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CLAS 314 A: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics in the Ancient World

Meeting Time: 
TWThF 9:30am - 12:00pm
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Photo of Faculty
Sarah Culpepper Stroup

Syllabus Description:


STEM in the Ancient World

Early Fall Start  2020: Welcome Page

Students and Groma in the Quad


Welcome!   On this page I will tell you a little about Classics, a little about me, and finally a little about this class, including a little about how we are going to be doing this class this year (as it's going to be a little different—but still very fun).  (You can also see a summary of the class requirements on the "Home" page.  

About Classics:  I am a professor in the department of 'Classics' here, and have been since 2000.  'Classics' is a really weird name, and it would be better to understand what we do as "Ancient Greek and Roman Studies"—though even that is a bit narrow.  Basically, we study the whole of the ancient Mediterranean world: languages (Greek and Latin mainly, but there are others), literatures, histories, warfare, arts, architecture, politics, sciences, mathematics, technologies, cities, economies, health systems, gender and sexualities... and more.  A way to think about it is to think of nearly everything you can study at a modern university: we study nearly all of that, but about 2000 to 3000 years ago.

Of course we don't all study all of it—like any field, we specialize in our research—but that's how broad our field is: really broad.  Further, our field gets broader every day, because we are constantly—and that's no exaggeration—discovering more and more about the ancient past.  New archaeological finds, new texts, and new technologies—Ground Penetrating Radar; imaging technologies— that allow us to learn more and more about what has survived into the "modern period" (and hint: we've lost about 98%!).

We study the past because it's super fascinating, but we also study it because the more we learn about the past (any past) the more we learn about where we are in the present, and the better able we are to navigate our ways forward.  

It's like if you only have a small scrap of a road map with a red dot and "You Are Here"

Via Salaria.png

That doesn't really tell you anything!   If all you know is that you are "here," but don't know where you came from how how you got "here," you have no idea where you want to go or how to get there.  And that's where you are without history.  But with history, it's like you've zoomed out on  the above, and now you see where that red dot was located: 


(it's along Via Salaria, by the way, on the way to Reate, which was NE of Rome.  See all those red lines?  Those are some of the ancient Roman roads—they'd built over 50,000 miles of roads, enough to circle the earth approximately twice!)

A thing about history is that everyone studies history.  It's true.  Everyone is a historian due to the simple fact that it is impossible to study the future.  Economists?  They study past economic trends.  Engineers?  They study past engineering successes and failures.  Physicians?  They study past diseases and treatments—what worked, and what didn't (ditto Epidemiologists, as you might have noticed recently).   Entrepreneurs, and Businesspeople, and Biologists, and Chemists, and Journalists, and Museum Curators, and Artists, and Astronauts.  Geologists?   They study the history of the earth.  Astronomers?  They study the history of the universe.  

We are all historians!  And therefore, learning to study any past quickly and effectively—how to gather research quickly, how to determine good evidence form bad, how to spot important patterns and make meaningful connections—will be a benefit to everything you do in the future.   

And that is basically at the core of Classics—and the Humanities (the university Division of Arts and Sciences) as a whole.  We specialize in—and teach—this particular type of study of history: 


1.  We study aspects, questions, and problems of human societies, communications, and cultures. 

2.  We approach such through the lenses of languages, materials, and histories (how? what? when?)

3.  Our approach is critical / speculative rather than  (usually) empirical, and  is subjective rather than objective.

4.  We focus on finding meaningful questions  rather than providing definitive answers


And so, in taking CLAS 314 ("STEM in the Ancient World"), you'll be learning about STEM in the ancient world—but you'll also be learning  how to research, analyze, evaluate (and question) evidence, and convey results publicly in a way that will serve you as you move ahead.  And you'll do so with a much  bigger road map.  


About Me:  I was born and raised in Hawai'i, on the island of O'ahu, and moved here—Seattle—after high school.  did my undergraduate degrees (Philosophy, Latin, Classical Studies) here as well (!), and then got my graduate degrees (MA and PhD) from UC Berkeley.  It is absolutely great to be teaching where I myself went to school as an undergrad—I really have been where you are about to be!

I was born into a science family—my father was a physical oceanographer (and professor at UH Mānoa—he worked on the currents of the northern tropical Pacific), my grandfather was a physician, my brother is a high school Physics and Chemistry teacher.   

As a Humanist, I'm kind of the black sheep of the family because I didn't go into the sciences!  Actually, it had been my plan to go into the sciences, but then I got to college and found Philosophy, and that led me into the ancient world (the earliest philosophers, and we'll learn  about them, were physicists!), and one thing led to another and here I am. 

And that's why I developed this class several years ago—because although my research (the books and articles I write) focuses on late Roman Republican political and philosophical texts, I've always had ancient science and technology—especially speculative science, technology, and engineering—as an ongoing side gig.  I studied ancient mathematics and medicine in grad school, and continued / expanding such studies after becoming faculty.   I have led a lot of study abroad programs, and I also lead an archaeological field school for ten years—and it was throughout those experiences that I  really began to appreciate the extreme sophistication of the ancient world more and more.  

I mean, roads and aqueducts and concrete and all that—of course.  But also construction, which involved complex crane systems such as the pentapastos (a 5-pulley crane, creating a 5:1 mechanical  advantage).  Metallurgy?  Bronze is an alloy (copper and arsenic or copper and tin), so that depends upon mining (they had really advanced mining technologies) and careful control  of the forge—which they had.

Foundry Cup.jpg

(The "Berlin Foundry Cup," 5th c BCE, Athens [now in Berlin])

And... what about all that Roman glass we'd always  find at the excavations?  Ancient glass technology,  as it turns out, was wicked advanced,  and ancient Roman period glass in particular is some of our best evidence for broader material sciences and engineering in the ancient world (because most of the bronze  was later melted  down.   One of the coolest types of glass technology they developed involved nanotechnology—the  chemical production of gold and silver colloids that produces a dichroic (two-color) effect depending upon whether light is reflected (from the front) or transmitted (from the rear): 

Lycurgus Cup.jpg

(The "Lycurgus Cup," 4th c CE, now at the British Museum; this is our most famous example of Imperial dichroic glass)

Many of their technologies, such as the production of dichroic glass, remain a mystery to us moderns.  We know what they did—the used a chemical process to produce gold and silver colloids—but we don't know how they did it then.   Only that they did.  Hm.

So anyway, these questions, these puzzles are what at the core of this class.  Not only learning more about what they  were working on (a lot of astronomy, early investigations into electricity and optics, the production of early robots—which also appear in some myths:  they were definitely thinking about these—and early automatic mechanisms such as vending machines and mechanical birds), but trying to figure out what they had imagined for their future (hint: lots of texts about space travel!).  But in  getting at all of that, we'll be juggling a lot of different types of evidence, and asking ourselves how to evaluation these pieces of evidence against each other.  

I'm currently writing a book on this topic, tentatively titled "Ex Machina: The Stories of STEM in the Ancient World."  You  can  read more about the class  here:

UW Perspectives Article: "Classics and Catapults"


And you can read an interview with me here:

"Most Tech Today Would Be Frivolous to Ancient Scientists"

Finally, last year  I was awarded a Distinguished Teaching Award of Innovation with Technology for this class:

Distinguished Teaching Award Announcement


So, that's a little about me and why I teach this class—and why I enjoy teaching it so much.   For details on  how  this class will be taught this coming term—remotely, that is—see the "Welcome" module on the Home page! 


Catalog Description: 
Examines science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine in the cultures of Greece and Rome, from the late Bronze Age to early Roman Empire.
GE Requirements: 
Social Sciences (SSc)
Arts and Humanities (A&H)
Last updated: 
June 28, 2020 - 9:11pm