Skip to main content Skip to navigation



Lecture and seminar topics

lecture slides and outlines will be added here from September 2020


Introduction: the place of science
There are two antithetical views about the origins of modern science, one that places it in Europe and one that places it nowhere in particular. There are strong views on both sides but few efforts to integrate or reconcile the two. This is what this module aims to do. Whatever the answer, we will see that the question 'Where was science done?' is a fruitful one for early modern historians.


Natural philosophy
Natural science was a central part of the curriculum in Medieval universities in Latin Christendom. It was equally central to the imperial bureaucracy in China in the same period. We can shed light on both of these systems by comparing the two, both in terms of their intellectual content and their social context.


Natural history
European natural history emerged in the sixteenth century. But was this process unique to Europe? And was it a by-product of Renaissance humanism or rather of imperial expansion support by indigenous expertise?


The mathematical Renaissance of the sixteenth century is usually traced to the recovery of ancient Greek mathematical treatises and to the rise of a technical culture in European courts. What did it owe to Arabic, Indian and Persian mathematics, and to the challenges posed by oceanic navigation?


The Copernican Revolution is the central event in the traditional account of the scientific revolution. The Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus turned the universe inside out by placing the sun at the centre. Can we turn the Copernican revolution inside out by placing Islamic observatories, Jesuit missionaries, and a Mughal emperor at the centre of the history of cosmology?


Reading Week (no lecture or seminar)


The experimental philosophy
Where do experiments happen? 'In the laboratory' is the modern answer. But the experimental philosophy emerged in the near-total absence of laboratories. Experiments were done in households, cabinets of curiosity, apothecary shops, on board ships, and up the sides of mountains. Practical knowledge flourished in China, Japan and the Caribbean as well as in Europe - so was experimental philosophy a global phenonenon?


The mechanical philosophy
René Descartes claimed to have come up with the idea that everything is made of moving matter while he was sitting inside a Dutch stove. In fact the mechanical philosophy was the result of a pan-European network of travelers and letter-writers.


Alchemy was an ancient science dedicated to the transformation of useful substances, such as glass, gems, metallic ores, and above all gold. It was widely practiced in courts, mines, and workshops in Europe. But it was also practiced in Boston and Peru, and it was stimulated by the influx of exotic materials such as New World gold and Oriental porcelain.


Global histories of science
The early modern period saw some of the first debates about the geographic origins of modern science. Were the origins of science Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Egyptian - or European? This question was part and parcel of scientific debate, both in Europe and elsewhere.