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Nova Scientia. Early Modern Scientific Literature and Latin

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - NOSCEMUS (Nova Scientia. Early Modern Scientific Literature and Latin)

Reporting period: 2019-04-01 to 2020-09-30

Fundamental changes occurred in the study of nature between the late 15th and 18th centuries, leading to the emergence of modern natural science. This process would have been impossible without Latin as the scientific lingua franca of the era. This crucial role of Latin is insufficiently acknowledged. The innumerable scientific texts written in Latin have remained neglected. This severely limits the scope of research into the history of early modern science and thereby restricts our understanding of a crucial part of our past.

To mend these shortcomings, the project intends to advance our understanding of the interrelation of Latin and science in early modern times and to establish the respective literature as an interdisciplinary research field. This is accomplished (a) by examining and classifying its formal variety and range of content, and (b) by analyzing its function as a medium of communication within and beyond the scientific community.
The team, composed of myself as the PI, four scientific collaborators, one IT expert, and one mathematician, has worked steadily towards the proposed goals so far. Most time and energy are being devoted to two closely interlinked fields, namely (1) the collective elaboration of a database of early modern scientific literature, and (2) the design and elaboration of five monographs dealing with different aspects of this literature. These two fields will be briefly described first, followed by (3) the elaboration of a novel OCR tool to be applied to the texts in the database.

(1) A database (of the Semantic MediaWiki type) has been set up which holds a representative selection of early modern works on natural scientific subjects written in Latin. Representativeness is achieved by the subdivision of the field along the categories of scientific discipline, literary genre, and historical era. Works corresponding to every combination of these categories are being looked for and entered into the database. For each work, an entry is created which consists of a short but telling description accompanied by all relevant bibliographical data. A link to a copy already available online is provided in order to give users the possibility to inspect the original for themselves. A semantic drill down makes it possible to search for any combination of categories (e.g. all botanical dialogues from the 16th century). Searches by author, place, and printer are possible as well. The database currently contains c. 740 entries. It is conceived as a working tool for the team members and as a means of dissemination at the same time. In the first capacity, it is collectively elaborated by all team members, whose individual work is based on its contents in turn. In the second capacity, the database is freely accessible at

(2) Five monographs have been designed in detail and are currently being elaborated chapter by chapter by myself and the four scientific collaborators. The monograph to be written by myself will give the first overview ever in monograph format of the field of early modern scientific literature in Latin. It consists of an introductory part, devoted to the scientific, linguistic, literary and media background of early modern scientific literature, and a main part, in which the single literary genres of this literature are described in detail. The monograph has been contracted with Oxford University Press.
The monographs being written by the scientific collaborators focus on four key functions of Latin in the context of early modern science: naming; description and explanation; persuasion; and publicizing science. Each of these functions is being discussed by one of the researchers. In each case, it has proved reasonable to focus on one particular subset of Neo-Latin scientific texts in order to keep the book projects at a manageable size. In the ‘naming’ monograph, this subset is works from natural history; in the ‘description and explanation’ monograph, texts dealing with natural disasters; in the ‘persuasion’ monograph, longer treatises discussing major contested issues; in the ‘publicizing’ monograph, poetic texts.

(3) In order to transcribe the Latin texts presented in the database, the OCR tool ‘Noscemus GM v1’. has been developed. This tool is based on the OCR software ‘Transkribus’ but is specifically geared to the transcription of early modern printed Latin texts. All works in the database are being transcribed, made machine-readable, and searchable with the help of this tool. The tool also holds the potential for applications beyond the project, as briefly explained below.

Preliminary results have been disseminated in peer-reviewed publications, conference participations, two self-organized workshops, and the media, as well as through a growing scientific network.
The results of the project already have moved beyond the current state of knowledge in two areas:
(1) The database provides the best overview of early modern Latin scientific literature available so far.
(2) The OCR tool ‘Noscemus GM v1’ not only renders the printed scientific works in Latin machine-readable, thereby facilitating their further analysis, but also works for all early modern printed texts in Latin script.

Until the end of the project, further progress is expected to be made in the following fields:
(1) The database will grow to c. 1500 entries. It will thus provide an even more detailed image of the subject.
(2) ‘Noscemus GM v1’ will be optimized. A second, improved version will be released in summer 2020. With the help of this and possible further versions, all texts in the database will be transcribed. It also will be tested how the tool could be of help in coming to terms with huge amounts of early modern Latin texts in general.
(3) A conference on the reception of classical literature in early modern science (Innsbruck, September 2020 or 2021) will provide an opportunity to evaluate and disseminate the project's results.
(4) The monographs should be finished and published by 2022. Between them, these volumes will provide a reasoned overview of the body of early modern scientific literature in Latin and an analysis of its contribution to the emergence of modern science.