Communication, Scientific

views updated


COMMUNICATION, SCIENTIFIC. The traditional arena for communicating natural philosophical knowledge was the university. Within a system called Scholasticism, professors lectured on authoritative texts whose study was stipulated by the regulations. All texts were written in Latin and all communication by professors and students was carried out in Latin. The disputation was a formal way of arguing an issuea question was posed, and the pros and cons were debated by citing authorities. Many of the texts used were Latin translations of Arabic versions of ancient writings.

By the end of the fifteenth century, humanism had begun to influence the university curriculum. Humanists aimed to rediscover ancient Greek and Latin texts and to edit and translate them, removing what they considered the barbarisms of medieval Latin. Humanists often worked outside the universities in the employ of princes and oligarchs in the courts and cities of Europe. They influenced the development of natural philosophy and other topics that today fall under the rubric of "science" by rediscovering key ancient texts, editing or translating them, and debating their contents. The rediscovery of On the Nature of Things by Lucretius influenced the early modern development of atomism. The study and editing of Pliny the Elder's Natural History resulted in a debate about the accuracy of Pliny's conclusions in topics such as botany. The study and editing of texts by Ptolemy influenced thought about cosmology and geography. Marsilio Ficino's translation of the writings of Plato and Neoplatonist authors, along with his other writings, greatly influenced European thought, including ideas about the cosmos and the natural world.

The printing press, invented about 1450, exerted a great influence on communication within the natural and experimental sciences because with it numerous copies of the same work could be produced and distributed at relatively low cost. Although all historians admit the fundamental importance of printing, they debate its precise influence. Elizabeth Eisenstein argued that printing was fundamental to the development of scientific and technical literature because it allowed the wide distribution of a "fixed" text that remained the same from one copy to the next, and of fixed images, for example, of plants and animals. Critics of this view have suggested that scribal culture used specific techniques to produce accurate texts and that the "fixity" of early modern printed works left much to be desired. The nature of the influence of printing on the development of early modern sciences continues to be debated.

New forms of organization developed in the seventeenth century and were accompanied by new ways of communicating. The establishment of natural history collections and museums led to much correspondence among collectors pertaining to specimens. Such collections became sites for learned discussion on numerous topics related to natural history and other sciences. Similarly, the new scientific societies of the seventeenth century functioned as centers for both experimentation and communication. Scientific societies proliferated throughout Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Meetings entailed intense discussions, all manner of reports, and experiments. The new societies also discussed their conclusions with the wider public. Some academies consisted of formal entities with charters and bylaws, while others were informal associations. All were instrumental in encouraging experiment and other forms of investigation and in communicating results and ideas to like-minded members and visitors.

In the seventeenth century, letter writing became a crucially important form of communication among individuals interested in the sciences. Some historians suggest that the first half of the century can be characterized by private societies and correspondence networks, while the second half is marked by the emergence of formal academies and printed journals. If this characterization is accurate, its details need far more investigation. Throughout the century great networks of letter writing crossed political and religious boundaries. Letters could be delivered relatively quickly and were relatively free from censorship and other forms of interference. Some individuals, or "intelligencers" as they called themselves, played key roles as unofficial correspondents in the Republic of Letters. For example, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (15801637), an experimenter, dissector, and investigator of astronomy and optics, corresponded with people of similar interests who lived all over Europe. At his death in 1637, he left behind between 10,000 and 14,000 letters. Marin Mersenne (15881648), a friar and mathematician, met with an informal group to discuss natural philosophy and mathematics and corresponded with hundreds of individuals, dominating epistolary communication in the second half of the seventeenth century. Other great correspondents included Samuel Hartlib, Ismaël Boulliau, and Henry Oldenburg, first secretary of the Royal Society of London.

The 1660s marked the appearance of two important scientific journals, the Philosophical Transactions, sponsored by the Royal Society, and the Journal des sçavans, the official organ of the Parisian Academy of Sciences. Both journals played central roles in communicating results of experiments, reviewing new relevant literature, reporting on instruments, and publishing reports of new findings from investigations throughout Europe. They became models for (and rivals of) numerous other journals that appeared in the eighteenth century.

The encyclopedia entailed a very different form of communication that included the natural sciences. Compendia that communicated a wide range of learning, including natural knowledge, originated in antiquity. The genre became highly significant in the early modern era. Compendia of knowledge bore a variety of names, such as "theatrum," "systema," and "thesaurus," and, after 1500, "encyclopedia." While it had many precedents, the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot (17131748) and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (c. 1750) is justly famous for its treatment of mathematics, the natural sciences, medicine, and the trades.

See also Academies, Learned ; Ancient World ; Dictionaries and Encyclopedias ; Diderot, Denis ; Dissemination of Knowledge ; Encyclopédie ; Hartlib, Samuel ; Mersenne, Marin ; Natural History ; Oldenburg, Henry ; Peiresc, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de ; Printing and Publishing ; Republic of Letters ; Scholasticism ; Universities .


Primary Source

Oldenburg, Henry. The Correspondence of Henry Oldenburg. 13 vols. Edited and translated by A. R. Hall and M. B. Hall. Madison, Wis., 19651983.

Secondary Sources

Blair, Ann. "Encyclopedias." In Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution from Copernicus to Newton. Edited by Wilbur Applebaum, pp. 209210. New York, 2000.

Dear, Peter R. Mersenne and the Learning of the Schools. Ithaca, N.Y., 1988.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K., 1979.

Febvre, Lucien, and Henri-Jean Martin. The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, 14501800. Translated by David Gerard. Edited by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and David Wootton. London, 1990.

Findlen, Paula. Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley, 1994.

Grendler, Paul F. The Universities of the Italian Renaissance. Baltimore, 2002.

Hatch, Robert A. "Correspondence Networks." In Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution from Copernicus to Newton. Edited by Wilbur Applebaum, pp. 168170. New York, 2000.

Johns, Adrian. The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making. Chicago, 1998.

Kronick, David A. A History of Scientific and Technical Periodicals: The Origins and Development of the Scientific and Technological Press, 16651790. 2nd ed. Metuchen, N.J., 1976.

Miller, Peter N. Peiresc's Europe: Learning and Virtue in the Seventeenth Century. New Haven, 2000.

Pamela O. Long

About this article

Communication, Scientific

Updated About content Print Article


Communication, Scientific