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Wrestling with Nature

From Omens to Science

When and where did science begin? Historians have offered different answers to these questions, some pointing to Babylonian observational astronomy, some to the speculations of natural philosophers of ancient Greece. Others have opted for early modern Europe, which saw the triumph of Copernicanism and the birth of experimental science, while yet another view is that the appearance of science was postponed until the nineteenth century.

Rather than posit a modern definition of science and search for evidence of it in the past, the contributors to Wrestling with Nature examine how students of nature themselves, in various cultures and periods of history, have understood and represented their work. The aim of each chapter is to explain the content, goals, methods, practices, and institutions associated with the investigation of nature and to articulate the strengths, limitations, and boundaries of these efforts from the perspective of the researchers themselves. With contributions from experts representing different historical periods and different disciplinary specializations, this volume offers a fresh perspective on the history of science and on what it meant, in other times and places, to wrestle with nature.

432 pages | 4 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2011

History: General History

History of Science

Physical Sciences: History and Philosophy of Physical Sciences


“[Wrestling with Nature] makes refreshing and stimulating reading for all working in history and philosophy of science, medicine, and technology. . . . [The] book will be accessible not only to specialists but to more general readers.”

David Knight | Metascience

“[A] brilliant volume. . . . Highly compelling. . . . Taken as a whole, the fourteen chapters present state of the art historiography in a way that historians as well as non-specialised readers will gain many new and inspiring insights.”

Karim Bschir | Annals of Science

“These essays should appeal to a broad audience interested in the diverse origins of modern science. Recommended.”

J. B. Hagen, Radford University | Choice

“[T]he volume is a cohesive, compelling collection that contains essays ranging over a wide array of topics. Several of the essays may be helpful for undergraduate teaching, and many specialists within the fields of history of technology, history and philosophy of science, STS, and history of medicine will find particular essays within that speak directly to their specific interests and concerns.”

Marie Hicks, Illinois Institute of Technology | HOPOS

Wrestling with Nature offers lucid, concise, and empirically up-to-date surveys of major slices of our current historical understandings of the scientific enterprise.”

Matthew L. Jones | Science

Wrestling with Nature is a marvelous and much-needed set of essays that surveys how students of nature conceptualized their studies and how they presented their work to a wider audience including patrons, readers, and other students of nature. Broad in its scope, the book offers impressive contributions from leading scholars that take us from the ancient Near East to more modern times and invite us to reexamine everything we thought we knew about what ‘science’ means and has meant in the Western tradition. Because of its scope, the provocative questions that it raises, and the expertise of the contributors, Wrestling with Nature will be required reading in history of science and science studies classrooms.”

Deborah Harkness, University of Southern California

“A refreshing reflection on that old word, ‘science,’ that has risen to mean so much. Wrestling with Nature is indispensable for clarifying the many different things people throughout history meant when they tried to make sense of nature and of themselves.”

Pietro Corsi, University of Oxford

“Here is a lively exploration, across cultures and through time, of human nature’s approach to the rest of nature. It begins its search for the origins of ‘science’ in the days when natural and supernatural were one and the same. The volume’s expert contributors catch their curious forebears in the difficult acts of extracting nature’s secrets—dividing nature into categories for study, divining in nature the handiwork of gods or mathematical laws, devising observational techniques, and developing experimental methods. The grand sweep of Wrestling with Nature fosters a new appreciation for the flowering of scientific enterprise.”

Dava Sobel, author of Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter

Table of Contents



1. Natural Knowledge in Ancient Mesopotamia

Francesca Rochberg

2. Natural Knowledge in the Classical World

Daryn Lahoux

3. Natural Knowledge in the Arabic Middle Ages

Jon McGinnis

4. Natural Knowledge in the Latin Middle Ages

Michael H. Shank

5. Natural History

Peter Harrison

6. Mixed Mathematics

Peter Dear

7. Natural Philosophy

John L. Heilbron

8. Science and Medicine

Ronald L. Numbers

9. Science and Technology

Ronald Kline

10. Science and Religion

Jon H. Roberts

11. Science, Pseudoscience, and Science Falsely So-Called

Ronald L. Numbers & Daniel P. Thurs

12. Scientific Methods

Daniel P. Thurs

13. Science and the Public

Bernard Lightman

14. Science and Place

David N. Livingstone



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