Public webinar: Histories of Communicating Science Beyond the Recent West

Old Babylonian mathematical inscription

Does science communication have a history beyond Western science? 

We are often told science communication originated alongside professionalised science in Western Europe a few hundred years ago. Yet cultures all over the world and throughout time developed unique conventions for communicating their knowledge within their own societies and with others. 

This webinar will discuss how we might rethink science communication histories to be more cross-culturally diverse and inclusive, without losing sight of cultures’ unique approaches to knowledge communication. 

Our four exceptional speakers will draw on examples from across the world, including pūrākau that communicate mātauranga Māori, medieval European and Arabic pharmaceutical works, ancient Persian water science, and astronomical knowledge in the cuneiform world of Babylonia and Assyria.

Who is it for?

The event is free and open to all, including science communicators, science historians, interested members of the public and everyone else! 

When is it?

It will be live-streamed at 12 noon Australian Eastern Daylight Saving Time on Wednesday 2 December 2020 (2pm New Zealand Daylight Time, 5pm Tuesday 1 December North American Pacific Standard Time).

Will it be recorded?

The webinar will be recorded and available online for people in incompatible time zones.

How long is it?

The formal program will be just under an hour long, followed by up to 30 minutes for further questions and discussion.



The event will be faciliated by CPAS Senior Lecturer in Science Communication, Dr Lindy Orthia, who is interested in how rethinking our concepts of science communication history can promote inclusion and diversity in the field. The event is supported by Event Technician Matthew Phung.

We will introduce the topic and our four speakers, who will each present for about 10 minutes on their areas of expertise. Questions and discussion will follow.

 Dr Daniel Hikuroa, Prof Paula De Vos, Dr Ehsan Nabavi, Prof Francesca Rochberg

Speakers (L-R): Daniel Hikuroa, Paula De Vos, Ehsan Nabavi, Francesca Rochberg


Ngā rāwekeweke o Ngātoroirangi – The exploits of Ngātoroirangi: Multiple ways of Knowing

Daniel Hikuroa

Hitherto mostly ignored or disregarded by the science community as myth or legend, fantastic and implausible, mātauranga Māori is knowledge generated using techniques consistent with the scientific method, but also includes culture and values, and is explained according to a Māori world view. Pūrākau are a narrative form of mātauranga Māori, comprising explanations of natural phenomena, consistent with a Māori world-view. Pūrākau explained as ‘myths’ invalidate Māori ontological and epistemological constructs of the world, and pūrākau understood as just ‘stories’ is an inadequate explanation of the importance and efficacy of pūrākau in teaching, learning and the intergenerational transfer of knowledge.

An exceptional communicator, Dr Daniel Hikuroa leads the national conversation on weaving together mātauranga and science. Deeply committed to addressing our most challenging environmental issues, Dan is actively shaping, modelling and setting best practice for mātauranga and science communication in Aotearoa New Zealand. An earth systems scientist, he has a key role in science communication as the Co-Deputy Director Public Engagement for Te Pūnaha Matatini CoRE and as UNESCO NZ Commissioner for Culture.


Arabic Pseudonyms and the “Princes of Medicine:” Conventions of Authorship in Pharmaceutical Texts of Medieval and Early Modern Europe

Paula De Vos

In my research tracing the origins and development of the western pharmaceutical tradition, the great significance of Arabic scholarship to this development was striking, not only in its importance for laying the foundations of this tradition, but also in the way that it has been largely ignored and elided from discussions of the Scientific Revolution and western science and medicine more generally. Yet medieval and early modern European writing conventions for Latin and vernacular texts routinely demonstrate the use of pseudonyms of highly respected scholars from the medieval Islamic world to confer prestige and reliability to the texts. Prologues and dedicatory material, further, praised these authors highly, utilizing superlatives to describe their achievements and referring to them as “kings” and “princes.” Such practices continued well into the eighteenth century in the Spanish textual tradition, suggesting that traditional focus on Renaissance humanism and the recovery of “pure” classical texts as a key step toward the Scientific Revolution and at the expense of the Arabic tradition is in need of some revision.

Paula De Vos is Professor of History at San Diego State University. Her scholarly work focuses on the long history of Galenic pharmacy from the ancient Mediterranean to colonial Spanish America. She is co-editor of Science in the Spanish and Portuguese Empires (Stanford 2009) and has published articles on natural history and the history of early pharmacology and materia medica in venues such as Isis, History of Science, the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, and the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, among others. She is author of a forthcoming book entitled Compound Remedies: Galenic Pharmacy from the Ancient Mediterranean to New Spain (University of Pittsburgh Press, Fall 2020).


Communicating by doing: Communicating sustainability in Persia

Ehsan Nabavi

Persia, currently known as Iran, is home to many techniques, infrastructures, and policy arrangements developed to manage resources and people’s need in a manner that is called ‘sustainable’ by modern science. These techniques and practices enabled the communities over centuries to coordinate their activities towards protection of their limited resources, in the face of uncertainty, risk, and the potential for goal conflicts. This presentation tells the story of how sustainability science and practice have been communicated in the Persianate world over the millennia. In particular, the presentation uses the example of qanat — a socio-technical system for managing water resources, scarcity and climate shocks — to show how a local understanding of water sustainability had evolved and been communicated over many generations and across the world. The presentation tells the story of people from China to America who built qanat-like structures to communicate water sustainability based on their own knowledge systems, generational experiments, and local innovations.

Dr Ehsan Nabavi is a lecturer in science and technology at the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, the Australian National University. He is a water systems engineer (MEng) and a sociologist (PhD). Drawing on history, sociology, economics, and political science, his research examines the less tangible interactions occurring inside the sustainability and innovation: between governments, science and communities. Among his recent projects, he leads an EU-funded project called ‘water policy innovation hub’.


Not a Less Perfect Version: Astronomical Knowledge in Cuneiform Antiquity

Francesca Rochberg

The study of historical cultures and how they sought to understand their worlds is instructive when having to justify the nature of science in distant times or places, as compared to the modern West. In communicating about sciences in history or in non-western cultures, the term science has often been replaced with pre-science or ethnoscience, demonstrating how difficult it is to allow the term that stands for the most authoritative epistemic system of the modern world to serve as a designator for other epistemes and other worlds. I will use the astronomical knowledge from the ancient Middle East to illustrate some of the pitfalls in communicating about ancient science.

Francesca Rochberg is Catherine and William L. Magistretti Distinguished Professor of Near Eastern Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Studies and the Office for the History of Science and Technology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her current research project deals with the historiography of science in cuneiform culture. She has most recently published Before Nature: Cuneiform Knowledge and the History of Science (University of Chicago, 2016, 2020).


Further reading if you're keen!

A sample of relevant readings from our panel and facilitator.


Lead image: Old Babylonian clay tablet with mathematical inscriptions. Reproduced under fair use, image copyright: YPM BC.021355, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Photo by Wagensonner, K., 2020.