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Stanford freshmen create medieval-inspired artifacts for the twenty-first century


This fall, the forty-three Stanford freshmen enrolled in the Science in the Making Integrated Learning Environment (SIMILE) program stepped back in time to the days before the printing press in order to fully appreciate the technological artifact of the codex – the precursor to the modern book. For their final project on medieval science and technology, students had to make from scratch their own version of a codex.

In the first of three history of science courses they will take during the 2014-15 academic year, “Inventing Science, Technology, and Medicine,” students covered the period from Archimedes to Leonardo da Vinci. From antiquity to the Renaissance, the codex was the primary way for knowledge to be collected and passed down.

“A codex is a manuscript book made before the age of print. It’s a book made by hand, made by scribes ... one of the great pre-modern technologies,” said history Professor Paula Findlen, one of two faculty members teaching the class and director of the SIMILE program.

The codex project was designed to raise questions about what knowledge a society preserves for posterity. How does a historian approach this knowledge years or centuries, or even millennia, later? What will historians look at in the future when they examine our own time?

Now in its second year, SIMILE is a yearlong intensive humanities residential program for science-oriented freshmen interested in looking at science through the lens of history. For three consecutive quarters, students live in the Burbank House dorm in Stern Hall where they also attend courses that examine how science, philosophy, religion, literature, and the art world are intertwined.

Coursework includes hands-on projects meant to aid understanding of the technologies that foster knowledge, along with field trips, presentations by guest speakers, and informal lectures and discussions. Students are also encouraged to make use of the “Collaboratorium,” a space designed specifically for SIMILE and ITALIC students to use for independent study.

For their final hands-on projects this fall, students became twenty-first-century scribes entrusted with deciding which aspects of the science of our civilization should be saved for posterity in a medieval-inspired codex. Each team of three or four students was tasked with selecting passages from existing texts they felt best relayed the discoveries, artifacts, inventions, and modern practices worth preserving.

“One of the great things about teaching a history of science class in a residential space is that knowledge is as much about doing as it is about discussing. We want [students] to know knowledge is something you make,” said Findlen. “Once you make something, you never look at that artifact the same way. From now on they will wonder what went into making books. Maybe they will also think this way of other objects.”

Classics professor Reviel Netz, who co-taught the class with Findlen, stressed that the collaborative aspect of this project was key. The students in the SIMILE program “are amazing intellectuals,” Netz said. “They will make a difference in the world,” and this program gives them another bit of life experience to help them do so. “They learn about people who are very different from them and passionate about different things” and how to collaborate together, Netz said.

Hands-on process
The codex project was also meant to highlight the value of making something by hand, an unfamiliar experience for many of today’s students who are used to digital technology, said Kristen Haring, the SIMILE program’s assistant director.

Haring said that one of the anxieties students expressed when preparing to make their codices was a fear of making mistakes that they couldn’t erase. She told them, “If your codex doesn’t have any mistakes, it’s not a real codex!” This is because during a time when paper, ink, and pens were expensive, mistakes were just a given – they would happen, get crossed out or covered up, and the scribe would continue on.

A visit to the Stanford Libraries Special Collections was meant to both alleviate some of these fears and to introduce students to a rich Stanford resource. While there, students saw the beautiful hand-made paper books, the rich illuminations on the vellum or parchment pages, and the various calligraphy styles – including mistakes that had clearly been crossed out or covered up.

Earlier in the quarter students attended a series of workshops at Magnolia Editions, a fine art studio in Oakland, where they learned to use raw materials to make ink, pens and paper by hand. Students ground their own inks from charred pig bones and oak galls, carved out their own bamboo ink pens, made sheets of paper from cotton pulp, witnessed a demonstration on basic book binding and stitching, and received a lesson in calligraphy.

Later, during their own time, students copied the passages from their choice of sources into a quire-length codex – four sheets of paper, folded to form eight leaves and sewn together, resulting in a 16-page codex. On December 2, the codices were all on display in Burbank House where students, instructors, and guests viewed all the final projects and commented on the various styles and sources within, from ancient philosophy to Schrödinger’s cat.

Matthew Kim, whose group made a codex about the humanistic nature of science, agreed that the process of making the codex was thought-provoking. “You had to be very careful” when making the codex, Kim said, because the materials were all very expensive and the process was laborious. “Now, everything is super fast,” he said, and remarked that taking the time to slow down and make something that took nearly twenty hours to complete was “really therapeutic.”

Kim called his group’s codex “the ultimate embodiment of human experience.” To capture this, his group filled their codex with excerpts from a rich variety of sources. Among these was T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” sections of the mathematics-centered webcomic xkcd, and passages from A Sand County Almanac, a 1949 collection of essays by Aldo Leopold about the relationship between humans and the land they inhabit. Their codex also included Chinese and Korean writing, to ensure that Eastern science was referenced, therefore presenting a broad view of human knowledge.

“Science and engineering have roots in history,” Kim said, adding that it is important to put science into context. The class “helps us explore how [science and history] influence each other.”

Kim predicts that our current time is the last era when humans and technology are still separate. When asked about what we will be remembered for, Kim said, “A time before machines ruled the world and technology was sentient.”

Cassidy Forler, who hopes to one day become a surgeon and who carved the bamboo pens her group used for their physics-themed codex, has been especially enjoying the ways the class puts scientific achievements into a historical context. Doing so “gives you insight into what was happening in the past,” she said, adding that SIMILE is “a good way to introduce the humanities” to kinesthetic learners.