Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

The Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin conducts research into how new categories of thinking, of proving and experiencing have developed during the centuries-long interaction between the sciences and the cultures in which they are embedded. To this end, comparative studies, which transcend eras and regions, investigate the historical circumstances under which scientific culture and science emerged as one culture. The individual research projects span several millennia; they relate to the cultures of the West and the East, the North and the South, and to a varied range of disciplines: for example, from Babylonian mathematics to today's genetics, or from the natural history of the Renaissance to the beginnings of quantum mechanics.


Boltzmannstr. 22
14195 Berlin
Phone: +49 30 22667-0
Fax: +49 30 22667-299

PhD opportunities

This institute has no International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS).

There is always the possibility to do a PhD. Please contact the directors or research group leaders at the Institute.

Department Ideals and Practices of Rationality more
Department Structural Changes in Systems of Knowledge more
Department Artefacts, Action and Knowledge more
Department Experimental Systems and Spaces of Knowledge more
Prestigious award for science historian Lorraine Daston
Historian of science Lorraine Daston from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin is honoured with the internationally renowned Israeli Dan David Prize. more
A rapid transition of the world’s energy systems
Jürgen Renn, Robert Schlögl, Christoph Rosol and Benjamin Steininger present a research initiative of the Max Planck Society on socio-technical aspects of energy transformation. more
The inconstant level of the sea
Sea level – the geographical reference point and indicator of climate change – is a surprisingly variable parameter more
“Light also has a cultural history”
Interview with Jürgen Renn and Matthias Schemmel from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science about a phenomenon which is both familiar and mysterious more
How the lotus got its own administration
Chinese history shows us that major projects depend many small decisions. This sheds new light on the central role of planning for worlds of knowledge - and the dramatic effects that may result from such activities. more
Talking silk

Talking silk

October 20, 2014
What labels on textiles can tell us about society more
Is bigger better?

Is bigger better?

October 20, 2014
Large-scale technology projects – and their dramatic effects – highlight the role size and scale play in our understanding of the world that surrounds us more
The fermented cereal beverage of the Sumerians may not have been beer
4000-year-old cuneiform writings from Mesopotamia tell us little about the brewing techniques used at the time more
Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science publish the most comprehensive study yet on the structure of a scientific revolution more
La Convivencia is viewed as a golden age of tolerance – a period of peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Jews and Christians in medieval Spain. The myth surrounding this period persists to this day. Researchers at the Max Planck Institutes for Social Anthropology in Halle and for the History of Science in Berlin are studying the history of the Convivencia and considering its possible function as a model for today’s world.
Big data isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, as far as historians of science are concerned. Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, scholars, scientists and state authorities collected huge quantities of data, and analyzing all this raw material posed a challenge back then just as it does today. A group led by Elena Aronova, Christine von Oertzen and David Sepkoski at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin looks at the methods used in the past – many of them unexpected – and examines how changes in data handling has ultimately brought about changes in science and society.

Objectivity ranks as one of the highest ideals in research, but that wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t until the 19th century that it began to vie with the centuries-old principle of natural truth. Even today, the two concepts still come into conflict. As the author explains, some scientific controversies are more easily understood through a closer look at the history of science.

The ancient Chinese invented not only fireworks, porcelain and the wheelbarrow, but the precursor of post-its as well – those self-sticking, yellow pieces of paper used for writing down all sorts of notes. These are the kinds of sources that Dagmar Schäfer and her team at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin examine to learn more about planning histories and their impact on society, thereby also challenging the paradigms of their own discipline.
Not only did they create impressive works of art, they also took an interest in alchemy, mathematics and the natural sciences. At the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, researchers headed by Sven Dupré are studying how artists in the early modern era discovered, depicted and circulated new knowledge through their works.
The terms systems biology and synthetic biology are currently experiencing a boom – something that has already occurred several times in the history of biology. But what do they actually signify in scientific terms? Are they an expression of a far-reaching change within the discipline, or mere promotional buzzwords that simply “fill old wine into new bottles” in order to present it in a more palatable form? An analysis.
Curious? Yes, she certainly is. And also obsessed – with books. This combination happily converged in her profession. As Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, US-born Lorraine Daston, whose first name is an anglicized version of Urania, the muse of astronomy, researches the history of observation and experiment. Or, in other words, how data was collated and illustrated in the past.
Over 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, fermented cereal juices enjoyed great popularity. The Sumerian inhabitants are considered to have been skilled brewers of beer. But how much did their ancient brews have in common with the beers of today? To answer this question, Peter Damerow, a proto-cuneiform expert at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, studied the annals of ancient Sumer.

Dancing with Bees

MPR 2 /2010 Culture & Society
What is the significance of the dances of bees, which have been observed since antiquity? Karl von Frisch decoded the mystery.
They look as if they’ve been haphazardly dashed off, are often hard to decipher and are obviously not intended for anyone else
to understand.
Many years passed before the new physics discovered by
Max Planck was explained mathematically and established
as quantum mechanics.
The Nobel Prize in chemistry awarded to Gerhard Ertl brings the Max Planck Society‘s Nobel laureate count up to 17 since its founding in 1948.
For some animals, 19th century scientific testing methods included being firmly clamped into an experimental device. Today, researchers are documenting the origins of physiology on the Internet.
Student Assistant (Digital Research)
Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin May 04, 2018
Mining was one of the most important driving forces behind economic and technological dynamics in early modern Europe. This research project, hosted at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science offers a new perspective of the early modern mining industry as a sociomaterial phenomenon in its own right. more

Experiencing the global environment: Between bodily and planetary scales

2017 Camprubí, Lino; Lehmann, Philipp
Cultural Studies

One of the main difficulties of communicating the urgency of a reduction in worldwide carbon emissions lies in the mediated way in which people and governments experience the dangers of a changing climate. We perceive the temperature and humidity of our immediate surroundings at a particular moment, but we lack any direct experience of the global environment. The working group Experiencing the Global Environment at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science strives to examine the history of this perceptual gap.


Listening to the history of modern acoustics

2016 Tkaczyk, Viktoria
Cultural Studies

The Max Planck Research Group “Epistemes of Modern Acoustics” initiates a consideration of sound in its dual function as an object of scientific investigation and as an epistemic tool. Acoustic strategies of knowledge production are another of the research group’s interests: What historical knowledge could be acquired or represented only acoustically? When and how were acoustic apparatuses, instruments, and machines deployed as alternative means of research?


Knowledge in the Anthropocene

2015 Renn, Jürgen; Omodeo, Pietro D.; Rosol, Christoph; Schemmel, Matthias; Valleriani, Matteo
Cultural Studies
An approach to a long-term history of human knowledge is outlined that takes into account the cognitive, social and material dimensions of this development in their mutual interaction. It may thereby contribute to a reflective potential that is useful for consciously shaping the Anthropocene. more
Yellow strips on sketches, models and artefacts bespeak of the Qing empire’s interest in material production. Around 1700, court officials systematically employed these predecessors of modern post-its notes to communicate the design of artefacts of all kinds. The technical and aesthetic documents became the empirical basis upon which Chinese scholar-officials, sophisticating managerial methods, debated the validity of standards and procedures. Alongside ideals and realization, the materiality of planning unfolds how knowledge and action were negotiated to make things work. more
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the development of infants garnered unprecedented scholarly enthusiasm, with men of science discovering in their own offspring, to borrow Charles Darwin’s phrase, “objects of natural history.” In the USA, college-educated women emerged as key interpreters of infants’ mental faculties. Exploring the at-home observations of Milicent Shinn, a University of California, Berkeley graduate, reveals how she and her female network of observers performed fieldwork in the nursery, producing groundbreaking work on the evolving of the human mind. more

Knowledge in the Artist’s Workshop

2012 Dupré, Sven
Cultural Studies
A newly established Max Planck Research Group is writing an epistemic history of art that focuses on the circulation of knowledge within and beyond the artist’s workshop. Between 1350 and 1750, the artist’s workshop evolved from a centre of craft practices to a place where other than artisanal bodies of knowledge (such as optics and alchemy) were exchanged. This research project highlights the role of art in the emergence of the new science and enriches the terms in which the current debate on artistic research is conducted. more

Globalization of knowledge

2011 Renn, Jürgen
Cultural Studies
Globalization processes have been ongoing for millennia and involve knowledge in significant ways. Globalization is not a linear progression, but a dynamic process that involves interplay between intrinsic and extrinsic factors, and is heavily influenced by local and regional contexts. The study of the spread of knowledge crosses disciplinary boundaries and requires a new theoretical language to describe it. more
How can human variation, “human biological diversity”, be described and researched adequately? During the first half of the twentieth century, this question was for the most part answered by reference to race biology. After 1945, however, when racial thinking was thoroughly discredited, only population and molecular genetics seemed to offer life scientists new approaches to this especially thorny question. In fact, the various attempts to expound the problems of this subject were more complex and diverse than the current historiography acknowledges. more

The Cerebral Subject: Brain and Self in History and Contemporary Culture

2009 Vidal, Fernando
Cultural Studies Neurosciences
A project at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science studies the history and contemporary forms of the “cerebral subject“ – an anthropological figure according to which the brain is the only part of the body we need in order to be ourselves. Rooted in philosophical and scientific developments of the late 17th century, the cerebral subject has become since the mid-20th century a major form of thinking and practicing personhood in industrialized and highly medicalized societies. more

Technological Invention and Innovation in China

2008 Schäfer, Dagmar
Cultural Studies
Technological invention and innovation are primarily the result of practical process. In China, they usually take place at the level of the illiterate craftsman and are principally conveyed through personal contacts. Their documentation demonstrates fundamental modifications in the way that culture handles knowledge. A study at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science focuses on developments between the 10th and 18th century in fields such as porcelain manufacture, textile manufacture, and military technology. more
Research about the Renaissance commentaries to the Mechanical Problems by Pseudo-Aristotle was started within the project Epistemic History of Architecture by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Its focus was the relationship between these commentaries and the architectural treatises. This line of investigation pointed out the importance of the In mechanica Aristotelis problemata exercitationes (1621, posthumous) by Bernardino Baldi (1553–1617). more

Toward a cultural history of heredity

2006 Müller-Wille, Staffan; Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg
Cultural Studies Genetics
The Max Planck Institute for the History of Science carries out a long-term project on the cultural history of heredity. The project deals with the different constellations in which the discourse of heredity took shape from the early modern period to the late twentieth century. It looks closely at and correlates the cultural – agricultural, technical, legal, medical and scientific – practices in which the knowledge of inheritance was materially anchored and in which it gradually revealed its effects. more

Handwerksgelehrte or What kind of science is experimental physics?

2005 Sibum, H. Otto
Cultural Studies Material Sciences Social and Behavioural Sciences

In theory as well as in practice the relationship between experience, experiment and theory has changed over time. The studies concentrate on the period between the 18th and the early decades of the 20th century. Around 1800 we observe the complex interplay of practical knowledge traditions (mechanical arts, crafts) and their impact on the formation of the physical sciences. Around 1900 new experimental techniques werde developed within experimental physics, evoking a fundamental discussion about the potentials and limits of sensory experience in the sciences.


Yesterday's newsclippings

2004 te Heesen, Anke
Cultural Studies
In the context of research on the history of collecting, especially in how knowledge and science are generated from collections and museums, this article focuses on the phenomenon of collections of newspaper clippings by the year 1900 and their effects on science, the arts and commercialization of information. more
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