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Margaret Jacob, 96th Faculty Research Lecture

  • By Meg Sullivan, Reed Hutchinson
  • Published May 1, 2004 8:10 AM

As an aspiring nun at a small Catholic college in Brooklyn in the early 1960s, Margaret "Peg" Jacob established herself as a troublemaker.

"A group of us published an underground newspaper, which we called 'The Lutheran,' " the professor of history recently recalled with a chuckle. "That's how subversive we got."

Ever since, Jacob has been fascinated by what she calls "the turn toward the secular."

Today, the noted historian of science is revered for shedding light on how the scientific and theoretical advancements of the Enlightenment worked their way into the mainstream of 17th- and 18th-century life -- an intellectual adventure that takes her from Europe's most humble factories to its most bustling stock exchanges.

She's particularly well-known for uncovering the role played by the Masonic fraternal organization in spreading secularist concepts first promoted by such 17th-century giants as Sir Isaac Newton. She is also a pioneer in establishing a clear link between Newton's scientific advancements and the birth of the Industrial Revolution.

Along with 10 other faculty, the historian who joined UCLA six years ago from the University of Pennsylvania is credited with establishing the university as one of the nation's leaders in the history of science and medicine.

Primarily for these reasons, the author and co-author of 10 books was selected to give UCLA's 96th Faculty Research Lecture, the highest honor the university bestows on faculty. For her theme, Jacob chose "cosmopolitanism," the topic of her forthcoming book "Glimpses of the Cosmopolitan in Early Modern Europe."

" 'Cosmopolitan' means you have the ability to accept the foreign -- the strange, the different," she explained. "It's part of the notion that there's a larger humanity that you strive to understand."

Of enduring importance in a democracy, such values have taken on special urgency since the terrorist acts of 2001, she contended.

"One of the shocks that 9/11 delivered was the realization that there are people who hate, who really, really hate and who deny the virtues of the cosmopolitan," she said. "The danger now is that we will also abandon the values of the cosmopolitan and start thinking we are superior to others or that we've got some purchase on civilization."

All that may sound lofty, but Jacob doesn't come across that way. The daughter of an auto mechanic and a housekeeper with a third-grade education, she is a great raconteur with an infectious laugh. Her ability to boil difficult concepts down to easily understood and vivid terms has made her a darling at the Los Angeles Times Book Review Section and a popular teacher among undergraduates.

"My signature course is 'Science, Magic & Religion -- 1600 to the Present,' " she said. "I get every witch on campus."

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