Images and Objects in the Study of Seventeenth-Century Science

Images and Objects in the Study of Seventeenth-Century Science

Many of the proponents of the ‘new philosophy’ in the seventeenth century advocated a shift from ‘words’ to ‘things’: from the great works of antiquity to the still greater book of the world, from deduction from first principles to induction from sensory experience, from abstract speculation to hands-on experimentation. This shift was assisted by technology: by new instruments which extended the power of the senses, by new media which allowed observations to be depicted and communicated with unprecedented speed and precision, and by new modes of transportation which put Europeans for the first time in touch with every quarter of the globe.  In keeping with this shift, historians of science have recently focused fresh attention on all manner of things not well captured by texts, including scientific instruments, material culture, artisanal practice, and the boundaries between ‘art’ and ‘science’.

It is therefore somewhat ironic that undergraduate teaching in the history of science has remained overwhelmingly dominated by the study of texts. Texts – in script and print – were enormously important in the seventeenth century and must remain a central feature of any well-conceived instruction in the history of early modern science.  Digital technology is making textual material – including images of early modern books and manuscripts – accessible like never before. Still more revolutionary, however, is IT’s potential to increase the accessibility for sustained study of engravings, drawings, paintings, instruments, specimens, and other objects, not only in high resolution but also in interactive, three-dimensional images.  Animations and videos are also being successfully exploited to aid the conceptualization of complex topics in the history of science, to demonstrate the function of scientific instruments, and to illustrate the conduct of key experiments.  

Integrating this technology into the teaching of this subject would therefore represent a large step forward.  No less significant, however, is the potential of Web 2.0 technology: that is, of approaches which allow communities of teachers and students, not merely to access content via the internet, but to interact with that material and shape that content.  With these objectives in mind, this paper represents an experiment in harnessing the potential of an interactive digital platform to enrich the textual study of early modern science with images, animations, and videos as well as direct physical encounters with objects themselves and with whole built environments.

Commentary. Howard Hotson (October 2021)