Liba Taub

The stars, the Volcano Etna, the weather – all of them made ancient scientists reflect over nature. Liba Taub is not only interested in the content of scientific discourses, but also wants to find out how debates were lead in ancient times. Liba Taub, who is a Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University, was an Einstein Visiting Fellow at TOPOI, Cluster of Excellence, from 2010 to 2014. During that time, she viewed and analysed ancient scientific works. The results of her work have shed new light on knowledge transfer in ancient times.


»How did ancient scientists think?«

Can we learn from scientists of the past?

We live in an age in which science has incredible power. Even shampoo manufacturers cite scientific evidence to sell their products. From our current perspective, it is compelling to wonder: did science always dominate over other forms of knowledge? My answer is no, it didn't. Some of the greatest scientists to have ever lived, like Isaac Newton, Claudius Ptolemy, or Aristotle, knew that there are other ways of knowing and that different kinds of knowledge are interconnected.

Looking at the history of science gives us a way of better understanding our own culture and society. It makes us stop and think when people say, "science says this", because science changes. Ptolemy used to believe that the Earth was the centre of the universe. Today, the idea of a universe with a "centre" would strike us as odd. The history of science reminds us that knowledge is transitory, not permanent.

What specific topics are you working on right now?

In recent years, I have mainly focussed on different genres of communicating scientific ideas. Some of these genres are literary forms such as poetry, or subliterary formats like lists, for instance. If you pick up a copy of the Greek Anthology, you will find over 40 short poems about mathematical problems that were most likely recited during "symposia", or lively intellectual debates among male banquet-goers in ancient Greece. I also study scientific objects from antiquity, although very few remain. One example is a fragment of a celestial globe in the Neues Museum in Berlin. Ancient scientists may have used it to read an astronomical poem written by Aratus. We know that people used to read these poems with a globe so that they could trace the location and patterns of the stars. Actually, the sheer existence of globes at that time is interesting: it proves that people knew the Earth was round much earlier than we usually think.

Do you try to get into the minds of ancient scientists?

That's just not possible, unfortunately! But it is very fulfilling to feel that I have understood an idea that was near and dear to an author. In my work on Ptolemy, for instance, I focussed on the beginning of the "Almagest", which many people skip. I think it is a section that Ptolemy took very seriously, and I devoted a good deal of time and effort to understanding it. That gave me a strong sense of connection. Though I know that if Ptolemy were to walk in the room, he could just say "wait a minute, you got that totally wrong!" - I always try to remind myself of that.

Interview: Mirco Lomoth

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