Keyser’s “Encyclopedia of Ancient Natural Scientists”

I was able to get a look at this today.  It’s interesting, but some elements of it left me wishing it had been done differently.

One problem hit me immediately:

Because the book primarily contains Greek scientists, Greek names are transliterated without prior Latinization. … Direct transliteration is no more arbitrary than any other system, …

Of course direct transliteration is not more arbitrary than using the standard system.  Had the humanists chosen to use it, at the recovery of Greek, all the literature would use it, and there would be no issue.  But since they all wrote in Latin, they Latinized the forms, and every piece of literature since is derived from that.

It is exceedingly arbitrary to throw existing writing out of the door in favour of a new system, devised for ideological reasons.  The result of this is that the reader finds himself continually retranslating the transliteration in case some random unfamiliar series of vowels and consonants actually represents an old familiar figure.  In short the editors have elected to place a barrier in the path of the educated reader; and who else would use such a volume. 

Worse still, the transliteration has been done to the level of marking long O and E.  Galen acquires an overscore over the ‘e’ — a matter of little importance, except that again it renders the familiar unfamiliar.  All this tends to exclude the general reader, tends to elitism and must be deprecated.

My next port of call was the article on the obscure alchemical writer, Stephanos of Alexandria.  This article was good.  I think it was quite satisfactory, although I would have preferred to see the sources for the statements made referenced.  It gave the edition and the translation — including the fact that it only includes three of the nine praxeis.  The bibliography was scanty — a complaint that might be levelled against most of the articles.  But from the look of it, it is adequate.  Modern sources and encyclopedias are generally referenced.  There are no footnotes, and I really felt the absence of them.  Without references to the ancient sources, the value of the data given is hard to judge.

Another area that I would have liked to see different is the ordering of the entries.  Authors are listed in alphabetical order, which is understandable.  But if they had been arranged by chronology and region, as in Quasten’s Patrology, it would have been possible to read through the book and gain a good knowledge of the progress of science, simply by so doing. 

The book itself, as a reference book, is a bit of a mistake.  This book is a website.  The book badly needs hyperlinks, connecting authors together.

All these points seem important to me.  But let us not lose sight of the key thing here.  This books gives us, if we are wealthy enough, a reference text in English to all the ancient scientific writers, together with references for further reading.  That is a huge advance on what we had before, and we must welcome it.


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