Visualizing Science in Media Revolutions

Sietske Fransen, Ph.D.

This research group will study the late medieval and early modern practices of visualizing science. While images, tables, and diagrams in manuscripts would be read by one reader at the time, printed images, tables, and diagrams had much wider audiences. We investigate how development asked for and enabled new forms of visual communication.

Leiden University Libraries, MS BPL 3018, f. 152r. Diagram of a solar eclipse, in the student notebook of Johannes Knotter (Leuven, 1683).

The research group will explore the modes and media in which early modern scientific practitioners visualized their ideas and illustrated their objects of inquiry. A new visual culture was generated in the early modern period by those in pursuit of knowledge due to a variety of reasons, such as: new media (as a result of the printing press); new tools of observing the world (such as telescopes and microscopes); more forms of recording and transmitting these observations (in the form of manuscript and print); and the generation of new questions about nature and the world. By comparing media, tools, and forms of communication in different "fields" of early modern science, such as for example medicine, architecture, astronomy, and mathematics, the members of this research group will investigate the impact of new media on the way in which science was communicated visually. What is more, the group will also study how new forms of visualization might have had an impact on the questions raised by early modern practitioners of science and medicine. Building on previous research on epistemic images, history of the book, and history of observation and science, the group's focus will be directed at questions such as:

  • How did the printing press have a lasting impact on the observational and visualization skills of early modern scientific practitioners?
  • How did scientific practitioners communicate visually for different audiences, in manuscript (letters, notebooks, hand-written books) alongside printed books?
  • How did early modern scientific practitioners deal with the practical and moral issues surrounding the making and manipulability of images?

The research group's expertise in studying media, visualization, and science, will also be put to use to study the impact of digital media and digital tools on current working practices in the humanities and sciences. How are current innovations in media technology and data storage impacting the role of images in our own research questions and research methods? Through a series of small workshops the group will collaborate with researchers in the humanities, digital humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences to open up new perspectives on how issues of new media and new methods of visualizing data pertain to our time. This exercise of reflection will raise an awareness of practices, possibilities, and struggles caused by the use of new media in both the past and the present.

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