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History of Science Online

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LibraryThing: OU History of Science Collections HSCI 3013 - section 995 - Spring 2014

What is the History of Science?

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Do you like to travel? Do you watch travel movies or videos? Do you have friends who travel more widely than you do? Traveling is a great way to study history! Check out Rick Steves' travel video podcast: www.ricksteves.com - Rick Steves' Europe Video - Rick Steves' Europe Video

I invite you to go with me on a journey, a time-travel tour of at least a half dozen major civilizations: Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, medieval and early modern Europe. We will explore dozens of topics spanning nearly 5 millennia, from 3000 B.C. to ca. 1700. We can do all this from your personal computer and at the library, using the eyes of our minds and imaginations instead of the eyes of our foreheads.

Who are the natives we may meet during our journey? Just in antiquity we will join Babylonian astronomers who could solve just about any mathematical problem you can (unless you know calculus); Pythagoreans who made astronomy and music sister sciences and discovered the shape of the Earth in the process; Eratosthenes who determined the circumference of the Earth; Aristarchos who calculated the distance to the Moon and Sun; Hipparchos who detected the 26000 year cycle of precession that has given us a new north star than the one known to those who built the pyramids in Egypt. And these examples are just from astronomy! There will be many more, all of whom are a lot of fun if you don't mind making the effort to get to know them in terms of their own culture, place and time. We'll need to get to know their language and their ways of life. We're not like tourists who travel to ancient Greece and expect to find fast food at McDonald's.

What kind of preparations do you need to succeed in this course? Just as travelers may research where they are going before they embark, previous history courses and previous science courses will help you, but you don't need either. If you're comfortable with history, this course may seem like too much science. If you're comfortable with science, this course may seem like too much history. No background in either history or science is assumed. There will be plenty that is new and challenging no matter what you have studied before. At the University of Oklahoma, the History of Science Department is separate and distinct from both the history and the science programs. The history of science is unique in the way it integrates both history and science into a whole new way of thinking about science and history. There will be a lot that's new and exciting, and much that will require some thoughtful reading and precise writing.

What is history? History is not memorizing information such as dates, names, places, or events. (For your information, here are some important dates to remember.) Our aim is not to chronicle who discovered what, when; to compile some dry catalog of ever-increasing knowledge. Rather, we want to understand what it was like to live in their world and to engage the problems they pursued from their own point of view. Rather than a list of kings and rulers of the lands in our itinerary, we want to join with the natives and, as much as we can, understand how they lived. To do so, we will need to attend to ways they differed from us, and devote extra effort to understanding those differences by "walking a mile in their shoes" and seeing their pursuit of science in their own terms.

In this spirit, let me offer you a few time travel tips that will make your journey more exciting.

(1). Cultivate imaginative sympathy. When we visit another culture, we're not interested mainly in "How are they just like us?" but rather in "What makes them unique and interesting unlike ourselves?" Similarly, in the history of science our first question is not "What did they get right?" (from our point of view) but rather, "How did they understand this?" To study history involves reconstructing what it would have been like to live there, in someone else's shoes at a particular place and time. Yet often our history of science knowledge today is more like a "rational reconstruction" of how they should have been, as if we were merely armchair travelers connecting a few points in the most logical way, oblivious to how things really happened. To understand a foreign culture we must use our imagination, and a good historical novel might serve as a better travel guide than a modern science textbook. For example, every modern introductory physics textbook introduces Kepler's three laws, but few people understand how Kepler arrived at those laws by pursuing more comprehensive and fundamental notions, at least from his point of view. We've all heard of Newton's mathematical physics, but few understand how he was pursuing an integrated vision of the world that attempted to unify not only physics and mathematics, but also such disparate fields as alchemy and theology. What were the problems Kepler or Newton faced as they saw them? To ask that kind of question will result in a more realistic view of the development of science, and a much fuller appreciation of its creative, human, and social aspects.

(2). For the sake of understanding, suspend normative judgments. Every culture has blind spots. No culture, including ours, is perfect. Therefore, before we rush to condemn unfamiliar ways of thinking, experienced travelers know that by understanding another culture on its own terms one may discover new insights that are not as obvious from within one's home culture. This is not relativism; and historians of science are not against modern science. Far from it. But we want to understand the foreign culture before we return home to our own world. We can make up our own minds about what is best and what can be improved in our native land when we return. This advice is as applicable to our time-travel journey as it would be if we were traveling around the world today. So for the duration of the journey, let's be patient, and devote our full energies to the difficult task of understanding past cultures as they are sympathetically explained to us by our historian tour guides.

(3). Attend to the ways knowledge of nature developed due to interactions between cultures over time. One of the overarching themes of this course is how modern science developed as a result of the interactions between a great variety of ancient, medieval and early modern cultures. Rather than being the glory of the Greeks, the grandeur of the Romans, the gift of the Chinese, or the heritage of the Renaissance, modern science owes its existence to all of the above, indeed, to over a dozen major western and non-western civilizations, each one of which helped shape it into a form that could not have come about in only one place and time. No culture (including our own) has held a monopoly on science; each culture (including our own) has benefited science with its distinctive contributions. The origin of modern science through cross-fertilization from many pre-modern cultures is a striking example of the maxim that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. If this survey of multicultural interactions in the pre-modern development of science prompts you to consider whether modern science may be shaped in beneficial ways by various western and non-western cultural contexts today, then these time-travel tips may enlighten your own personal travels around the globe as well!

(4). Attend to the changing boundaries of knowledge. When we study the history of ancient to early modern science, we discover unexpected relations between different areas of knowledge, including the endeavors from which modern disciplines emerged. We will explore science in strange contexts before the familiar boundaries were drawn for modern scientific disciplines. Modern scientific disciplines, like geology or biology, took on their present forms only in the 18th century, and became professional disciplines as late as the 19th century. Up to the generation of Newton, disciplinary boundaries were unexpectedly different. For this reason, the history of biology or geology or science in general is not as simple as just tracing the main ideas of a given discipline back in time, for the roots of central ideas were often developed in different fields of study. For example, before the 19th century, topics that we regard as pertaining to geology were pursued in the contexts of chemistry, physics, anatomy, chronology, antiquities, cosmology, physics and other disciplines. This is why histories of modern scientific disciplines often fall into a tunnel vision that ignores the actual intellectual contexts in which past practitioners reasoned, argued, discovered, and communicated.

What is nature? One of the central lessons of this course will be the indeterminate and malleable meaning of the word "nature." "Nature" is vague, deceptively subtle, and was defined in different ways at different times. We will discover many different perspectives about what "nature" means as we complete our journey. Yet even as we set out, our individual conceptions of where we are headed (of what this course is about) depend upon our prior assumptions about nature and knowledge of nature. For example...

These questions will be the subject of ongoing conversation as we travel through this course, but one of my aims is to cast our net widely, unlike some who hold to a strict formula to define what science is in an odd determination to ignore everything else. We will not define science according to a philosophical conception of proper method (whether logical positivism, falsificationism, or hypothetico-deductivism, or any other modern school of the philosophy of science). Were we to do so, then we would omit too much that is both highly relevant and important. Rather, our primary aim is to try to understand what was regarded as authoritative and reliable knowledge about nature in each particular culture at the time.

One common, general definition of science is "the attempt to explain natural phenomena." Science may involve much more than this, and if we were philosophers we would have some interesting quibbles about what the word "explain" might mean. Yet something along these lines offers us a reasonably flexible, workable definition, at least for starters. In any case, a provisional definition must not be too narrow. This is why it refers to "phenomena" rather than to theories or causes, for the term "phenomena" means merely "appearances." (The singular form is "phenomenon.") To define science by phenomena is broader than a definition that requires scientists to propose the existence of theoretical entities or to suggest hypotheses of actual causes.

If we accept this provisional definition, or something like it, then perhaps a grid like the following diagram will provide a practical, provisional guide to usage of words like science and its related terms:



How do these compare with your own definitions?

What should this "history of science" course be about?

Here are some of the features of this grid that I hope will become more meaningful as we continue in this course:

  1. These usages are very flexible definitions, and only rough approximations. They are not meant to confine any of these fields in a straight-jacket. Our emphasis is not to impose rigid definitions of science and these related terms, but to explore their changing meanings as we survey the interesting history of science in human and cultural context.
  2. What is nature? What counts as "natural" changes through time and between different cultures. Therefore the boundaries between science and religion, and between technology and magic, also change. In the Renaissance, inventions such as the telescope and steam engine technology were developed by practitioners of "Natural Magic," or the study of natural but hidden causes.
  3. What is knowledge? What counts as "to explain" or "to control" changes through time and between different cultures. Therefore the boundaries between science and technology, and between religion and magic, also change.

Because of these three points, we must redraw our grid diagram to show overlapping spheres instead of rigidly separate categories:

Here are four more caveats about our working definitions:

  1. The boundary between science and non-science is often vigorously contested. The word "science" is derived from the Latin word scientia, which means knowledge. What is knowledge, and what is opinion? Different fields, traditions, and people held to different standards of what constitutes knowledge of nature, or natural science. For example, some scientists have asserted that to "explain" requires that one reach an understanding of true causes. This endeavor was frequently called "Natural philosophy" during the time periods studied in this course, in order to distinguish it from "Natural History," where "History" meant "description" without regard to specifying causes. For example, Descartes' causal account of cosmology and physics was called Principles of Philosophy, meaning "Natural Philosophy" or, as we would say, "natural science." But Newton repudiated the requirement that one must achieve an understanding of causes in every case, and defied the Cartesians by titling his own work, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. In other words, Newton insisted that to describe matter and motion according to mathematical laws should count as science ("Natural Philosophy"), even if the causes were left unspecified. This example shows how controversial the idea of "explain" has been in the history of science. What counts as knowledge of nature has been conceived according to different standards. Rather than choosing to adopt one side or the other, we will study these changing meanings with great interest.
  2. Where does medicine fall in the grid above? Is medicine a practice of science, religion, technology or magic? We will discover reasons to regard it as intimately related to all four; and the history of medicine is certainly relevant to this course.
  3. What about mathematics? How does one explain or control numbers and the relations between numbers? Are numbers abstractions from nature, and wholly imaginary? Or are they self-existent, in that they would exist apart from the physical universe, and perhaps serve as the fundamental causes of the physical universe? If so, are they semi-divine, to be prayed to and worshiped as did the Pythagoreans? The "natural magicians" of the Renaissance, mentioned above, regarded numbers as natural causes, and therefore carved amulets with numbers or geometrical figures designed to prevent illness by countering a harmful celestial influence ("influenza"); were these amulets objects of technology or magic?
  4. "Philosophy" is absent from the grid, not because it is unrelated to science (far from it!), but because we are doing philosophy now in discussing the grid! One of the prime tasks of philosophy has always been to explain how each of these disciplines should relate to one another, and to other disciplines as well.

All of these endeavors (science, religion, technology, magic, medicine, mathematics, philosophy) and others play important roles in the history of science. Although we cannot do justice to them in a short introductory course, I hope we will not ignore any of them. Even though we will only have time to barely scratch the surface, to understand the history of science in its historical context we must cast our net widely.

One final point: In an online course, students will spend much less time listening to me talk, and lots of time writing for and listening to each other. For the next 15 weeks we will have a continuous conversation as you plan your trip and study your route. We will compare our tour guides, and discuss our travel diaries. Students will take responsibility not only for themselves, but also for the progress of their fellow travelers. It will be a lot of work, but also a lot of fun. I hope you enjoy the ride!

Comments or questions about the course? Email me.


“History is oriented to the past, while science seems oriented to the future; history is connected with humanity, science (largely) with the nonhuman world; history is associated with culture, science with nature; history is thought of as subjective, science as objective; history uses common language, while science uses technical vocabulary; and so on. Because of these common assumptions, the conjunction of ‘history’ and ‘science’ can seem bizarre and confusing.” Jan Golinksi, Making Natural Knowledge (1998)

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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