Alchemy in an HSCI Classroom


Alchemy in a History of Science Classroom

Alchemy has been a contentious space in which historians of science have engaged in the recurrent debate on what exactly constitutes “science,” and because of its spiritual and religious components, alchemy was often placed into the pseudoscientific category. Recent scholarship, however, has reaffirmed its position amongst other Medieval and Early Modern subsets of natural philosophy. Authors have cited its experimental programs of research, theoretical underpinning, and lab-based analysis and synthesis as evidence for its inclusion in the narrative of the history of science, and because of this, I believe that it should not be left out of a history of science survey course. Aside from its “scientific” characteristics, alchemy also provides avenues through which to discuss the interaction between practical and theoretical knowledge, entrepreneurial motivations that influenced natural philosophical inquiry, and the complicated relationship between science and religion.

I would begin a lecture on alchemy by discussing it in its eighteenth century context; this is when it was marginalized in order to legitimate the developing profession of chemistry. I would talk about how previously, the two investigative subsets were part of a larger research program focused on changing and understanding the properties of materials — notably metals, minerals, and other substances. The discussion would touch on who exactly was engaged in the pursuit (many of the “Big Men” made famous by their contributions to other fields, women, and craftsmen), and on the methods employed by these practitioners. Alchemists would read from ancient (and not-so-ancient) alchemical texts, comment on them, perform the experiments, and sometimes make modifications to the recipes, and they worked in labs where they performed distillations and synthesized compounds. I would highlight how these analytical and lab strategies are still used by scientists today.

Next, I would discuss what makes alchemy unique — its convoluted, secretive language and association with the spiritual and religious. While at first this might feel quite anti-scientific to many students, it puts alchemy (and Medieval and Early Modern scientific inquiry) into its context. Knowledge production was not always a secular affair, and alchemy’s engagement with the metaphysical, instead of a weakness, was a strength at the time it was being practiced. People sought deeper meanings for natural phenomena, and the philosophical framework from which they were working (Christianity with heavy Aristotelian influences) encouraged the search for final causes, symbols, and forms. Alchemy provides an excellent conduit for a discussion about what natural philosophy included in its lines of inquiry and elucidates the difference between itself and our modern construction of knowledge-gathering, science.

Alchemy’s significance to the history of science is therefore quite pronounced. Far from pseudoscientific magic, alchemy was a research program with goals, theories, and methods, and its practitioners were widespread and influential. As such, any survey of the history of science should include it and capitalize on the opportunity to discuss the issues alchemy brings to the forefront: early experimentalism, the relationship between practical and theoretical knowledge, and science and religion’s strong association.

Galileo Courtier

Summaries & Reviews

Galileo Courtier

Galileo Courtier recasts Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) as a member of the court, a role which allowed him to self-fashion a new socioprofessional identity as a mathematical astronomer/philosopher. Author Mario Biagioli argues that the identity that Galileo created was a new one, and that it was made possible through the social world of patronage systems and Galileo’s skilled maneuvering through them. Biagioli traces Galileo’s trajectory through multiple patronage networks; beginning with Galileo’s time as professor at the University of Padua, Biagioli goes on to explain how the mathematician presented himself and his discoveries to the powerful Medicis in order to gain their support. The latter half of the book covers Galileo’s transition into the Roman court, where different practices and customs made the game of patronage an altogether new one. While Galileo was successful there as well in the beginning, it was a crisis of patronage, Biagioli argues, that ultimately led to his condemnation in 1633. It was the patronage system that brought Galileo professional and financial success, and it was the patronage system that brought about his ruin.

I can find no fault with the first third of Biagioli’s work. The arguments run smoothly, and the evidence is plentiful; the footnotes are well done, and it is obvious that the author did an immense amount of research. If his thesis is problematic, the book must at least have some value in bringing to light many aspects of Galileo’s life previously under-researched. That being said, the rest of the book has some outstanding problems. Chapter four, “The Anthropology of Incommensurability,” seems out of place. It attempts to analyze court disputes in Kuhnian terminology, and what appears to be the conclusion — that scientific bilinguality is unique to proponents of the new “paradigm” — is arguably irrelevant to Biagioli’s narrative. There is additionally the issue that much of Galileo’s most important scientific contributions, including The Two Sciences and his pre-Florentine work in mechanics and mathematics, fall outside the restricted years of analysis that Biagioli sets up.

Also notably missing from Biagioli’s analysis of Galileo’s career as a courtier is the ethical dimension of court life as elucidated by contemporary political commentators. In his chapter on the topic, Robert Harding outlines what was seen as morally correct behavior of patrons, which included a desire for men of noble birth to be placed in the role of client before less noteworthy candidates. Men of power were supposed to perpetuate the social hierarchy as the natural state of affairs. Lesser nobles, or men who found fame through alternate routes (such as Galileo through his discoveries) were given varying degrees of approval by different commentators.[1] Gifts like Galileo’s distribution of telescopes could also reek of corruption if they were meant to entice beneficiaries to away from their “prior loyalties and obligations.”[2] How could these ethical dynamics have influenced Galileo’s career as a courtier, and could they have contributed to his downfall in the more cosmopolitan court of Rome? Could part of the reason he fell so far be that, ethically speaking, he was out of line in being there in the first place?

[1] Robert Harding, “Corruption and the Moral Boundaries of Patronage in the Renaissance,” in Patronage in the Renaissance, ed. Guy Fitch Lytle and Stephen Orgel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981): 54.

[2] Ibid, 56.

The Early Modern Microscope

Summaries & Reviews

The Early Modern Microscope

            The invention of the microscope is shrouded in mystery and contention; often overshadowed by its more celebrated colleague the telescope, microscopy was slow to catch on and quick to die off in the seventeenth century (although it would be revived again in the nineteenth-century biological world). In their brief time in the scientific limelight, however, microscopes extended human knowledge in the direction of the miniscule and at the same time contributed to the downfall of the Aristotelian worldview. They provided access to a swarming, active world of “animalcules” that had previously been invisible, and the implications of this admission would be major for the natural sciences for years to come.

Since the Hellenistic era, humans had been using various materials to magnify their world, oftentimes to aid those with poor eyesight. Seneca, in the first century AD, described using water globes to magnify the lettering in texts, and Pliny chronicles Emperor Nero’s use of a concave emerald to enhance his view of gladiator contests. Florentines in the thirteenth-century were using eyeglasses.[1] Because of these examples of early magnification, it is difficult for the historian to distinguish a certain development as representative of the “invention” of a “microscope.” Some attribute its development to the Dutch father and son duo Hans and Zacharias Jansen, and some claim Hans Lippershey deserves the title; either way, it was the lens crafters of Middelburg, Netherlands in the last decade of the sixteenth-century that were the first to produce a new, distinct instrument of magnification potentially worthy of being classified as an early microscope.

Men engaged in the study of the natural world had, up to the seventeenth-century, not put much thought into what might be too small for their senses to glean. C. H. Lüthy describes why in his article on the early microscope’s relation to the telescope; Aristotle was an anti-atomist, believing that “when several elements combine to form further compounds… they lose their individual forms or qualities in favor of one single and homogeneous new form.”[2] With this assumption, magnifying matter would be rather useless and uninformative. It would take peering into the realm of minutia to debunk this belief and return to the atomist, or corpuscularian, theories of antiquity. At a time when many scientists were already questioning Aristotle’s philosophy, microscopic observations provided yet another nail in the coffin.

One such observer was Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), a relatively poor Dutch draper with excellent eyesight. His accomplishments to a modern student of biology seem fantastic — he is credited as the first observer of protozoa, algae, yeast, bacteria, and human sperm — and he used very simple, single-lens microscopes that he ground and created himself. Each microscope was created for a single specimen, and at his death, several hundred microscopes with specimens still mounted were among his possessions.[3] Though he spoke only Dutch, he interacted regularly with the Royal Society in London, ensuring his work’s dissemination among the European scientific community.[4]

Although the microscope was not an invention bred of a passionate curiosity to uncover the mysteries of the minute, its rise coincided and reinforced the fall of Aristotle’s dominion over natural philosophy. After the initial discoveries, it quickly fell out of the scientific landscape until its revival in the nineteenth-century, in large part due to the lack of practical applicability it offered medical and natural philosophical men. But its contributions were important and would become moreso in the centuries to come.

[1] William J. Croft, Under the Microscope: A Brief History of Microscopy (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Pte. Ltd, 2006), 4-5.

[2] C. H. Lüthy, “Atomism, Lynceus, and the Fate of Seventeenth-Century Microscopy,” Early Science and Medicine 1, no. 1 (1996): 12.

[3] A. D. S. Khattab, “Dances with microscopes: Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723),” Cytopathology 6, no. 4 (1995): 216.

[4] Ibid.

The Islamic World & the Copernican Revolution

Summaries & Reviews

The Islamic Phase of the Copernican Revolution

            The story of the European adaptation of a heliocentric universe is normally told through Western astronomers; Nicolous Copernicus (1473-1543) serves as the beginning of the tale in most cases, his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium of 1543 hailed as a revolutionary tome. Its ideas were primarily original, or at the very least a result of Western influence. Recent work by historians such as Noel Swerdlow, Otto Neugebauer, George Saliba, and F. Jamil Ragep have challenged this interpretation, however, suggesting instead that Copernicus was heavily influenced by a sect of Islamic astronomers known collectively as the Marāgha School.[1] The evidence for such an association is formidable. Many of Copernicus’s techniques, thought processes, and mathematical proofs are strikingly similar to those of his Islamic predecessors.

The most obvious evidence linking Copernicus’s work to that of the Marāgha School exists in the mathematical strategies both use to simplify the Greek, Ptolemaic model, a goal both entities had in common. Nasir al-Din al-Tūsī (1201-1274) proved a mathematical device, known as Tūsī’s Couple, and used it to describe lunar motion (by way of generating linear motion from multiple circular motions) in his 1260-61 Tadhkira fi ‘ilm al-hay’a. Copernicus uses the exact same theorem — and includes a proof of it in the same format, using the same letters, as his Islamic predecessor — in De revolutionibus.[2] Copernicus also makes use of a mathematical technique termed ‘Urḍī’s lemma, named after its inventor, Mu’ayyad al-Din al-‘Urḍī (1200-1266), to eliminate the need to use Ptolemy’s cumbersome equants to account for planetary motion of the upper celestial spheres. Scholars hypothesize that he was exposed to this approach via some rendition or commentary on Ibn al-Shātir’s work, Shātir (1304-1375) being one of the many astronomers who utilized ‘Urḍī’s lemma in his cosmology.[3]

Additional evidence can be found in more the subtle traces of Islamic logical processes extant in Copernicus’s work. Both Copernicus and his Islamic colleagues use comets as a way to explain the possibility of a moving earth in line with observational physics, and, as F. Jamil Ragep argues in an article on the subject, Islamic sources were commenting on the possibility of a moving earth if natural philosophical epistemologies could be produced to explain the physics behind such a notion — an idea that medieval Westerners viewed as impossible.[4] Thus, the groundwork for Copernicus’s theories appear to have been lain not by his Western predecessors but by his Islamic ones.

Based on this evidence, I believe that the Marāgha School, and in particular al-‘Urḍī, al-Tūsī, and al-Shātir, belong in the narrative of the Copernican Revolution, having laid important mathematical and intellectual groundwork for the advances Copernicus and his European colleagues would expand upon. A notable impediment to this interpretation is the lack of a solid connection between Copernicus and the Marāgha School, but more work is being done to elucidate this association, and hopefully new evidence will reveal more than just a methodological link between the two parties.

[1] George Saliba, “Islamic Science and Renaissance Europe: The Copernican Connection,” Islamic Science and the Making of European Renaissance (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011).

[2] George Saliba, “Islamic Science and Renaissance Europe,” 197-199.

[3] Ibid, 204-205.

[4] F. Jamil Ragep, “Tūsī and Copernicus: The Earth’s Motion in Context,” Science in Context 14 (2001): 160.

Medieval University Medicine

Summaries & Reviews

“The Faculty of Medicine,” Nancy Siraisi

            In her summary of the medical faculties of medieval universities, author Nancy Siraisi begins by discussing the various reasons why a unified medical program emerged at universities, while at the same time stressing the fact that university-educated physicians were not the only medical healers, nor were they the only ones with access to the knowledge they held. The influx of Classical and Islamic knowledge in the eleventh century and the demographic growth of twelfth and thirteenth century Europe both proved to be important to the establishment and proliferation of medical faculties; the ancient texts gave them a theoretical backing and the population spike stimulated a propagation of schools and people willing (and able) to pay medical fees. It must be noted, however, that even during this time period and for a long time afterward, university-trained physicians were in the minority of the total practicing population. Often the different classes of physicians served a different caste of clientele, but most sects of practitioners had access to a similar literary repertoire and used many of the same techniques. What was unique to university medicine was its establishment of “institutional and intellectual characteristics that would continue to influence medical education well into the early modern period,” including most notably the establishment of a medical elite.[1]

There were relatively few major centers for medical education, and most of their differences lay not in their curriculum, but in the numbers of students they attracted and their reputations. Salerno was the earliest major center because its location in southern Italy provided it early access to translated ancient medical sources. In the twelfth and thirteenth century, medical authors at Salerno compiled articella, or “short treatises,” that included basic Hippocratic and Galenic tenants — these early textbooks served as an introduction to the study of medicine. Professors at Salerno were also the first to associate medicine closely with natural philosophy. As Salerno faded in prominence in the early thirteenth century, Montpellier was rising as another fashionable medical university, especially after 1220 when the school received papal recognition. The medical faculty at Paris and Bologna came into the picture around the same time, and smaller medical centers, notably Padua, began to pop up in northern Italy in the middle of the thirteenth century.

Siraisi, in her next section on social and economic considerations, begins by stating that university-educated doctors were viewed as the elites of their profession. They earned their living primarily from their practice, although some enjoyed court patronage or professorships (the latter two often found in conjunction). From their new positions of power, these men and the medical faculties in general were given novel responsibilities by the state, such as licensing power and advising the leaders and population on medical matters. Their student bodies were made up of pupils from a variety of locations, and many, as members of the secular clergy, funded their schooling through church institutions. After obtaining their degrees in four or five years of study, university-trained physicians found themselves quite employable, either as practitioners or professors for fledgling medical schools.

In its relation to other faculties at universities, medicine was most closely linked with the arts. Linked traditionally and practically — those studying medicine had to read Latin and have a grasp on logic, astrology, and natural philosophy — the arts and medicine were almost always studied in conjunction (although the arts normally came first). As far as what students of medicine actually studied, Galen and Hippocrates were prominent, but Islamic writings also made up a major component of the curricula. Their ideas were often taught out of articella, and the content was frequently polluted with commentary by later intellectuals. The daily routine, symptoms of disease, and remedies were the main subjects that most medical students studied during their varied years at university; the time required to complete a medical degree ranged from three to six years, most often followed by at least six months of actual practice. Students were also generally exposed to dissections for the purpose of familiarization with the internal structure of the human body. Surgery was a separate entity in medieval times, viewed as a lower form of art due to its lack of theoretical backing, but it nonetheless was taught at many universities (although sometimes not under the medical faculty). The reading and course requirements for surgeons were probably very similar to that of physicians.

Medicine was taught in much the same way as other academic disciplines, through lectio and disputatio. This tradition, according to Siraisi, had a hand in grounding medicine in the philosophical way of thinking. Questions were asked, disputes held, and conclusions were formed based upon the discourse. The linking of natural philosophy and medicine through these methodological similarities helped legitimize medical theory at a time when philosophy held a higher place in the echelons of university faculties.

After establishing medicine as closely linked with natural philosophy, Siraisi goes into a brief description of humoral theory and the theory of complexion. According to the theory, bodies contain four humors in equilibrium, but their natural balance can be disrupted by illness or trauma. It is the doctor’s duty to prescribe regimen/diet changes, surgery, or medicine to restore balance. Medicines were produced that contained elements that together might produce a shift in the balance of hot, dry, wet, and cold in the body. Additionally, it was taught that the movement of the heavens had direct impacts on the body’s equilibrium, and different doctors and medical schools either stressed or merely considered this notion when healing.

Siraisi closes her chapter on medieval medical universities by discussing the implications of the scholastic method of educating medical practitioners and how university- trained medical men differed from their more philosophically inclined colleagues at the universities. She asserts that the methods employed in teaching encouraged students to question ancient medical doctrine and note discrepancies between Classical and Islamic medical scholars. In their hands-on practices, Siraisi believes, doctors also were more likely to compare their experiences to the theories they were taught and modify their beliefs accordingly. Thus, medieval physicians employed empiricism in a more concrete way than those studying more metaphysical subjects. The institutions and teaching methods established in the middle of the thirteenth and early fourteenth century medical faculties had a lasting impact on the medical profession, producing elite medical men that engaged in a book-based, theoretical practice, and forming an educational tradition in the medical field that outlasted even the Black Death.

[1] Nancy Siraisi, “The Faculty of Medicine,” in A History of the University in Europe ed. Hilde de Ridder-Symoens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 364.

Affinities and Elisions

Summaries & Reviews

“Affinities and Elisions: Helen and Hellenocentrism,” Heinrich von Staden

            Heinrich von Staden puts forth an argument in Affinities and Elisions that contrasts with G. E. R. Loyd’s in his chapter Democracy, Philosophy, and Science in Ancient Greece. Von Staden’s core goal is to dispute Hellenocentrism, which he defines as the “privilege” historians of science often give “Greek science over the science of other ancient cultures.” He also believes that “Eurocentric historians” tend to embrace a vision of science that places ancient Greek thinkers at the forefront in the development of the scientific method.[1] This phenomenon, he thinks, manifested itself in Loyd’s interpretation and analysis linking Greek political life to its scientific accomplishments.

He begins by citing instances throughout Greek history of an awareness of the cultural indebtedness Greeks felt toward contemporary civilizations. According to Hecataeus of Abdera, von Staden claims, Egypt was where human culture originated, and Greek culture descended from the superior Egyptian example.[2] He also cites the Greek appreciation for the complicated problems that arise when attempting to define and differentiate their societal bases and accomplishments from those of concomitant civilizations. Thus, he argues, the Greeks themselves failed to attribute grand cultural or philosophical achievements solely to their own originality or ingenuity as a society. They even acknowledged the influence of other, equally important parties.

Von Staden goes on in his second section to discuss the implications Hellenocentrism has on the practice of the history of science and some of the reasons that it has endured through so many generations of historians. He targets the tendency of historians to seek out similarities, or “affinity,” between the way we practice science now and the way it was carried out historically. Because the Greeks had a democratic society — as we have now (more or less) — and because they viewed the world in a way more accessible to modern-day people, they and their brand of science are considered more “important” and “interesting.”[3]

Additionally, von Staden points out that there are two cultural trends in the present that lead the study of ancient science away from the Near East and other centers of scientific thought and toward Greece: the belief that ancient Greece is the “fountainhead of our culture” and the modern power of scientific, Western culture as “our lodestar.”[4] Things published and oft-cited in historical work concerning Greece are selective, and only the Greek works that best exemplify the modern ideas of what science and sophisticated culture should be are represented. We tend also, according to von Staden, to attribute motivations similar to our own to past Greek “scientists” when we search for the origins of our culture in ancient Greece, ignoring their very different reasons for pursing scientific-like thinking (i.e., predicting power, religious justification, social standing, and economic security). We search for the origins of our culture instead of objectively studying theirs, and we miss important discourse and complexity in the process.

Von Staden cites several historians’ work that he feels fall victim to the phenomenon of Hellenocentricism, including Loyd’s hypothesis that Athenian democracy had important, unique characteristics that lead to the development of the Western scientific tradition in Greece. He argues that many early Greek thinkers did not even live under democratic conditions, and that if they did, the idea of a democracy was very different in the limited parts of Greece that ascribed to it. Furthermore, many Greek philosophers (including Aristotle and Plato) were great critics of democracy and would have been unlikely to base their scientific endeavors off of its model. Some intellectuals, notably Socrates, were even persecuted in democratic states for their novel ideas.

The author then goes on to paint a clearer picture of what he envisions as a more equanimous way of engaging with ancient Greek science. The lines of Greek and non-Greek are blurred, and attempting to draw sharp lines between cultures and scientific accomplishments betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the way that science and culture develop. It was (and is) through “opaque relations” between different civilizations’ ideologies and methodologies that philosophy and science was practiced.[5] Using this method, von Staden constructs a very disparate idea of where Greek philosophical methods originated. Early myths provided the original interpretive material about which Greeks debated; in the fields of art, poetry, and magic, Greeks “were not loath to criticize traditions, rivals, and precursors overtly,” and all this before the development of democracy in Athens.[6]

The author’s source base includes copious articles written by those he sees as perpetuating the Hellenocentric ideology (for critical purposes), ancient Greek writings by a plethora of authors spanning nearly 1,000 years (including Hesiod, Aristotle, Herodotus, Hippocrates, Plutarch, Diodorus, Democedes, Galen, and Plato), and secondary sources to back up his interpretations and assumptions.

The argument that the complex development of Greek philosophical tradition cannot be narrowed down to a single or even a simple cause seems to have considerable merit, and von Staden’s claim that much work done in the area is tainted with a modern bias is well-nigh self-evident. Whether his conclusions are useful or practical, however, is another issue.

The intellectual and political uniqueness of ancient Greece, regardless of modern interpretations of it, cannot be contested. Historians investigating this, when exercising their craft, must necessarily simplify what is complex; they must be able to identify those differences that might have led to the development of such a particular society, and in doing so, they will have to make selections about what part of Greek society may or may not have contributed to its unique philosophical contributions. Claiming that it cannot be simplified, while practically true, would render the task of analyzing the reason for Greek individuality insurmountable.

The bias that Eurocentric historians show when writing about ancient Greece, however, is a useful phenomenon to address. Like scientists conducting an experiment with the purpose of attaining particular results, historians who seek out certain trends in history to neatly correspond with modern-day beliefs are engaging in biased practice — in other words, Whig history. It is important to analyze and judge the past in its own context and not with the purpose of glorifying and perpetuating problematic and somewhat mythical beliefs about the development of modern scientific thinking.


[1] Heinrich von Staden, “Affinities and Elisions: Helen and Hellenocentrism,” Isis 83, no. 4 (1992): 578.

[2] Von Staden, Afffinities and Elisions,” 580.

[3] Von Staden, “Affinities and Elisions,” 583.

[4] Ibid, 584.

[5] Von Staden, “Affinities and Elisions,” 588.

[6] Ibid, 594.