UC Davis Classics professor Colin Webster recently joined the department this year after receiving his doctorate in Classics from Columbia University in June. He is currently researching ancient science, medicine and philosophy. More specifically, he’s researching the way shifts in technology change our explanations of the natural world’s inner-workings. Webster, who has been researching the subject for about 10 years, is planning to create new courses related to his research in the near future.
What are you currently researching?
I research ancient science and medicine. On one hand I do a lot of research on the medical side of things, and on the other side a lot of mathematics, diagrams and the history of optics.
What I’m particularly interested in is the way that shifts in technology produce new assumptions about nature. The big modern analogy for [how we read the technologies around us into our explanations of how the natural world works] is the computer….When the computer [was] invented people immediately [started] thinking of the brain as a computer….Before the computer, there were the mechanical computational machines and previously people looked at the brain as [such]. I look at the same type of phenomenon in ancient science, where the technologies are a little less sexy, like pipes and mirrors and glass — [questions like] what happens to conceptions of eyesight when the glass is not a particularly good quality, and what … other technologies [there are] that people adopt to think about how eyes work?
Why did you decide to research that?
I am a bit of a completist, so originally I was planning to research philosophy. And [I] felt that in order to say anything about modern philosophy or early modern philosophy, I thought, “Oh, no, I have to go back all the way to the ancients to understand them first and then make my way back,” – but of course when you get back there you’re sort of stuck – there’s a lot of material there. So on the one hand I got into Classics, but I still did a degree in contemporary studies with a lot of history of science. Studying the history of ancient science and technology is a way to push those two things together.
Why do you believe your research is important?
More broadly, ancient science and medicine as a discipline [has really been] undergoing a renaissance in the last 10 to 15 years, especially in the last couple years because people are getting more and more interested in it. There is a massive body of literature that people used to know a great deal about, and in the last hundred years or so have not really paid all that much attention to, so it’s useful so far as we don’t know about this. I think my approach to it is particularly useful because it is so complicated — what’s neat about ancient science is you can think of it as a sort of artificial experiment. It’s a time when there’s lots of technologies around, but a lot of them are far simpler than computers and digital information. They use rakes, pipes – very simple, basic technologies – and nevertheless you can see how these very simple technologies influence the world. And that’s what’s so neat about ancient science…that you can strip away thousands of years of buildup and really see how a very select group of technologies affect the way people think. And you aren’t going to get that sort of clarity in studying modern science. Looking at ancient science in these ways helps us think again about how we encounter the world.
What aspect of your research do you find most interesting?
The questions I find myself continually asking are almost always about how content shapes form, how when you type an essay on a computer versus writing it out it involves drastically different writing styles; what writing an essay is actually changes based on the technology that you’re using to do it. Think about writing an essay on an iPhone: it’s going to produce really different literature. So I am continually drawn to questions like this, especially what happens when you try to classify animals – when you draw diagrams in a particular way, what happens when you try to understand anatomy and you don’t have 3D models you only have expensive parchment paper, where what you draw is what you get. Reproducing these diagrams is extremely difficult, when you draw a diagram of the interior of the human body there’s no guarantee that the next person who comes across it and tries to copy it is going to do a good job of it. So in this particular instance, how does our understanding of anatomy change based on the technologies that we have to reproduce our knowledge?
What aspect do you find most challenging?
There are so many, it’s really hard to pick just one. A lot of these old manuscripts are getting digitized now, so a lot of the materials are becoming more widely available. But they’re poorly catalogued, or we don’t necessarily know how to navigate all the different databases where all this information is kept. You can’t just Google the result; it would be very easy if we could. So really, trying to find the bodies of information that are applicable to the questions that you ask is probably the most difficult thing. Then, of course, everything is in different languages [and] in different time periods, so trying to find what you need and then trying to read it [has also been challenging].
Do you plan to integrate your research into your teaching?
Absolutely, I’ll be integrating them. In fact, I’ll be giving a course on ancient science in the winter [quarter], and next year I’ll be hoping to offer an ancient medicines course. So those are the two most proximate plans, and in the future I’d love to develop more courses that deal more directly with integrating things from the biological sciences. Students in the sciences [and] students in the humanities, [will] all find something that is worthwhile; pre-med students will hopefully learn by looking at [how] ancient doctors dealt with their patients. You can learn a lot about modern bedside practices and be in a better position for that.
Do you have any hobbies that you’re involved in?
I’m in a rap band, and we are terrible. I’ve been in the band for about five years, our album has yet to drop — but when it drops, you’ll hear [it] in the mainstream media; everyone will surely know.