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NMSU history professor discusses history of science at Cambridge

William Eamon, regents professor of history and dean of the Honors College at New Mexico State University, recently had the rare opportunity to serve as keynote speaker at a University of Cambridge conference on a research topic he was largely responsible for creating.

William Eamon, regents professor of history and dean of the Honors College at NMSU, served as keynote speaker at a conference at the University of Cambridge in February. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

The conference, "Secrets and Knowledge: Medicine, Science and Commerce 1500-1800," was held Feb. 15-16 at the Cambridge Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH).

According to the University of Cambridge Web site, the conference was intended to "provide a forum to explore recent research on the circulation of secrets in medieval and early modern medicine and science" and "to foment discussion across scholarly generations" bringing "established experts in the field together with younger academics, encouraging active discussion on the current state of research and its future directions."

Eamon's 1994 book "Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture" is regarded as one of the first on the subject and placed him firmly in the category of "established experts." The book earned Eamon a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize and helped set in motion the interest in the subject that would lead to dissertations, scientific papers and the conference at Cambridge.

"A scholar wants to see his work inspire others," Eamon said. "But I had no idea it would generate such a huge response."

The basis of his book and the research that it has generated is that recipes, how-to guides and magic formulas dating from antiquity to the birth of modern scientific theory were vital in creating the current system of research and empirical experimentation.

These "books of secrets," Eamon said, are responsible for taking the world "from a place where there was no experimental science to a place where there was."

By attempting to follow and alter recipes for various types of materials and substances, the creators were unknowingly sowing the seeds of science.

"It comes from the practical traditions of weavers, dyers, blacksmiths, alchemists and artisans," Eamon said. "A recipe is a way of expressing an experiment that allows scientists to replicate it."

Topics at the conference included "Secrets to healthy living: health advice literature in renaissance and early modern Italy," "Secrets revealed: alchemical books in early modern England" and "Keeping beauty secrets in 16th-century Iberia."