12 February 2020

History of Science: Antiquity to 1700, by Lawrence Principe

Posted by Callan Bentley

My most recent commuting audio has been this course from The Great Courses: Johns Hopkins professor Lawrence Principe‘s History of Science: Antiquity to 1700. I checked it out from my local library: 36 lectures, each about 30 to 45 minutes long. I found it quite interesting, well-paced, and insightful. Principe is an organic chemist-turned-historian-of-science, and he recounts key developments in the way people thought about “natural philosophy” (it wasn’t dubbed “science” until centuries after people starting doing it). Alchemy, astronomy, and physics are the key foci; biology gets a series of cameos but is really not a star. There’s pretty much no geology in it at all. Regardless of discipline, the key thing about this course is that Principe is very keen on trying to shuck modern scientific conventions in reviewing the thinking of historical practitioners. In other words, his goal is to anchor scientific advances and thinking of the past strictly in the context of the time: the religious, societal, technological, and political milieu that nurtured (or permitted, or resisted) new ideas. I appreciated Principe’s style as a lecturer, and was impressed with his mastery of such a wide span of practitioners, set in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East over the past several thousand years. Quite enjoyable; I look forward to listening to the sequel, about science since 1700.