Summer Research Experiences: History of Science at Oxford

On October 2, 2013 by Grad Forum

travis_oxford_slider_2Continuing with the Graduate Forum’s series on graduate student summer work and research, Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALS) student, Travis Shores, reflects back on his experience at the University of Oxford.

I had the honor of studying this summer at Exeter College at the University of Oxford. While there, I worked with Dartmouth Professor Richard Kremer and the University of Oxford’s Dr. Stephen Johnston, the interim director of the Museum of the History of Science. My work focused on the origins of a previously unexplained artifact in the museum collections, and my findings may even connect the artifact to the literary giant Geoffrey Chaucer!

Every summer, the MALS program selects students to attend a month-long session held at Exeter College (one of the 38 constituent colleges that form the University of Oxford) in three main concentration areas: English Literature, History and Globalization, and Creative Writing. From late June to the end of July, the English Literature and History and Globalization groups attend an international summer school program that consists of students from around the world. Immersed in intense daily lectures from world-renowned Oxford scholars, each student rigorously completes a term’s worth of classes. In the remaining down time, students get a unique opportunity to participate in debates, visit museums, attend excursions to historic sites, and fully access the incredible Bodleian Library.

travis_oxford_thumbnailIn addition to attending English literature classes on Chaucer and Shakespeare, I undertook an independent study in which I examined a small 26 mm, metallic dial from the fourteenth century. This dial had curious inscriptions on the face and edges, and there was no previous data on file at Oxford to determine the provenance or actual function of this artifact. In studying the artifact, I determined that the inner circumference of the face of the dial had abbreviations for the 12 astrological signs. I also found that there was a 23-letter Latin/Gothic alphabet on the edge of the dial with a knob in the 24th spot. Although the artifact had been at the Museum of the History of Science since 1973, this detail had escaped notice. It turns out that the signs on the artifact exactly match the order and placement on the famous Painswick Astrolabe that also happens to be on display at the museum.

Oxford possesses the largest collection of astrolabes in the world. Astrolabes were the hand-held supercomputers of the middle ages that utilized planetary and star positioning to calculate time, date, direction and measurement through a trigonometric setting of various brass dials. The Painswick Astrolabe is one of only a few that depicts the 24 hours of the day by letter, rather than by numeral. This lettered notation of hours on astrolabes was first noted in a manuscript from the late 1300s by the famous author of The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer wrote to his son in 1390, describing how to make an astrolabe. In his letter, he mentions the alphabetic ordering of the time of day and directions. This is the only written explanation of this ordering. Numerous astrolabes still exist, but none are truly linked to Chaucer unless they possess the alphabetic substitutes for numerals.

It was a wonderful experience to have the opportunity to attend Exeter College at Oxford for a summer, and be in a position to be able to contribute to the history of science! Combining the sciences with literary history allowed me to determine the background of this dial at Oxford. My findings are currently online as “Oxford’s Mysterious Dial: A Rediscovery” and will be attached to the artifact as part of its official provenance. This experience is another demonstration of the strength and potential of the MALS program at Dartmouth in bringing together original research from a variety of academic fields.

by Travis Shores

Photos courtesy of Travis Shores

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