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History of Science: Antiquity to 1700

To truly understand our Western heritage, our contemporary society, and ourselves as individuals, we need to know what science is and how it developed.
History of Science: Antiquity to 1700 is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 47.
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Rated 4 out of 5 by from No foundation required. I had two other courses (on Gnosticism and Winston Churchill), and both are like movie commentaries; they assume you've covered the source material already. This course is better, as it does make these (erroneous) assumptions. And so far, video enhances few lecture, so don't let "audio only" put you off.
Date published: 2024-01-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Study of Width Seeking Depth I begin by applauding Professor Principe for bravely casting a wide net in this course. Yes, that is necessary but he must have known going in that he did so at a price. He shone a light on many dark corners in the process, but in doing so, he converted what, for me, would have been a sufficient survey in 24 lectures into one taking 36. I get it that this is entirely consistent with a university-level approach, but it occasionally flirts with tedium in the process, where a deeper dive into major turning points, such as the ultimate failure of Aristotelian Scholasticism, would have been appreciated. Some reviewers are entirely off the mark when they complain that there is an overly religious, or specifically Christian, component; in my view, when this arises, it comes with the territory. Also, I believe Professor Principe correctly approaches his subject by summoning it through the eyes of the time, and not with lazy hindsight. One matter that I found less than thorough (and I am not the first to note this) was that Newton failed to receive his due as the true father of classical Physics, on which Alexander Pope would surely have insisted. I found Professor Principe's delivery to be most agreeable, with the sole exception of his final summarizing lecture, where, for the only time, he was buried in the text.
Date published: 2022-08-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent work of scholarship A fascinating study of the evolution of the scientific tradition in the West. It is important to appreciate that Principe does not study each topic from the perspective of the present, i.e. explaining how a certain scientific insight in the Middle Ages led to our understanding of science today. Rather, he endeavors to understand the scientists/natural philosophers in the own context of their own time and civilization. This distinction makes the series a valuable work of scholarship rather than a facile survey.
Date published: 2022-06-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I really liked this. This is a superb course, it has a great deal of fascinating history and tells of many interesting natural philosophers and their works, some of whom I had not previously heard of. The professor has a pleasant style, and is easy to listen to. Audio is ideal.
Date published: 2021-09-23
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Review of Antiquated Physics The course is loaded with good information and details of the evolution of Physics in antiquity. Mostly wrong Physics but teaching the methodologies and world view of the path that took us to modernity.
Date published: 2019-12-29
Rated 1 out of 5 by from This is not really a history of science course, but mostly a defense of the Christian religion. Very disappointing.
Date published: 2019-10-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thought provoking A comprehensive look at where science came from (at least in the western world). It is interesting that art, literature and philosophy will happily recognise and continue to study the legacy from the ancient world but science often rejects the idea that what was previously thought has any merit. This doesn’t just apply to the ancient world, it sometimes feels that anything older than last Tuesday is obsolete. The lecturer does put more weight on the religious/magical aspects of older science because the general information floating around – at primary school for example – emphasises what we consider the scientific/rational aspects and pushes aside anything else. I found it very instructive to learn about the other side of science – where it does intersect with the strongly religious cultures of the times. Well worth the time & thoroughly enjoyable.
Date published: 2018-07-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A great, great course Wow! This course was absolutely wonderful. It is focused on a topic that is not too wide and can therefore drill down quite deeply. On the other hand, the course surveys historical advancement of science over more than three millenia - some of it very interesting. Some of the highlights for me were the treatment of Greek science and Roman science and their basic different approach to the topic - the Romans (as always) being progrmatists and bordering engineering intheir scientific interests, and the Greeks tending much more to the philosophising side of the spectrum. Professor Principe presented the material in a way that felt very unrushed, and provide a lot of important insights on several key points that I found quite surprising: I have heard Professor Gearon’s great course “The Achievement of the Islamic golden age”. After having heard it, I was left with an impression that almost all of the substantial scientific discoveries and development that had been achieved under the Muslim regime were simply lost on the Medieval European civilization and had to be rediscovered. This was a point that I reflected upon during that course and found a bit odd… Professor Principe reviewed both the scientific achievements of the Muslim golden age and that of the medieval European world (among other topics), and showed that in many cases there had in fact been much interaction and that many in the West used what had been learned by the Muslims as their starting point for scientific development. The course was fascinating and provided a lot of insight. It is one of my favorites so far in TGC.
Date published: 2017-11-14
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Understand what science really is, how it developed, and how it works. Learn who pursued science, and why. From the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians, to Roman and Islamic contributions, through the Renaissance to the laws of Isaac Newton, you will share a fascinating journey with Professor Principe, whose ability to synthesize material covering thousands of years into an enjoyable and succinct format is invaluable.


Lawrence M. Principe

One of the best things about history, to my mind, is that it gives us a sense of perspective-a perspective that often reveals how strange and atypical our times are in relation to the past.


Johns Hopkins University

Dr. Lawrence M. Principe is Drew Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University. Professor Principe earned a B.S. in Chemistry and a B.A. in Liberal Studies from the University of Delaware. He also holds two doctorates: a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from Indiana University, Bloomington, and a Ph.D. in the History of Science from Johns Hopkins University. In 1999, the Carnegie Foundation chose Professor Principe as the Maryland Professor of the Year, and in 1998 he received the Templeton Foundation's award for courses dealing with science and religion. Johns Hopkins has repeatedly recognized Professor Principe's teaching achievements. He has won its Distinguished Faculty Award, the Excellence in Teaching Award, and the George Owen Teaching Award. In 2004, Professor Principe was awarded the first Francis Bacon Prize by the California Institute of Technology, awarded to an outstanding scholar whose work has had substantial impact on the history of science, the history of technology, or historically-engaged philosophy of science. Professor Principe has published numerous papers and is the author or coauthor of three books, including The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and His Alchemical Quest.

By This Professor

Beginning the Journey

01: Beginning the Journey

This introductory lecture asks fundamental questions about the nature of science and its development, its importance to human civilization, and the reasons for studying its history. This lecture also introduces themes that will recur throughout the course and provides an overview of the epochs and subjects to be covered.

34 min
Babylonians, Egyptians, and Greeks

02: Babylonians, Egyptians, and Greeks

This lecture explores the origins of man's study of the natural world. The Babylonians, with their complex mathematics and astronomical observations, and the Egyptians are considered first. We proceed to the earliest Greek thinkers and consider their first "scientific" theories about the natural world and how these were distinct from earlier ways of envisioning and conceptualizing the world.

31 min
The Presocratics

03: The Presocratics

Several Greek philosophers before the time of Socrates (d. 399 B.C.) grappled with issues that laid the foundations of Western natural philosophical thought and method: What is the world made of? Where did things come from? Do our senses show us reality? We study their explanations for the physical changes around us, their ideas on the origin and end of the world, and the new concept of atoms. We consider how the influence of Presocratic ideas has resounded in Western thought ever since.

31 min
Plato and the Pythagoreans

04: Plato and the Pythagoreans

Plato, a student of Socrates, was one of the most influential thinkers in history. This lecture recounts his responses to Presocratics and his contemporaries. Key to understanding Plato and his scientific impact is his view of reality and how it affects the value he places on observation, the nature of true knowledge about the world, and how that knowledge is to be acquired. The influence of the secretive Pythagoreans is important both directly on Plato and through him, to the relationship between mathematics and the study of the natural world.

30 min
Plato's Cosmos

05: Plato's Cosmos

This lecture begins with a study of Plato's "Timaeus" - he describes the cosmos and its creation, its fundamental building blocks, human anatomy, and other scientific topics. Plato's interests are not only natural philosophy but also ethical and social. Partly on account of "Timaeus," the pagan Plato found acceptance among Christians, Muslims, and Jews and was, thus, enormously influential in a range of areas.

31 min
Aristotle's View of the Natural World

06: Aristotle's View of the Natural World

Like his teacher Plato, Aristotle had tremendous impact on the development of natural philosophy. This lecture introduces Aristotle, his writings, and his ideas as a response to his predecessors, the Presocratics and Plato. We focus on Aristotle's views on the value of observation, the nature of change, the composition of matter, and what constitutes real knowledge. The characterization of Aristotle as a "biologist helps to make sense of his worldview, contrasted with the modern worldview based instead on physics.

30 min
Aristotelian Cosmology and Physics

07: Aristotelian Cosmology and Physics

This lecture looks at Aristotle's impact and activity in cosmology, physics, and dynamics, bearing in mind his key interest in biology as a means of explaining his intentions. We explore the structure of Aristotle's cosmos, show how this relates to his physics of motion. We conclude by demonstrating Aristotle's system to explain everyday observations.

31 min
Hellenistic Natural Philosophy

08: Hellenistic Natural Philosophy

Like Plato, Aristotle founded a school, the Lyceum, in Athens that perpetuated his work and ideas. This lecture also surveys the wider world of Hellenistic science that developed in the expanded Greek world created by Aristotle's student Alexander the Great. Emphasis is paid to Alexandria, with its great library and museum, and to the work and legends of Archimedes.

31 min
Greek Astronomy from Eudoxus to Ptolemy

09: Greek Astronomy from Eudoxus to Ptolemy

This lecture examines the development of systems of astronomy, from Eudoxus and other followers of Plato to the one proposed by Claudius Ptolemy in Alexandria during the 2nd century A.D. We examine how and why these systems were devised and used. The differences in goals and claims between classical and modern astronomy are highlighted.

31 min
The Roman Contributions

10: The Roman Contributions

The Romans produced a staggering civilization that was very different from the Greeks. In this lecture, we explore the differences in their scientific work. The Romans' most notable achievements were in technological advancements rather than the more speculative sciences of the Greek world. We explore the intellectual status of technology as well as how the pursuit of science responds to the needs and temper of a society rather than developing according to a notion of ";progress." We examine several case studies of Roman engineering and technology.

30 min
Roman Versions of Greek Science and Education

11: Roman Versions of Greek Science and Education

A more formal system of education was one development of the Roman world, and that system set the standards for the next 1,500 years. A related development was the spread of Greek science for Roman readers, such as Lucretius's verse recapitulation of Epicurean atomism, "On the Nature of Things." The initiation of the "encyclopedia" tradition is also part of the Roman contribution, such as Pliny the Elder's massive "Natural History."

30 min
The End of the Classical World

12: The End of the Classical World

After a long period of decline, the city of Rome fell to barbarians in A.D. 476. This lecture visits that time and immediately after to see what scientific and philosophical thought was saved from the wreck of classical civilization - how, why, and by whom. The rise of Christianity is key at this point. We address why the Middle Ages inherited only what it did from the Classical world. This topic asserts consideration of the cultural factors on which the continuance of science and technology depends.

31 min
Early Christianity and Science

13: Early Christianity and Science

The Christian Church developed within pagan Classical culture and had to come to terms with its intellectual legacy. This lecture examines the debates over what Christians should accept from pagan learning, particularly in science. What natural philosophy did Christians and Christianity require? Special attention is given to the arguments and proposals offered by St. Augustine of Hippo.

31 min
The Rise of Islam and Islamic Science

14: The Rise of Islam and Islamic Science

The origin of Islam in the early 7th century and its rapid spread across Asia, Africa, and into Latin Europe gave rise to a vibrant civilization that eagerly adopted and extended Greek natural philosophical and other thought. This lecture outlines the rise of Islam, why Greek science was valued by early Muslims, and the institutional and social features that encouraged the translation of Greek texts into Arabic.

30 min
Islamic Astronomy, Mathematics, and Optics

15: Islamic Astronomy, Mathematics, and Optics

Scholars in the Islamic world built extensively on the scientific foundations they adopted from the Greeks. This lecture examines some of the developments in the mathematical sciences and notes how these sciences were integrated into Muslim society. Various theories of vision are examined, and some contributions of medieval Muslim scholars still visible in modern science are also noted.

31 min
Alchemy, Medicine, and Late Islamic Culture

16: Alchemy, Medicine, and Late Islamic Culture

Islamic contributions to the Hellenistic study of "chemia" not only created the word alchemy but also laid the foundations for the development of chemistry. Islamic medical discoveries and writings were significant and proved influential in later periods. We look at the natural philosophical and intellectual components of two groups of Arabic thinkers, the "falasifa" and the "mutakallimun." We examine the reasons given by scholars for the decline of Islamic intellectual pre-eminence in the 13th century.

31 min
The Latin West Reawakens

17: The Latin West Reawakens

Despite sporadic attempts to reignite Latin culture during the early Middle Ages, only in the 12th century did sustained development appear. We look at the "Renaissance of the 12th Century" and the great Latin translation movement, when Latin European scholars eagerly plumbed the intellectual wealth of the Islamic world.

30 min
Natural Philosophy at School and University

18: Natural Philosophy at School and University

In the history of science, the settings of scientific studies and the institutions that sponsored them are of great interest. We look at the changing nature of such institutions. Noteworthy are the monastic and cathedral schools, the origins of that great medieval institution, the university. We examine universities, what it was like to be a student or professor, and what the place and content of scientific studies were. Who took part in the study of the natural sciences, and why?

31 min
Aristotle and Medieval Scholasticism

19: Aristotle and Medieval Scholasticism

The works of Aristotle were some of the most influential the Latin West reacquired from the Islamic world. Aristotelian investigative methods gave rise to the system of Scholasticism, and university curricula were highly dependent on Aristotle. Yet he was a pagan who held views contrary to Christian doctrine. We look at the fate of Aristotle in the medieval Christian world, and the way his natural philosophy developed within Christian theology.

31 min
The Science of Creation

20: The Science of Creation

The origin of the world has always been a topic for scientific inquiry. This lecture examines some approaches to this question from the Middle Ages. Although the creation by God of the world out of nothing was an undoubted article of faith, medieval natural philosophers strove to understand the natural causes at work in creation and how God organized his creation. In this lecture we examine the fascinating Hexameral literature, commentaries on the first chapters of Genesis, used by medieval thinkers for investigations into natural philosophy.

30 min
Science in the Orders

21: Science in the Orders

The monastic orders were preservers and promoters of natural philosophical (and other) learning since late antiquity. But the major new orders of the Middle Ages "Franciscans and Dominicans" developed new natural philosophical outlooks and programs as part of their theology. This lecture looks at these two orders, their origins, their distinctness, and the scientific work of Roger Bacon among the Franciscans and St. Albert the Great among the Dominicans, and others.

31 min
Medieval Latin Alchemy and Astrology

22: Medieval Latin Alchemy and Astrology

Alchemy and astrology, sometimes dismissed as pseudosciences, were seriously pursued by learned scholars in the Middle Ages. Alchemical texts first came to the Latin West from the Islamic world, but by the 13th century, original Latin treatises were being written. Some show important innovations in matter theory and practical processes. Astrology offered the hope of an anchor in an uncertain world, providing warnings of sickness or danger for individuals, as well as states. This lecture surveys the developments in this often-obscure field.

32 min
Medieval Physics and Earth Sciences

23: Medieval Physics and Earth Sciences

This lecture looks at medieval developments in astronomy and the physics of motion. Examples show how medieval questions could have surprising results; how medieval natural philosophers used and disagreed with Aristotle; and how results of medieval speculation and calculation laid the foundations of the modern science of kinematics.

30 min
The Middle Ages and the Renaissance

24: The Middle Ages and the Renaissance

Trying to put labels to historical periods is tricky. But many thinkers from the 15th to the 17th centuries saw themselves as initiating a new period of civilization, including in scientific areas. The Italian Renaissance often claimed to be a clean break from the Middle Ages - a time so demonized that rhetorical extravagances about it are still heard today. This lecture looks at features that characterize the Italian Renaissance (and the subsequent Scientific Revolution) and what they meant in terms of worldview and scientific activity.

30 min
Renaissance Natural Magic

25: Renaissance Natural Magic

One aspect of Renaissance natural philosophy was the rise of "natural magic." Its goal was to understand the correspondences and powers God had implanted in the world and to make use of them, but relied on topics in science and technology. This lecture showcases three "magi" of the Renaissance: Agrippa von Nettesheim, the humanist author of a major compendium of magic; Paracelsus, the hot-tempered Swiss medical writer and iconoclast; and John Dee, the English mathematician who asked angels to tell him the secrets of God's creation.

31 min
Copernicus and Calendrical Reform

26: Copernicus and Calendrical Reform

The Scientific Revolution is considered to commence with the 1543 publication of Copernicus's "On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs," which promoted a Sun-centered rather than Earth-centered cosmos. This lecture looks at the content and reception of Copernicus's ideas, its effects on astronomy and physics, and at a related development, the reform of the calendar under Pope Gregory XIII.

31 min
Renaissance Technology

27: Renaissance Technology

The Renaissance is well known for its explosion of artistic styles; less well known is the equal (and related) burgeoning of new technologies. This lecture looks at developments in mining and refining, military engineering, and other areas, and pauses to watch the late 15th-century's "Great Project," the moving of the 360-ton Vatican obelisk to the center of St. Peter's Square.

32 min
Tycho, Kepler, and Galileo

28: Tycho, Kepler, and Galileo

The years around 1600 saw tremendous changes in astronomy. Tycho Brahe's precision in measuring planetary positions partly fueled Johannes Kepler's astronomical discoveries. Kepler's desire to find the hidden harmonies in the planetary system provided a basis for modern celestial dynamics. About the same time, Galileo turned a new instrument, the telescope, on the heavens and saw amazing things never before seen by man. This lecture examines these characters, their context, their work and their impact.

31 min
The New Physics

29: The New Physics

The new views of the cosmic system required a new physics - Galileo knew that what he saw through the telescope signaled the end of the Ptolemaic and Aristotelian systems. We explore Galileo's attempts to create a new physics while emphasizing the new methods, goals, and worldview embodied in his system, and how this brought him into conflict with the church. We look at parallel developments in physics, particularly William Gilbert's work on magnetism and its impact.

31 min
Voyages of Discovery and Natural History

30: Voyages of Discovery and Natural History

Throughout the early modern period, voyages of discovery westward to the Americas and eastward to Asia brought back stories of new lands and peoples and samples of strange new minerals, flora, and fauna previously unknown to Europe. This lecture looks at how natural history changed as a result and the new way the natural world began to be viewed. This lecture also describes the natural history method of studying the world - an innovation propounded by Francis Bacon.

31 min
Mechanical Philosophy and Revised Atomism

31: Mechanical Philosophy and Revised Atomism

A major new concept of 17th-century natural philosophy was mechanical philosophy, an expressly anti-Aristotelian system that envisioned the world as a great machine functioning like a clockwork. Although the mechanical philosophy seemed to provide explanations of natural phenomena, it was not without problems - perhaps most crucially in its theologically unacceptable potential consequences. This lecture explores some versions of the mechanical philosophy in the work of Pierre Gassendi, René Descartes, Robert Boyle, and others.

31 min
Mechanism and Vitalism

32: Mechanism and Vitalism

Mechanical ways of thinking about the world were popular in the 17th century, but there were other options and hybrid systems from which to choose. This lecture examines the coexistence of mechanical and vitalistic conceptions in the life sciences and medicine, the persistence of Aristotelian thought, and the ways mechanical philosophy tried to explain the action-at-a-distance phenomena that were often fundamental to rival systems.

31 min
Seventeenth-Century Chemistry

33: Seventeenth-Century Chemistry

The 17th century was a confusing time for the study of chemistry. This lecture looks at the continuing search for the secret of transmutation and at the development of a mechanical chemistry, the use of chemistry in medicine, and the enhanced status of the discipline by the end of the century.

31 min
The Force of Isaac Newton

34: The Force of Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton may be the most recognizable figure in the history of science. We look at Newton's life, his achievements in physics and astronomy, and his response to the mechanical philosophy in terms of the concept of force. We also deal with his less well-known activities, for the author of "Newtonian physics" spent even more time studying alchemy and biblical prophecies and developing his own (heretical) theology.

31 min
The Rise of Scientific Societies

35: The Rise of Scientific Societies

Scientific societies originated in Italy in the 17th century and, ever since, have played a major role in the development of science. Two such societies continue to function today: the Royal Society of London and the Parisian Academy of Sciences. This lecture looks at the nature and functioning of scientific societies and the roles they play.

31 min
How Science Develops

36: How Science Develops

This lecture glances forward to developments to come in the 18th century, such as the reworking of Newtonianism. It also recapitulates and summarizes themes and overarching trends covered in the preceding lectures, and contrasts contemporary views of science with the views revealed by our study during this course.

31 min