Arts & Culture

Ancient science, modern lens

7 min read

Scholar looks at evolution of technology

Hanging on the wall in Boylston 232, between windows overlooking the southern edge of Tercentenary Theatre, two small photographs present an intricate view of distant, colorful nebulae. Mark Schiefsky, professor of the classics, captured both images with his telescope. He has been revisiting the hobby of astrophotography as of late, an old passion from his boyhood in Michigan.

The framed nebulae evoke a bit more than childhood nostalgia. Schiefsky, who studies the history of ancient science, has made it his life’s work to bridge the gap between the humanities and the natural sciences. In the office of a professor who majored in both classics and astronomy, the nebulae photos are equally at home as are the works of Hippocrates.

Schiefsky originally hoped to be an astrophysicist, so astronomy was a logical choice for his undergraduate major at the University of Michigan. Yet, during his freshman year, Schiefsky took a course on ancient Greek literature in translation that altered his plans dramatically.

“I got really excited about reading Homer in translation,” Schiefsky said. He added classics as a second major and pursued course work in both fields.

“What I liked about the humanities was that each scholar could develop his or her own picture of things,” he said. “But I also enjoyed the collaborative aspects of scientific research.”

Ultimately, Schiefsky found the classics to be a more satisfying field. Upon graduation in 1991, he accepted a scholarship to pursue a second B.A. in classics at Cambridge University.

Schiefsky spent two years in Cambridge as a resident of Magdalene College, where he began his in-depth study of ancient philosophy.

“My time in Cambridge was extremely rewarding,” Schiefsky said. “There I became fascinated by the study of Plato, Aristotle, and their predecessors and successors. And I saw that it would be possible to bring together the two fields I had focused on at Michigan.”

From Cambridge, England, Schiefsky then came to Cambridge, Mass. At Harvard he pursued a Ph.D. in classical philosophy under the direction of Gisela Striker, now Walter C. Klein Professor of Philosophy and of the Classics. His research focused on the Hippocratic treatise “On Ancient Medicine,” which scholars estimate was written in the late fifth century B.C.E.

“Hippocrates and his contemporaries developed high ethical ideals, even though they operated in a very competitive environment with a comparative lack of technological resources, by modern standards,” said Schiefsky. “The texts, therefore, are very interesting for what they reveal about the way in which ancient practitioners balanced the sometimes conflicting demands of reputation and the patient’s welfare — an issue that confronts modern doctors as well.”

Furthermore, Schiefsky said, many of the ideas now associated with scientific medicine are first attested in the ancient writings attributed to Hippocrates.

“Fundamental to many of these texts is the idea that diseases have a cause that can be grasped by human reason, and that the best way to treat a disease is to find its cause and remove it,” Schiefsky said. “That approach still guides medicine today.”

As a graduate student, Schiefsky also became fascinated by the history of ancient mechanics, and he began to explore the process by which Greek craftsmen developed and refined various technologies. Those research interests led him to pursue a postdoctoral year at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.

Schiefsky and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute discovered that ancient craftsmen were able to engineer sophisticated machines such as the steelyard (a balance with unequal arms) and the catapult more than a century before Archimedes gave the first rigorous proof of the principle of the lever.

“It’s important to recognize that technology has its own logic of development, which does not necessarily involve explicit theorizing,” Schiefsky said. “The evidence suggests that ancient craftsmen developed quite sophisticated devices without theory — though at a certain point, theory came to play a role as well.”

Schiefsky enjoys reading the highly technical treatises that led to these discoveries, but admits the literature might not be for everyone.

“I find it interesting to grapple with the way ancient cultures did mathematics, because it is quite different from the way we learn it,” he said. “It’s not always light reading, though — the texts require a certain amount of patience and interest.”

To facilitate his work at the Max Planck Institute, Schiefsky began to pursue methods by which digital technology could be employed to improve research. That pursuit evolved into the Archimedes Project, a joint initiative between the Department of the Classics at Harvard and the Max Planck Institute. The initiative, which was funded by the National Science Foundation from 2001 to 2004, encourages scholars to develop sophisticated linguistic-based technology that can be used to search for and analyze specific word patterns within a digitized text.

The project has been central to Schiefsky’s research since he took a position as assistant professor of the classics at Harvard in January 2000. He returns to Berlin each summer to meet with colleagues and discuss their progress.

“We have to get computer scientists and humanists to work together to better serve the research needs of the humanistic community,” he explained. “I am constantly working with others to design general tools that can be applied to a variety of fields: for example, technologies that will support the study of historical sources in many different languages.”

In addition to his involvement in the Archimedes Project, Schiefsky is an active member of Harvard’s Digital Humanities Working Group, which aims to explore how the application of information technology can contribute to the study of human society and culture.

“Humanists have a very important voice in the development of technology,” he said. “We have a responsibility to contribute to the discussion, to ensure, for example, that the Internet is not shaped only by corporate or other nonacademic interests.”

Though Schiefsky’s latest research project is not focused on digital technologies, it offers further evidence of his passion for linking the classics with the sciences. He is currently exploring the texts of Galen, a Greek physician who lived and wrote in the second century A.D.

“Galen’s texts need to be understood chiefly as contributions to medical theory and practice,” Schiefsky said. “But one of the reasons Galen is so fascinating is that he draws on philosophical thought in a highly systematic way. The impact of Plato and Aristotle on his approach is apparent on almost every page.”

In addition to exploring the ways in which Galen employs Plato and Aristotle, Schiefsky studies the key role that Galen played in shaping the history of Western medicine.

“Because of Galen’s enormous historical influence, there is a tendency to view him as representing the entire tradition of ancient medicine. Galen revered Hippocrates and claimed to be following in his footsteps. But in fact Galen’s views were quite distinctive, and studying his picture of Hippocrates actually reveals more about him than about Hippocrates. By looking at Galen in the context of his own time, we start to get a new picture of the historical origins of many aspects of the Western medical tradition.”

Schiefsky’s commitment to interdisciplinary research informs his approach to teaching and advising.

“I like thinking systematically about what a classics education should be, and how we can push the accepted limits of the field,” he said. “We shouldn’t rest on requirements simply because they’ve ‘always been that way.’”

He will have the opportunity to consider new approaches to classics pedagogy in academic year 2008-09, as director of undergraduate studies in the Department of the Classics. He has served in that capacity already, from 2001 to 2003 and 2004 to 2005 (the position is typically reserved for junior faculty members), but Schiefsky is excited to re-take the reins.

“I really enjoy working with undergraduates and helping to guide their education,” he said, “so I am thrilled to have that opportunity once again.”

Schiefsky hopes that his own work will provide an inspiration for students seeking to pursue unorthodox paths of study.

“You don’t dilute classic texts by exploring their connections to other fields or by making them relevant to today’s world,” he said. “Classics can successfully be combined with many other fields.”