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The History of Science: Antiquity to 1700 by Lawrence Principe (The Great Courses)


1.       About 18 hours

2.       Recommended if you’re interested in the subject.

3.       Why I chose it: I was hoping to get a better handle on the legacy of Greek thinking on the modern worldview, intellectual inquiry during the Middle Ages, and the Scientific Revolution.

4.       This course has incredible breadth and I feel like I have a much better sense of Greek natural philosophy and natural philosophy during the Middle Ages. Some highlights for me:

a.       The Greeks were the first to seek elegant, law-like explanations of natural phenomena.

b.      I got the impression that Aristotle did some huge proportion of natural philosophy in ancient times, despite the fact that 80% was lost (!).

c.       The Romans didn’t do much natural philosophy.

d.      A substantial portion of ancient, medieval, and early modern learning was funded and encouraged by religious institutions.

“I know of no evidence that the average intelligence of humanity has increased during the past three millennia, in fact it may be the opposite. Aristotle, Ptolemy, St. Thomas Aquinas, Johannes Kepler, and countless others were just as intelligent as anyone alive today.”  (Lecture 1, 21:11) This struck me as a strange statement to make without discussing the Flynn effect.

The course focuses on natural philosophy and technology to a lesser extent, focusing on the Western world. He defines the “western world” as the “immediate heirs to Greek thought,” primarily Europe and the Middle East. The intellectual foundations of natural philosophy in the West and natural science today lie in Greek Thought. (Lecture 1, 27:00)

There’s a lot of debate about the Scientific Revolution—how discontinuous it is, when it started and ended. (Lecture 1, 31:00)

Historians of science usually begin with the Babylonians and the Ancient Egyptians because the Greeks built on their investigations in important ways, and the Greeks laid down the foundations for natural philosophy. (Lecture 2, beginning)

There was a tradition in Greek thought of systematically searching for lawlike (even if hidden) causes of our experiences, including our everyday experience. We see the beginnings of this with Thales in the 6th century BC, and very little of it in the Babylonians and Egyptians. The Babylonians and Egyptians had impressive technology, but didn’t leave such a legacy in the history of natural philosophy. (Lecture 2, end)

Anaximander got rid of the idea of intrinsic up and down in nature, replacing it with an objective “center” that everything is drawn toward. Anaximander says there are three solid rings of fire surrounding the earth. The smallest is 9 earth radii away (stars), the next is 18 away (moon) and the next is 27 away (sun).  He was interesting because he offered naturalistic explanations of these things, and expected them to be explainable in a way that had a sort of mathematical elegance. (Lecture 3, 6:30) These numbers seem interestingly arbitrary.

Only one of the pre-Socratics (Anaxagoras) was in Athens. Most of the action for them was 5th and 6th centuries BC. (Lecture 4, 1:00)

Aristotle wrote 150 books (really closer to lecture notes), but we only have 30 of them. So 80% of his work was lost. (Lecture 6, 2:00)

The Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Middle Ages people knew that the world was spherical, though somehow students are usually taught that Columbus showed us that the world was round amidst great skepticism. (Lecture 7, 5:00)

Strato did experiments and disagreed with Aristotle. E.g., he argued against Aristotle’s view that stuff falls at a constant rate by observing water falling from the top of roofs. At the beginning, it goes in a solid stream, at the end, it gets into drops due to increases in speed. Strato knew that and made this objection. (Lecture 8, 6:00)

Alexander the Great founded over a dozen cities with the name Alexandria. Alexandria was a stronghold for Hellenistic thought and culture. The Library of Alexandria had nearly 500K volumes. It was notable for being state patronage of natural philosophy. (Lecture 8, 13:45)

It is hard to name any significant, specific Roman contribution to natural philosophy, though they did some good stuff with technology. They weren’t very interested in natural philosophy. (Lecture 10, 4:00)

Principe suggests that Romans didn’t look into alternative sources of energy due to abundant slaves, comparing this to our lack of investment in alternative energy sources due to abundant fossil fuels. (Lecture 10, 28:00)

Lucretius was a popularization of Epicurean atomic theory. (Lecture 11, 12:15) Principe doesn’t talk about Lucretius much, which is interesting because, according to the book The Swerve, Lucretius was really important for the Renaissance. The other lectures I listened to on the Renaissance also didn’t discuss Lucretius much, so I’m guessing that the thesis of The Swerve is a very minority opinion.

Pliny complained that the Greeks were accomplishing much more in terms of meteorology than the Romans were. Pliny points out that 20 Greeks put forward thoughts on this during times of great challenge (war, lack of political unity) while Romans have done very little (peace, unified empire that loves learning). (Lecture 11, 18:00)

The 7 liberal arts were chosen from nine put forward by the Roman writer Varo (sp?).The trivium (rhetoric, grammar, dialectic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music). (Lecture 11, 23:00)

Romans created law schools. Roman law was highly advanced and strongly influenced common law. The Greeks had notable advances in medicine; the important doctor Galen was a Roman. (Lecture 11, 26:00)

The Latin west had a hard time holding onto Ancient culture, including natural philosophy and technology. The Middle East—where Greek was more widely spoken—had an easier time holding onto it, though also had an important decline. (Lecture 12, 25:50)

Romans have few developments in natural philosophy. Galen was a major exception. They do have some synthesizers/encyclopedians, including Pliny and Casiodorus. Casiodorus created a big monestary in his Italian Villa in order to preserve ancient learning (sounds like a good idea). (Lecture 12)

Dark Ages from 5th to 15th century, not seen as so dark by historians today. (Lecture 12, toward end)

There was something called a “Renaissance of the 12th century” happened, with seeds in the 11th century. Causes of this discussed. One was the decline of barbarian raids (the raids were an important cause of the decline and fall of Rome). (Lecture 17, 7:00)

Everyone likes to blame everyone else for the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. It was destroyed in 270 AD when the emperor was trying to put down the rebellion. It may have been unintentional. (Lecture 18, 2:00)

Schools developed alongside religious institutions (mosques, madrassas, museums, cathedrals, monasteries). (Lecture 18, 4:00) In ancient times, priests have generally covered astronomy and Aristotle says the priests of Egypt devised mathematics. Religious orders in Europe supported natural philosophy. (Lecture 36, 21:00)

The condemnation of 1277 ruled that 219 propositions could not be held as true, under penalty of excommunication. Many had to do with limitations on divine power. Many were advocated by Aquinas (who wasn’t totally official while he was alive)! Some limited human free will. E.g., “God can’t move the world in a rectilinear motion” (for obscure Aristotelian reasons), “God can’t create more than one world,” “The stars influence human actions.” Some argue that this condemnation was actually good for natural philosophy because it encouraged people to consider possibilities outside of Aristotle’s system. (Lecture 19, 20:00 or so)

Universities and schools provided a home for intellectual enterprises. Some argue that this kind of institutional home was important for the success of natural philosophy in the Latin West in comparison with the Arabic West. Mosques, mosque schools, and madrassas didn’t develop the sort of autonomy that the universities did. The medieval schools focused on argument and disputation, and Principe thinks that science drew on this. (Lecture 19, 29:00)

The “mean speed theorem” was proven by Nicole Oresme in 1350. It shows up in 1638 as a fundamental assumption of Galileo. (Lecture 23, 20:00)

Jean Buridan noted that we can only observe relative motion in the 14th century. However, Buridan rejected the rotation of the earth on the grounds that if you shoot an arrow up, it lands where it was shot. Oresme said this argument didn’t work because it didn’t account for the fact that the arrow is already moving along with you when you fire it. If someone on a moving ship moves up and down, it looks like they are moving diagonally to an observer on land. He didn’t call it frames of reference, but it was similar. Oresme argued that we should keep thinking the Earth doesn’t rotate since we can’t tell whether it’s moving or not, and common sense says it isn’t moving. (Lecture 23, 24:00)

During the last 30 years, there’s a trend in history now to blur the distinction between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. E.g., how different is the Italian Renaissance from the 12th century Renaissance? (Lecture 24, 2:00)

4 important factors in the Renaissance: humanism, printing, age of discovery, Protestantism. Humanists loved antiquity (classical texts and architecture); literature, language, history; active civic life. The humanists largely worked outside of the universities. (Lecture 24, 5:45)

Random Pliny claim: the bands around the equator were so hot that no peoples could live there, and it may even be impossible to cross them. (Lecture 24, 18:45)

Kepler thought that if you put two stones out in space, they’d be attracted to each other (because like attracts like). It’s an interesting precursor to gravitational thining. (Lecture 28, 15:00)

He mentions the re-discovery of Lucretius, but discusses it for less than a minute. He must not buy the thesis of The Swerve, according to which the re-discovery of Lucretius was a critical turning point in the Modern Revolution (Lecture 31, 7:00).

The alchemists had minimal theory and focused on the utility of chemistry to medicine. Boyle complained that the alchemists didn’t pay enough attention to theory, which he thought was more important. (Lecture 33, 25:00)

Some mark Newton as the culmination of the Scientific Revolution, but progress in science had been accelerating before Newton, and doesn’t slow down after him. (Lecture 34, 2:00)

Newton worked by himself a lot without publishing it. This was especially true of his work on falling objects and celestial bodies. He was significantly ahead of the rest of the scholarly community. Halley (of Halley’s comet) visits Newton in 1638. He asks Newton questions and is really surprised that Newton could answer his questions so quickly, and encourages him to write everything up. This helps bring about his Principia (Lecture 34, 14:30).

Newton had detailed interest in theological issues. Newton had anti-Trinitarian views, and he sees Trinitarianism as a corruption from original Christian ideas. Newton was also against atheism, in a time where mechanistic worldviews left little room for God. Newton was also interested in prophecies/eschatology about the end of the world. He was interested in trying to figure out the specific date for the end of the world, and tried to explain the world getting burned (as prophesied) in naturalistic terms. (Lecture 34, 20:00)

The early Royal Society nearly went out of business several times, sometimes due to lack of funding. (Lecture 35, 14:00)

Notes without references:

One of the Ancient Greeks used stuff about parallelax and observing eclipses at different places to very accurately estimate the radius of the Earth and the distance from the Earth to the moon. They did this significantly better than someone else who was estimating the distance to the moon during the Renaissance or the High Middle Ages (can’t remember which).

One of the Ancient Greeks defended Heliocentrism. Pure speculation on my part, but I’d be that if Aristotle had bought Heliocentrism, then we would have been Heliocentrists during the Middle Ages.

“Al” means “the” in Arabic. Words like “algebra,” “alchemy” come from the Arabic world.

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