February 10, 2005

Microcosmos: Digital Media and the History of Science

Professor Adrian Johns of the University of Chicago will lead the University Seminar in New Media Teaching and Learning in a discussion of one of his major projects, Microcosmos, an online interactive environment that reproduces and conveys the skills of past scientific exploration to students.

The formulation of scientific knowledge depends both on making careful observations of phenomena and on constructing theories based on those observations. While students of science must be familiar with scientific theories, models and laws, it is as important that they understand how scientists develop and justify knowledge claims. Generalizations about how the scientific enterprise operates require concrete examples, which history of science can provide.

Currently, there are many websites devoted to the use of digital media in teaching the history of science, ranging from specific museum exhibits to prodigious archival installations like that of the Newton Project at Imperial College, London. Microcosmos, however, is different from these. It seeks to involve the student in recovering not so much scientific knowledge as scientific skills. To that end, Microcosmos is highly interactive. It puts a student in the place of a practitioner of past science — the pilot version makes him or her a Renaissance astronomer — and asks for a theory to be built using the intellectual resources available to such a practitioner. Microcosmos suggests new ways we could use digital media to enhance traditional teaching techniques in the sciences, but also to create new ones.

Professor Johns is an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Chicago, where he also chairs the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science. He has taught and published widely in the history of science and the history of the book. His "The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making" (University of Chicago Press, 1998) is a detailed account of the place of print in the history of knowledge in the first two centuries after the arrival of the printing press. His current project is an account of the development and impact of intellectual piracy from Gutenberg to the present.

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