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History of Science Alexandria Library

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LibraryThing: Science in Ancient Mesopotamia Week 5: Hellenistic Science

Interpretation essay

# Due Date Pts Activity Time
4 Friday
11:59 p.m.
20 Interpretation Essay
Unless it explains, history is trivial.
Write a short persuasive essay agreeing or disagreeing with a common interpretation about the topic and expressing your own view
60 min.

Sic et Non

Write your interpretation in a 1200-1800 word essay.

It’s time to put on our thinking caps and interpret the significance of what we’ve been exploring! Unless it explains, history is trivial. Did you discover anything unexpected this week that needs to be explained? What surprised you this week? Did you make any unexpected discoveries? What was the most meaningful part of your explorations this week?

  1. Many historians characterize early Greek science, from the Presocratics to Aristotle, as a golden age of physics (despite the fact that early Greek physics was not quantitative in character). For the Hellenistic period, in contrast, the discoveries of mathematicians (including mathematical astronomers and mathematical geographers) stand out more than those of the physicists. Do you agree that there was a general shift from physics to mathematics in the Hellenistic period? If so, what might have caused or contributed to it, and why is it significant?
  2. In the Hellenistic period, was medicine pursued on its own, independent of natural philosophy (physics), or were these areas of inquiry related? To what extent did the work of Hellenistic physicians, particularly Herophilos and Erasistratos, depend upon or contribute to contemporary traditions in Hellenistic natural philosophy?
  3. Although you have seen it before, Asger Aaboe's schema for distinguishing different strands of ancient astronomy is repeated below. At which level would you place Eudoxos? Hipparchos? How does Aaboe's interpretation help us to draw a profound contrast between Eudoxos and Hipparchos? Or between Eudoxos and Kidinnu?
    Why is Kidinnu as important as Eudoxos for understanding the significance of Hipparchos?
    Discuss: Is Near Eastern science as important as early Greek science for understanding Hellenistic science?

     - Historian of astronomy Asger Aaboe distinguished three levels of skywatching activities, to which we can add a fourth and fifth. These levels of "astronomy" are as follows:
    1. Naming and Recognition of basic celestial phenomena (eg, constellations, retrograde motion, eclipses, etc.).
    2. Recognition of various cycles, patterns, or periodic rules (eg, cycle of Venus, star calendars based on heliacal risings, schemes for synchronizing lunar and solar calendars, periods of the planets, etc.).
    3. Arithmetical schemes to predict future phenomena with minimal ongoing observational feedback (quantitative control of phenomena). Found in Seleukid-era cuneiform ephemerides and procedure texts.
    4. Geometrical schemes to explain phenomena, even if only qualitatively (Eudoxus and early Greek astronomy).
    5. Realistic cosmological models capable of accurate predictions (Later Greek astronomy, after Hipparchos, and Ptolemaic astronomy in medieval Latin, Islamic, and early modern European traditions).
      The first two levels could take place in any settled community, and are evidenced from peoples and locations all over the globe. The fourth level did not attempt quantitative predictions. For these reasons, Aaboe himself defined "scientific astronomy" in antiquity as consisting only of levels #3 and #5. Emphasizing the unique aim of Babylonian astronomy to provide quantitative predictions of the appearances, Aaboe asserts: “Mathematical astronomy was, however, not only the principal carrier and generator of certain mathematical techniques, but it became the model for the new exact sciences which learned from it their principal goal: to give a mathematical description of a particular class of natural phenomena capable of yielding numerical predictions that can be tested against observations. It is in this sense that I claim that Babylonian mathematical astronomy was the origin of all subsequent serious endeavour in the exact sciences.” (Asger Aaboe, "Scientific Astronomy in Antiquity," Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1974; 276: 41-42).

Instructions for Interpretation assignments:

  1. Go to Janux and watch the Interpretations video prompt.
  2. Comment on your initial reaction to the video prompt in the discussion stream at Janux.
  3. Take one of the questions or points of view listed here and consider how it relates to the assigned readings for this week. Consider both Context and Evidence assignments, whenever applicable.
  4. Write a short essay defending your thesis and/or refuting competing interpretations. An Interpretation essay must express a point of view, supporting that argument with specific evidence gathered from the assigned readings.
  5. Your Interpretation essay should be at least 1200 words long, and not more than 1800 words (you can do a word count at Motionnet.com). This word count does NOT include the original question you are responding to, any quotations from assigned readings, or the two notes at the end of the essay.
  6. Spellcheck, word count, and proofread your essay. Since this is a longer writing assignment, you will probably want to use the spellcheck and word-count features in your word processor.
  7. In a one or two sentence note at the end of your essay (not part of the word-count), indicate why you chose to respond to that issue and how you came up with the interpretation.
  8. In a one-sentence note after your essay (not part of the word-count), identify which style or genre you selected (analytical, narrative, dialogue, etc.) and explain why you thought that would be the most effective way to convey your interpretation.
  9. Include reference citations or links to any textbook, website, course page, or Exhibits Online that are closely related to your Interpretation (e.g., "For Redondi's view, go here: insert link"). Additional reading beyond course assignments is not required, but you must include at least two citations or links to assigned readings that provide evidence and relevant historical context. These two sources must be either primary sources that pertain to the topic and come from the period being discussed or secondary sources (e.g., one of our textbooks or assigned web pages) written with demonstrable knowledge of the relevant primary sources (for example, in addition to the assigned background readings, professional historians of science may be assumed to be familiar with the sources they write about; see guidelines for evaluating sources). An argument that is not supported with documented evidence does not meet the minimum requirements for an Interpretation essay. For citations and links, use the forms described in the bibliographical guidelines. (For example, a citation to our text could be "Lindberg, Beginnings, p. #." )
  10. Cut-and-paste your completed essay, with notes and links, and post it in the Interpretation forum for this week at the Confluence discussion board.
  11. After you have posted your Interpretation, complete the Gradebook Declaration in Desire2Learn. (Your Gradebook Declaration is subject to the Honor Code.)

Here is the text of the Desire2Learn Gradebook Declaration:

(7 points) I have posted my Interpretation at Confluence. My Interpretation shows that I have thought about BOTH Context and Evidence assignments for this week. I have done a word count, and my Interpretation is at least 600 words min. My word count does NOT include the original question I am responding to, any quotations from assigned readings, or the two notes at the end of the essay.

(7 points) I have posted an Interpretation at Confluence that is at least 1200 words min. and no more than 1800 words max.

(1 point) My Interpretation contains an explanation of how I came up with my point of view (not part of the word count)..

(1 point) My Interpretation contains a sentence explaining the genre or style of writing I adopted (not part of the word count).

(2 points) My Interpretation contains a citation or link to at least one relevant source (such as the assigned readings) including either a primary source or a secondary source written by an author with demonstrable knowledge of the primary sources.

(2 points) My Interpretation contains a citation or link to at least two relevant sources (such as the assigned readings) including either a primary source or a secondary source written by an author with demonstrable knowledge of the primary sources.


Do you have a great quote for this page? Let me know! (If used, a new quote is worth 1 point extra credit)

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HSCI 3013. History of Science to 17th centuryCreative Commons license
Kerry Magruder, Instructor, 2004
Brent Purkaple, TA

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Many thanks to the pedagogical model developed in Mythology and Folklore and other online courses by Laura Gibbs, which have been an inspiration for this course.

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This course is currently undergoing major reconstruction to bring it into alignment with the new version of the course at Janux