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“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.

Visit History of Science: Antiquity to 1700 (The Great Courses) to read more...


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