The Romans produced a staggering civilization that was very different from the Greeks. In this lecture, we explore the differences in their scientific work. The Romans' most notable achievements were in technological advancements rather than the more speculative sciences of the Greek world. We explore the intellectual status of technology as well as how the pursuit of science responds to the needs and temper of a society rather than developing according to a notion of "progress." We examine several case studies of Roman engineering and technology. x
  • 11
    Roman Versions of Greek Science and Education
    A more formal system of education was one development of the Roman world, and that system set the standards for the next 1,500 years. A related development was the spread of Greek science for Roman readers, such as Lucretius's verse recapitulation of Epicurean atomism, On the Nature of Things. The initiation of the "encyclopedia" tradition is also part of the Roman contribution, such as Pliny the Elder's massive Natural History. x
  • 12
    The End of the Classical World
    After a long period of decline, the city of Rome fell to barbarians in A.D. 476. This lecture visits that time and immediately after to see what scientific and philosophical thought was saved from the wreck of classical civilization—how, why, and by whom. The rise of Christianity is key at this point. We address why the Middle Ages inherited only what it did from the Classical world. This topic asserts consideration of the cultural factors on which the continuance of science and technology depends. x
  • 13
    Early Christianity and Science
    The Christian Church developed within pagan Classical culture and had to come to terms with its intellectual legacy. This lecture examines the debates over what Christians should accept from pagan learning, particularly in science. What natural philosophy did Christians and Christianity require? Special attention is given to the arguments and proposals offered by St. Augustine of Hippo. x
  • 14
    The Rise of Islam and Islamic Science
    The origin of Islam in the early 7th century and its rapid spread across Asia, Africa, and into Latin Europe gave rise to a vibrant civilization that eagerly adopted and extended Greek natural philosophical and other thought. This lecture outlines the rise of Islam, why Greek science was valued by early Muslims, and the institutional and social features that encouraged the translation of Greek texts into Arabic. x
  • 15
    Islamic Astronomy, Mathematics, and Optics
    Scholars in the Islamic world built extensively on the scientific foundations they adopted from the Greeks. This lecture examines some of the developments in the mathematical sciences and notes how these sciences were integrated into Muslim society. Various theories of vision are examined, and some contributions of medieval Muslim scholars still visible in modern science are also noted. x
  • 16
    Alchemy, Medicine, and Late Islamic Culture
    Islamic contributions to the Hellenistic study of chemia not only created the word alchemy but also laid the foundations for the development of chemistry. Islamic medical discoveries and writings were significant and proved influential in later periods. We look at the natural philosophical and intellectual components of two groups of Arabic thinkers, the falasifa and the mutakallimun. We examine the reasons given by scholars for the decline of Islamic intellectual pre-eminence in the 13th century. x
  • 17
    The Latin West Reawakens
    Despite sporadic attempts to reignite Latin culture during the early Middle Ages, only in the 12th century did sustained development appear. We look at the "Renaissance of the 12th Century" and the great Latin translation movement, when Latin European scholars eagerly plumbed the intellectual wealth of the Islamic world. x
  • 18
    Natural Philosophy at School and University
    In the history of science, the settings of scientific studies and the institutions that sponsored them are of great interest. We look at the changing nature of such institutions. Noteworthy are the monastic and cathedral schools, the origins of that great medieval institution, the university. We examine universities, what it was like to be a student or professor, and what the place and content of scientific studies were. Who took part in the study of the natural sciences, and why? x
  • 19
    Aristotle and Medieval Scholasticism
    The works of Aristotle were some of the most influential the Latin West reacquired from the Islamic world. Aristotelian investigative methods gave rise to the system of Scholasticism, and university curricula were highly dependent on Aristotle. Yet he was a pagan who held views contrary to Christian doctrine. We look at the fate of Aristotle in the medieval Christian world, and the way his natural philosophy developed within Christian theology. x
  • 20
    The Science of Creation
    The origin of the world has always been a topic for scientific inquiry. This lecture examines some approaches to this question from the Middle Ages. Although the creation by God of the world out of nothing was an undoubted article of faith, medieval natural philosophers strove to understand the natural causes at work in creation and how God organized his creation. In this lecture we examine the fascinating Hexameral literature, commentaries on the first chapters of Genesis, used by medieval thinkers for investigations into natural philosophy. x
  • 21
    Science in the Orders
    The monastic orders were preservers and promoters of natural philosophical (and other) learning since late antiquity. But the major new orders of the Middle Ages—Franciscans and Dominicans—developed new natural philosophical outlooks and programs as part of their theology. This lecture looks at these two orders, their origins, their distinctness, and the scientific work of Roger Bacon among the Franciscans and St. Albert the Great among the Dominicans, and others. x
  • 22
    Medieval Latin Alchemy and Astrology
    Alchemy and astrology, sometimes dismissed as pseudosciences, were seriously pursued by learned scholars in the Middle Ages. Alchemical texts first came to the Latin West from the Islamic world, but by the 13th century, original Latin treatises were being written. Some show important innovations in matter theory and practical processes. Astrology offered the hope of an anchor in an uncertain world, providing warnings of sickness or danger for individuals, as well as states. This lecture surveys the developments in this often-obscure field. x
  • 23
    Medieval Physics and Earth Sciences
    This lecture looks at medieval developments in astronomy and the physics of motion. Examples show how medieval questions could have surprising results; how medieval natural philosophers used and disagreed with Aristotle; and how results of medieval speculation and calculation laid the foundations of the modern science of kinematics. x
  • 24
    The Middle Ages and the Renaissance
    Trying to put labels to historical periods is tricky. But many thinkers from the 15th to the 17th centuries saw themselves as initiating a new period of civilization, including in scientific areas. The Italian Renaissance often claimed to be a clean break from the Middle Ages—a time so demonized that rhetorical extravagances about it are still heard today. This lecture looks at features that characterize the Italian Renaissance (and the subsequent Scientific Revolution) and what they meant in terms of worldview and scientific activity. x
  • 25
    Renaissance Natural Magic
    One aspect of Renaissance natural philosophy was the rise of "natural magic." Its goal was to understand the correspondences and powers God had implanted in the world and to make use of them, but relied on topics in science and technology. This lecture showcases three "magi" of the Renaissance: Agrippa von Nettesheim, the humanist author of a major compendium of magic; Paracelsus, the hot-tempered Swiss medical writer and iconoclast; and John Dee, the English mathematician who asked angels to tell him the secrets of God's creation. x
  • 26
    Copernicus and Calendrical Reform
    The Scientific Revolution is considered to commence with the 1543 publication of Copernicus's On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs, which promoted a Sun-centered rather than Earth-centered cosmos. This lecture looks at the content and reception of Copernicus's ideas, its effects on astronomy and physics, and at a related development, the reform of the calendar under Pope Gregory XIII. x
  • 27
    Renaissance Technology
    The Renaissance is well known for its explosion of artistic styles; less well known is the equal (and related) burgeoning of new technologies. This lecture looks at developments in mining and refining, military engineering, and other areas, and pauses to watch the late 15th-century's "Great Project," the moving of the 360-ton Vatican obelisk to the center of St. Peter's Square. x
  • 28
    Tycho, Kepler, and Galileo
    The years around 1600 saw tremendous changes in astronomy. Tycho Brahe's precision in measuring planetary positions partly fueled Johannes Kepler's astronomical discoveries. Kepler's desire to find the hidden harmonies in the planetary system provided a basis for modern celestial dynamics. About the same time, Galileo turned a new instrument, the telescope, on the heavens and saw amazing things never before seen by man. This lecture examines these characters, their context, their work and their impact. x
  • 29
    The New Physics
    The new views of the cosmic system required a new physics—Galileo knew that what he saw through the telescope signaled the end of the Ptolemaic and Aristotelian systems. We explore Galileo's attempts to create a new physics while emphasizing the new methods, goals, and worldview embodied in his system, and how this brought him into conflict with the church. We look at parallel developments in physics, particularly William Gilbert's work on magnetism and its impact. x
  • 30
    Voyages of Discovery and Natural History
    Throughout the early modern period, voyages of discovery westward to the Americas and eastward to Asia brought back stories of new lands and peoples and samples of strange new minerals, flora, and fauna previously unknown to Europe. This lecture looks at how natural history changed as a result and the new way the natural world began to be viewed. This lecture also describes the natural history method of studying the world—an innovation propounded by Francis Bacon. x
  • 31
    Mechanical Philosophy and Revised Atomism
    A major new concept of 17th-century natural philosophy was mechanical philosophy, an expressly anti-Aristotelian system that envisioned the world as a great machine functioning like a clockwork. Although the mechanical philosophy seemed to provide explanations of natural phenomena, it was not without problems—perhaps most crucially in its theologically unacceptable potential consequences. This lecture explores some versions of the mechanical philosophy in the work of Pierre Gassendi, René Descartes, Robert Boyle, and others. x
  • 32
    Mechanism and Vitalism
    Mechanical ways of thinking about the world were popular in the 17th century, but there were other options and hybrid systems from which to choose. This lecture examines the coexistence of mechanical and vitalistic conceptions in the life sciences and medicine, the persistence of Aristotelian thought, and the ways mechanical philosophy tried to explain the action-at-a-distance phenomena that were often fundamental to rival systems. x
  • 33
    Seventeenth-Century Chemistry
    The 17th century was a confusing time for the study of chemistry. This lecture looks at the continuing search for the secret of transmutation and at the development of a mechanical chemistry, the use of chemistry in medicine, and the enhanced status of the discipline by the end of the century. x
  • 34
    The Force of Isaac Newton
    Isaac Newton may be the most recognizable figure in the history of science. We look at Newton's life, his achievements in physics and astronomy, and his response to the mechanical philosophy in terms of the concept of force. We also deal with his less well-known activities, for the author of "Newtonian physics" spent even more time studying alchemy and biblical prophecies and developing his own (heretical) theology. x
  • 35
    The Rise of Scientific Societies
    Scientific societies originated in Italy in the 17th century and, ever since, have played a major role in the development of science. Two such societies continue to function today: the Royal Society of London and the Parisian Academy of Sciences. This lecture looks at the nature and functioning of scientific societies and the roles they play. x
  • 36
    How Science Develops
    This lecture glances forward to developments to come in the 18th century, such as the reworking of Newtonianism. It also recapitulates and summarizes themes and overarching trends covered in the preceding lectures, and contrasts contemporary views of science with the views revealed by our study during this course. x

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Your professor

Lawrence M. Principe

About Your Professor

Lawrence M. Principe, Ph.D.
Johns Hopkins University
Dr. Lawrence M. Principe is Drew Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University. Professor Principe earned a B.S. in Chemistry and a B.A. in Liberal Studies from the University of Delaware. He also holds two doctorates: a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from Indiana University, Bloomington, and a Ph.D. in the History of Science from Johns Hopkins University. In 1999, the Carnegie Foundation chose Professor Principe as the...
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History of Science: Antiquity to 1700 is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 43.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Review of Antiquated Physics The course is loaded with good information and details of the evolution of Physics in antiquity. Mostly wrong Physics but teaching the methodologies and world view of the path that took us to modernity.
Date published: 2019-12-29
Rated 1 out of 5 by from This is not really a history of science course, but mostly a defense of the Christian religion. Very disappointing.
Date published: 2019-10-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thought provoking A comprehensive look at where science came from (at least in the western world). It is interesting that art, literature and philosophy will happily recognise and continue to study the legacy from the ancient world but science often rejects the idea that what was previously thought has any merit. This doesn’t just apply to the ancient world, it sometimes feels that anything older than last Tuesday is obsolete. The lecturer does put more weight on the religious/magical aspects of older science because the general information floating around – at primary school for example – emphasises what we consider the scientific/rational aspects and pushes aside anything else. I found it very instructive to learn about the other side of science – where it does intersect with the strongly religious cultures of the times. Well worth the time & thoroughly enjoyable.
Date published: 2018-07-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A great, great course Wow! This course was absolutely wonderful. It is focused on a topic that is not too wide and can therefore drill down quite deeply. On the other hand, the course surveys historical advancement of science over more than three millenia - some of it very interesting. Some of the highlights for me were the treatment of Greek science and Roman science and their basic different approach to the topic - the Romans (as always) being progrmatists and bordering engineering intheir scientific interests, and the Greeks tending much more to the philosophising side of the spectrum. Professor Principe presented the material in a way that felt very unrushed, and provide a lot of important insights on several key points that I found quite surprising: I have heard Professor Gearon’s great course “The Achievement of the Islamic golden age”. After having heard it, I was left with an impression that almost all of the substantial scientific discoveries and development that had been achieved under the Muslim regime were simply lost on the Medieval European civilization and had to be rediscovered. This was a point that I reflected upon during that course and found a bit odd… Professor Principe reviewed both the scientific achievements of the Muslim golden age and that of the medieval European world (among other topics), and showed that in many cases there had in fact been much interaction and that many in the West used what had been learned by the Muslims as their starting point for scientific development. The course was fascinating and provided a lot of insight. It is one of my favorites so far in TGC.
Date published: 2017-11-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This Science and Math Guy Learned a Lot To begin, when I began this course, I thought that I would give myself an “advanced” rating on the topic. After all I studied physics and math from high school on and really thought I knew quite a bit about Western history, especially regarding science. I was both surprised and pleased to find out how much I did not know. That is, astrology, alchemy, and magic. The course humbled me to the "intermediate" prior knowledge rating. I was amazed how much these (disciplines) influenced what came later, as well as being pleased to understand how and why they fit in with the culture and needs of the times. For myself I was on sounder ground during the lectures that made the connections between the early church and science. To be sure Professor Principe’s course on Science and Religion helped with my understanding. As an aside, those reviewers who consider that the lectures are too focused on religion (at least as the Catholic church is considered), have lost the plot. After all, the church was the dominant cultural force during much of this time, as well as being hugely influential in the secular sphere. How then can one ignore the influence that one had on the other? Also, only the lectures pertaining to science and the Christian church seem to have been called out for criticism, while Islam and science and earlier Greek religion and culture and religion are not targeted for criticism. For me, the progression from the Babylonians, Greeks and Egyptians to the time of Isaac Newton, filled in with the various cultural items that changed and influenced for good or ill, the development of science was fascinating (here I digress to note that Professor Principe does not believe that there was a smooth progression). I also liked the discussions of many of the major players and their strengths and weaknesses (at least as we perceive them today). The lecture on Isaac Newton is a prime example, although there were plenty of major players of whom I was ignorant (mostly Arabic). Finally the thought that none of these earlier ‘natural philosophers would meet today’s test of being scientists, is not only correct, but is a concept carried out in TTC course on the history of science during the following 200 years. While I highly recommend this course, those who only want to follow one scientific development after another should give this a miss. It is much more than that.
Date published: 2017-10-10
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing; recommend other TC courses instead! Lawrence Principe undertakes a difficult topic in these lectures - a history of science before science, at least as we now understand it, existed. He begins well enough with an argument for looking more broadly at natural philosophy and follows with a coherent series of lectures covering Greek natural philosophy. However, once past the Greek philosophers, Professor Principe appears to have difficulty defining what is and is not in scope for the course, and meanders between broad historical overviews of intellectual activity and detailed profiles of specific individuals or technologies. While Principe offers plenty of detail during these lectures, he is short on impact (or import): how did a magician such as Paracelsus affect those who came later? Why is understanding hexameral literature useful to the history of science? Did alchemy (the subject of several lectures) have a significant impact on the development of modern chemistry and if it did, in what way? Most inexcusable, in my view, is that as the course nears the scientific revolution, and should arguably gain coherence as more modern viewpoints and methods come to light, the lectures instead grow increasingly fractured and anecdotal. As others have noted, the Newton lecture is particularly poor - after a five minute introduction discussing Newton’s family background and hatred of his stepfather, Principe proceeds to devote more time to Newton’s interest in alchemy and religion than his highly influential Principia. While I appreciate the point that Newton was far from a modern figure, as evidenced by his religious writings and interest in alchemy, surely a History of Science should devote more time to those works that had a huge influence on the development of modern scientific thought, rather than those that did not. Similarly, Principe spends more time on particular practitioners of “natural magic” than he does on Francis Bacon or Descartes. This would be understandable if he made a case that these practitioners had a significant influence on the development of modern science, but he doesn’t even attempt to do this. The failings of this course come into sharper focus when comparing overlapping material with Alan Kors’ treatment in the excellent Teaching Company course, Birth of the Modern Mind. Where Principe leaves you with a jumble of disconnected facts, Kors powerfully develops themes about how and why thinking transitioned from medieval to modern. Despite being a course on general intellectual history (and twelve lectures shorter than this History of Science), Kors finds time to to devote entire lectures to Francis Bacon, Descartes, Kepler, and two to Newton, all the while providing context for how these thinkers both were a product of their times and laying the foundations for the scientific revolution. In a similar vein, I found Thomas Williams’ Teaching Company course Reason & Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages to be a far more coherent overview of the development of, and relationship between, religious and natural philosophy in the medieval period than Principe’s effort here. In short, I think your time would be better spent with other Teaching Company offerings!
Date published: 2017-09-30
Rated 1 out of 5 by from This is an essay on religion This course is a long essay defending the role that religion plays in science, with a strong pro-religion bias. The author states in the introduction that his goal is to prove that science and religion are compatible. He then cherry-picks the fact that he teaches to make this argument. As a result, some chapters are simply absurd. You will learn that Galileo was arrogant and careless, and whatever sentencing he got from the church, he had it coming. You will not learn, at any point in the course, the importance of doubting authorities in the scientific method, and how we got where we are. When the church forbids scholars to hold certain opinions, it has a positive impact science as a whole, according to this professor. Very disappointing, especially considering the high price of this course. It should be renamed as "The history of the relationship between science and religion", it's what the course is about. The title and description do not accurately describe this course.
Date published: 2017-06-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very stimulating The course is what it says on the tin, so the only thing I'd add is that, as some have noted below, this is essentially a history of western science (or natural philosophy as Professor Principe rightly notes) with a bit of the science done in Islamic countries from the 9th to 14th centuries. Nevertheless, there is still a huge amount of information packed into these lectures. As important as all the factual goodies is the approach of professor Principe which is to situate the science done at any one period in its own historical, philosophical, and social contexts. I completely changed my view on astrology; of course now we know its assumptions are unsupported by the results of modern astronomy, but in its own time it was a very reasonable way of trying to understand the universe and actually led to some significant observational and mathematical work. To be honest, ancient astrologers seemed to have a hit rate about as good as modern economic forecasters, astrologers certainly were able to persuade their employers to pay them significant amounts of money for their prognostications (another similarity!) Professor Principe has an engaging speaking manner and is crystal clear. The course book has an excellent bibliography for further reading and is a good adjunct to the course. Overall, if you are interested in learning more about how science and the scientific view developed, this is the course for you.
Date published: 2017-02-22
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  • bvseo_sdk, p_sdk, 3.2.0
  • CLOUD, getContent, 9.42ms

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