The History of Science gets Literary at the Jewish Museum

The Jewish Museum's Crossing Borders exhibit includes copies of Euclid's early texts on geometry, complete with notated figures.

The Jewish Museum’s Crossing Borders exhibit includes copies of Euclid’s early texts on geometry, complete with notated figures.

Perhaps the best way to appreciate one of the Jewish Museum’s current exhibits,  Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries, is to learn a little bit more about why—apart from being, at nearly a thousand years old, inconceivably ancient and on display for our 21st century eyes to see—the books in the show are so remarkable.

That’s where attending a talk hosted by the Museum comes in. Take, for example, “The Medieval Book and the Diffusion of Science,” given by Thomas F Glick, a distinguished Boston University professor who specializes in medieval Spain, medieval science and technology, modern science, and food history, and who was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Valencia in 2010 and has held National Endowment for the Humanities, National Science Foundation, and Fulbright fellowships.  Professor Glick began his talk as any suitably dignified professor might—by fiddling with his Powerpoint presentation and complaining about the inability of a person to give a talk anymore without having one—before launching into a discussion of the intertwinings of Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin in the historical trajectory of science education and knowledge.

Although our own Core curriculum may not focus on the diffusion of science from Greek, through other foundational languages such as Hebrew and Arabic, and into other Western languages, this phenomenon has been dubbed “The greatest single cultural achievement in human history” by some. Glick holds this position to be a bit extreme, claiming instead that the translation of science from Greek into Arabic ought to be placed into the same category as the Renaissance or the Enlightenment in terms of its impact on intellectual history.

One of the beautifully illuminated manuscripts now on display at the Jewish Museum.

One of the beautifully illuminated manuscripts now on display at the Jewish Museum.

Jews were highly influential in the progress of this type of linguistic diffusion because translations often had to pass through the medium of Hebrew to get to Arabic. These translations were achieved in teams and, in Spain, for example, Jews were always the senior members of such teams because they knew both Greek and Arabic. This is interesting, Glick said, because Jews have traditionally been persecuted in Spain. But, at this time, Christians wanted to learn Arabic, which gave Jews cultural capital, if only temporarily.

Glick’s primary interest is in the translation of technology across linguistic cultures. In this vein, he chatted extensively about the astrolabe, a device used in the middle ages to track the positions of celestial bodies for use in astrology, astronomy, navigation, and so on. According to Glick, the astrolabe came in Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin versions. The instrument’s various cultural roots related it to the study of science amongst particular peoples: science and, in particular, medicine, was highly astrological at this point, and to consult an astrolabe was considered akin to reading a book.

The additional context provided by Professor Glick’s lecture made the Bodleian manuscripts in the next room over all the more awe-inspiring. It was in these books, in their various languages, that the very basis of science as we know it became available to people across the world. And in any case, they’re beautiful to contemplate.

Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries will run until February 3, 2013, and is free with valid student CUID through Passport to NYTalks in connection with the Jewish Museum’s exhibits are offered frequently. For more information and a calendar of events, click here

-Laura Booth, CC ’15

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