Experimental history of science I


Lecturer(s) :

Dumas Primbault Simon François
Mihailescu Ion-Gabriel




This course will introduce students to recent works and advancements in the history of science which will provide them with the necessary background to articulate historical questions and to understand the role played by material objects and tacit, technical skills in the production of knowledge.


Learning by doing: Exploring the history of science through experimenting and making

In the past two decades, historians have shown that the history of science is not only about texts, big ideas, and theories. To understand how tangible objects are crafted and used, historians also have to get their hands dirty. These advances in the field of history allow us to reimagine the classroom as a laboratory engaged in the production of historical knowledge. In this course students will be able to use their technical skills (from chemistry, physics, engineering, architecture etc.) to engage with past objects, practices, and techniques. Student projects can include: 

  1. the reenactment of past knowledge creation: experiments (early physics, psychology, or even alchemy), observations, drawings etc.; 
  2. the use of modern analysis techniques (3D scans, 3D printing, X-ray, CAD, etc.) to produce historical knowledge about past objects and practices. 



    Week 1. Introduction

Part 1. Making Sense of Experiments

    Week 2. Experimentum Crucis: Newton's prisms & Joule's laboratory. Discussion. 

    Week 3. Laboratory Work: Visit to the Archives.

Part 2. Making Sense of Instructions

    Week 4. 'Reworking the Bench': Alchemical practices and lab notebooks. Discussion.

    Week 5. Laboratory Work: Deciphering alchemical instructions.

Part 3. Making Sense of Materials

    Week 6. Matter, Materials, Materiality. Discussion.

    Week 7. Laboratory Work: Recreating Newton's alchemical experiments.

Part 4. Making Sense of Drawings

    Week 8. Deciphering Technical Drawings. Leonardo's Robots. Discussion.

    Week 9. Laboratory Work: Interpreting and making drawings.

Part 5. Making Sense of Instruments

    Week 10. Through the Looking Glass. Discussion.

    Week 11. Laboratory Work: Practical work with scientific instruments.

Part 6. Making Sense of Actors

    Week 12. Social Interactions and the Performance of Science. Discussion.

    Week 13. Laboratory Work: Project workshop.

    Week 14.  Presentation of Project Proposals


re-enactment, past experiments, learning by doing, history of science, practices, artefacts, tacit knowledge

POLY-perspective :

Learning Outcomes

By the end of the course, the student must be able to:

Transversal skills

Teaching methods

The course relies on the teaching method of 'learning by doing'. We consider this to be a particularly appropriate method for imparting knowledge about the history of science. 

Fall semester: lecture, discussion, presentation and practical work.

Expected student activities

Students are expected to attend lectures and laboratory, read the assigned articles, and participate actively to discussions. Students will prepare short reports or presentations based on their historical laboratory work. At the end of the Fall semester students will present a written proposal for the Spring semester project.

Assessment methods

Independent evaluation at the end of both the autumn and spring term (grade associated to 3 ECTS).

Autumn term:

All work can be presented in either English or French.


Office hours Yes
Assistants No
Forum Yes

Weekly meetings with supervisor or during alternative appointments with supervisor and own group.

If appropriate, exchange via email, to be confirmed with respective supervisor.



Research articles, depend on the project to be performed. Information and skills to find the literature in the course of the autumn term. Additional bibliographical references will be put online on the Moodle of the course.

Ressources en bibliothèque

In the programs

Reference week

16-17  CE1104  
18-19  CE1104  
      Exercise, TP
      Project, other


  • Autumn semester
  • Winter sessions
  • Spring semester
  • Summer sessions
  • Lecture in French
  • Lecture in English
  • Lecture in German