Back The role of science and technology in the configuration of Spain and Portugal over the last five centuries


The role of science and technology in the configuration of Spain and Portugal over the last five centuries

Leoncio López-Ocón, CSIC Institute of History (IH-CSIC); Tiago Brandão, NOVA FCSH;

Clearly, science plays a key role in modern times. Yet, what has its development been over the course of history? What is its relationship with other disciplines? And how has it influenced the building of the two Iberian nations? 

Anyone interested in studying these questions in greater depth or starting to learn about them with rigour, but also in an exciting way, can undertake an extraordinary journey through these two exceptional books. 

The first of the two, Fantasmas de la ciencia española by science historian Juan Pimentel, offers us a fascinating tour around the interrelations between art and science in Hispanic societies over the last five centuries. The eight parts of the book are interdependent, but autonomous at the same time, so they can be read in any order one chooses. 

Therefore, it is possible to dive into this work through, for example, the eighth and closing chapter, titled “‘Naturalia’ en la Pinacoteca”. It analyses the exhibition that artist Miguel Ángel Blanco presented at the Museo Nacional del Prado between 2013 and 2014, which aimed to recover the original design project of this neoclassical building. Its architect, Juan de Villanueva, conceived it as a scientific and technological complex that would provide a prominent place for the treasures of nature of what was, at that time, a tri-continental empire. Decades later, however, art eventually came to overshadow science, so that the images created by artists took precedence over those of scientists, leaving them hidden from view. 
This is the idea behind the storyline of this thought-provoking work. The science developed between the 16th and 21st centuries in Spanish society has been a phantom element because it turned into a practice with restricted visibility. For this reason, even though “it continues emitting rays of light from the past”, in our collective conscience it occupies “a remote and shadowy place”. 

To bring us closer to these lights and shadows, the author has resorted to the spectral turn. Those who use it pursue individuals and objects from the past that are hidden because they were marginalised. Yet, they have all left trails spectres of their presence that haunt us. That is how phantoms work, as we are reminded by the brilliant introduction to this book. Therein, Pimentel confesses his fascination with images, singular trails left behind by our forebears. They appear and disappear, hence their spectral nature. 

Images are fundamental in the structure, discourse, and content of  Fantasmas de la ciencia española. With his razor-sharp interpretations, and equipped with solid theoretical tools and supported by a wide range of sources, the author guides us through eight scientific episodes, manifested through powerful visual resources. 

Three chapters deal with the interconnection between European knowledge and indigenous know-how during the colonial actions of the Hispanic Monarchy in the Americas. Pimentel explains to us the vital role played by indigenous knowledge in the sighting of the South Sea (the Pacific) by Núñez de Balboa and how it was hidden in a portolan chart. He describes to us the crucial role played by native knowledge in the great “phantom” expedition led by Francisco Hernández, royal physician to King Philip II of Spain, across lands that today form part of the United Mexican States. He also introduces us to the creative work of the indigenous painters who collaborated with botanist José Celestino Mutis in the area today forming Colombia, and whose iconographic treasure remained invisible for a very long time.

Another four episodes reveal to us the importance of iconographic resources in scientific discourses. They correspond to several works from the Baroque or contemporary era that possess a certain phantasmal nature. This is manifested in the microscopic atlas that Crisóstomo Martínez produced in the 17th century; or in the maps in which geologists and palaeontologists tackled the difficult task of apprehending the space and time of the new liberal State of the 19th century, and also in the drawings and photographs that enabled Santiago Ramón y Cajal to achieve glory by winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine 1906 and to consolidate a school, very influential among neurologists the world over (Portuguese included) but that became diluted as a consequence of the “uncivil” war of 1936-1939. Lastly, the author enters into a dialogue with literature about the presence of women in our scientific culture. He studies the images produced by spectroscopist Piedad de la Cierva during the Franco years, and paintings by Maruja Mallo while living in exile. Both the former and the latter are expressive of the relationship between art and science that the author of this work has ably explored and unravelled.

Pimentel confesses his fascination with images, singular trails left behind by our forebears. They appear and disappear, hence their spectral nature

Fantasmas de la ciencia española  deserves to have readers in many places, and Portugal is no exception, given that scientific activities in the Iberian countries have had parallelisms: they allowed them to build their empires in the past and have played a decisive role in the configuration of the two states as we know them today. Besides, they have been deeply interrelated in various eras. Thus, between 1921 and 1970, the societies for the progress of sciences in Portugal and Spain held eight joint congresses. The first took place in Oporto exactly one century ago. In fact, the keynote speech delivered at it by Ricardo de Almeida Jorge, considered the founder of modern public health in Portugal, was aptly titled “The interculture of Portugal and Spain in the past and in the future”.

The second book, Ciência, Tecnologia e Medicina na Construção de Portugal, coordinated by Maria Paula Diogo and Ana Simões, consists of four volumes, and is Portuguese historiography’s most recent contribution to the subject of Science, Technology and Medicine (STM) in Portugal over the course of five centuries of history. 

This magnificent collective initiative presents the reader with a rich updated panorama of the development of STM in Portugal while situating its scientific and technological modernity in a permanent dialectic between “protest” and “innovation” in opposition to conservatism and authoritarianism. It constitutes a well-grounded work that is comprehensible in a society that is traditionalist – and also authoritarian, marked by the four decades of the Portuguese Estado Novo – which, in its own way, as an alternative political and social project, appeals to science in the name of modernity, understood as intrinsically progressive and innovative. 

The fourth volume, Inovação e Contestação (Séc. XX), coordinated by Maria Paula Diogo, Cristina Luís and M. Luísa Sousa, is the one approached here. It leads us through different themes —from the establishment, in 1910, of the First Portuguese Republic to the more recent developments of Portuguese science, its politics and institutions— all organised diachronically. Although this volume does not yet offer a clear view of the narratives in conflict, it does include some aspects that have been the subject of consensus on the historical process of the 20th century regarding the role played by STM in Portuguese society. Thus, the reader can observe, especially, the synchrony between the national process and an internationalism that was very influential from the end of World War II, a recurring theme in scientific communities. Independently of the diversity of the essays —situated halfway between “contrast and complementarity”— we find ourselves before the thesis that science, technology and medicine cannot “continue to be ruled out from historical analysis” because of their material and symbolic repercussions, essential for the affirmation of the country’s identity. 

Inovação e Contestação (Séc. XX) brings together the leading academics in Portuguese historiography. Thus, over the course of twenty-five chapters, all by different authors who belong to different schools and research groups “with different traditions and equally diverse background educations”, this volume takes us on an in-depth journey into the history of the development and circulation of technical and scientific knowledge in Portugal, with some contributions regarding its political-institutional framework, revealing a certain maturity of the historiography of science, which is generally of a more internalist tradition.
The work, structured into relatively short chapters, designed for a broad – not specialised, but interested – audience, guides the reader through various topics, such as the Republican reform of university higher education; the construction of Portuguese scientific medicine; scientific journalism in Portugal; the sciences of the Portuguese overseas territories; the institutionalisation of scientific politics; the technical-scientific and laboratories infrastructure of the country; Portuguese engineering and nuclear physics and engineering; technical and scientific development in Africa; scientific politics subsequent to April 1974; science communication and dissemination, and the international mobility of the scientific community.

Science, technology and medicine “cannot continue to be ruled out from historical analysis” because of their material and symbolic repercussions

This ambitious publication highlights the determination of historiography to understand the contribution of STM to the contemporary history of Portugal. Clearly, the original and up-to-date view expressed by this work will give rise to more wide-ranging dialogues and will contribute towards contrasting hypotheses, deconstructing narratives and proposing alternative readings of STM, and its implications in the case of the Iberian nations.



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