Themes of the course
Welcome to the History of Science Collections of the University of Oklahoma Libraries, one of the premier research collections in its field. Holdings of nearly 100,000 volumes represent every field and subject area of science, technology, mathematics and medicine.
Science has a story, and these rare books will help us explore that story from antiquity to the age of Newton.
Insert: Nicolaus Copernicus, De revolutionibus (1543), open to the cosmic section, Copernicus-1543-009v.tiff
Consider this volume, the De revolutionibus, one of the most important works in the history of science. This is the book in which Nicolaus Copernicus argued that the Sun lies in the center of the universe, while the Earth flies through the heavens, revolving around the Sun once each year. We’ll study this book in more detail later, but right now let’s use it to illustrate the two major themes of the course.
The first major theme is “crossing cultures.” Simply put, the growth of western science cannot be understood apart from rich and sustained interactions between multiple cultures.
Insert: Copernicus, De rev, Bk III, ch. XI, p. 76v. Copernicus-1543-076v.tiff
This page contains records of lunar eclipses observed in ancient Babylonia as far back as the 700’s BC.
Insert: Copernicus, De rev, Bk III, ch. XIII, p. 79v. Just below the middle of the page, look for MDCCCXL and the name "Phaophi" on the following line.
On this page, Copernicus converted tables for planetary motions from the Julian calendar that was in use in his own day to the calendar developed in ancient Egypt 3,000 years before. Copernicus writes that he observed the September equinox in 1515: “according to the Egyptian calendar it was the 1,840th year after the death of Alexander on the 6th day of the month of Phaeophi, half an hour after sunrise.”
Insert: Copernicus, De rev, Bk III, ch. XIII, p. 79v. Copernicus-1543-079v.tiff
This same discussion shows the length of the year determined by Hipparchos on the island of Rhodes in the mid-2nd century BCE. Hipparchos’ length of the year was transmitted beyond Mesopotamia and Persia to ancient India. In the Islamic period, astronomers inherited this remarkable cross-cultural heritage of Indian, Greek, Roman and Mesopotamian astronomy.
Insert: Copernicus, De rev, Bk III, ch. IIII, p. 67r. Copernicus-1543-067r.tiff
This page shows Copernicus’ model for the motion of the Moon. It depended upon a remarkable technical innovation called the Tusi couple, named after Nasr al-Din al-Tusi, who worked in modern-day northwest Iran in the mid-1200’s. The Tusi couple combined two circles, one inside the other and half its size. A planet, represented as a point on the inside circle, will trace out a straight line along the diameter of the larger circle, moving in or out from the center as necessary to adjust its apparent magnitude to our eyes.
Insert: Copernicus, De rev, title page. Copernicus-1543-000-tp.tiff
The title page of Copernicus shows that it was printed in Nuremberg in 1543. Less than 30 years earlier, in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg cathedral door, launching the Protestant Revolution. Nuremberg was a leading center of Reformation Europe. Copernicus at the time was a Catholic, working in a cathedral in northern Poland. So we have seen in just these few quick examples that this European book, published as a collaboration between Catholics and Protestants in the middle of the Reformation, incorporated the astronomical knowledge of many ancient cultures.
So in this course I’m inviting you to join with me on a journey, a time-travel tour spanning more than 4 millennia across a half dozen major civilizations:
If the first major theme of this course is “crossing cultures,” the second is “crossing disciplinary boundaries.”
One of the most pressing questions for science today is how to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration. The history of science offers a continuous account of case studies, pro and con, for how disciplines emerge, collaborate, compete, and adapt to new problem sets and methodologies.
Insert: Copernicus, De rev, dedication page. Shows “Pontificem maximum.” Copernicus-1543-000-z02v.tiff
In his dedication, Copernicus wrote that astronomy is a branch of mathematics, and that mathematics is for mathematicians. Why would he say this? At the time, physicists were trained more in logic than mathematics, yet physicists were granted more authority and credibility than astronomers in their statements about the universe. The greatest resistance to Copernicus came from physicists and others who underestimated the power of new mathematical methodologies. Not only physicists, but also theologians, were unprepared to recognize the potential of mathematical arguments for the motion of the Earth. So this book as a whole was a challenge from mathematics to the established and reputable domains of physics and theology, both of which had to learn to adapt to the knowledge claims of the new mathematical science.
More than a battle of science versus religion, Copernicus was a mathematician battling for the unexpected reach of mathematics compared to traditional methodologies. It is of interest that Copernicus dedicated this book to none other than the pontificem maximum, Pope Paul III, who was sympathetic to mathematical methods.
Insert: Copernicus, De rev, letter from Cardinal Schönberg. Copernicus-1543-000-z02.tiff
On the page before this one, we find the only signed piece of forematter, a letter from a Nicholas Schoenberg, Cardinalis, who asked Copernicus to publish his great work. The relations between science and religion will confront us at every step in this course, because religion and culture were thoroughly intertwined in premodern cultures. So here’s a piece of advice for how to handle the intertwining of science and religion: think of their relationships, now in harmony and now in conflict, as analogous to the relations between different disciplines today. The modern scientific disciplines demonstrate complex relations equivalent to those of religion and science in the periods we will study.
So the first major theme of this course is “crossing cultures,” and the second is “crossing disciplinary boundaries.” Both themes form part of the story of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus of 1543, and of the entire course. Welcome to the journey!Do you have a great quote for this page? Let me know! (If used, a new quote is worth 1 point extra credit)
This course is currently undergoing major reconstruction to bring it into alignment with the new version of the course at Janux