The Latin of Science

by Epstein M and Spivak R, p/b pp. 395 Bolchazy – Carducci Mundelein 2019 $29.00 9780865168602

This is a book for curious persons interested in the legacy of Latin in the medieval and modern periods and in the interaction in these later periods between ancient science, Arabic science and mathematics, and the beginnings of modern scientific discovery, all in Latin.  It is an anthology containing texts that would not normally be read by intermediate to advanced students of Latin.  We are presented with authors such as: Isidore of Seville, Francis Bacon, Copernicus and Kepler; some are more familiar: Pliny the Elder and Seneca from the classical period but also Vitruvius from his work on architecture; others come from outside the usual western tradition: Maimonides and Ibn Al-Haytham.  The book arises from the University of Calgary where a Latin of Science course has run for a number of years, as a collaboration between different science and engineering faculties and Classics, a good example of how Classics can be an interdisciplinary subject linking different areas of inquiry in an age when the strict barriers between disciplines are breaking down.  The texts are grouped thematically (Architecture and Engineering, Astronomy, Medicine) rather than chronologically, each section containing a variety of authors.  The texts are fairly short and are accompanied by running notes which are mainly designed to help in translation and understanding.  There is a comprehensive glossary at the end of the book.  It seems that this volume is not aimed principally at students of Latin as it provides a number of appendices, of which one sets out how Latin pronounced and a second gives a fairly full compendium of Latin grammar over eighty pages.  Intermediate or advanced Latin students would not normally need this or would have other resources to help with basic linguistic questions.
In an extract from Euclid, translated into Latin from an Arabic translation of the original Greek by Adelard of Bath, the mathematics seems far more difficult than the Latin which would suggest that some of these extracts are aimed more at scientists than at Latinists.  Images of the original books or manuscripts are included and the introductions to each section are informative and interesting in a brief space.  (Who knew that the wife of President Hoover, Lou Henry Hoover, has translated with her husband On Mining by Georgius Agricola 1494-1555?)  Extracts are brief and a researcher would probably not find a particular passage that they were looking for, but they are intended as an introduction and primer in the reading of original Latin scientific texts.  With the generous help provided, a reader with some Latin and some experience in the history of science would, with perseverance, be able to tackle these texts in Latin with some success.

John Bulwer

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10.12.2019
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