• John
  • Felde
  • University of Maryland
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • James
  • Doherty
  • Open University
  • United Kingdom

Latest Posts

  • Andrea
  • Signori
  • Nikhef
  • Netherlands

Latest Posts

  • CERN
  • Geneva
  • Switzerland

Latest Posts

  • Aidan
  • Randle-Conde
  • Université Libre de Bruxelles
  • Belgium

Latest Posts

  • Vancouver, BC
  • Canada

Latest Posts

  • Laura
  • Gladstone
  • MIT
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Steven
  • Goldfarb
  • University of Michigan

Latest Posts

  • Fermilab
  • Batavia, IL
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Seth
  • Zenz
  • Imperial College London
  • UK

Latest Posts

  • Nhan
  • Tran
  • Fermilab
  • USA

Latest Posts

  • Alex
  • Millar
  • University of Melbourne
  • Australia

Latest Posts

  • Ken
  • Bloom
  • USA

Latest Posts

Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio


In any genealogy there are always things one wants to hide; the misfit relative, the children born on the wrong side of the sheet, or the relative Aunt Martha just does not like. As a genealogist it takes a lot of effort to find these things out. Genealogies tend to be sanitized: the illegitimate grandchild becomes a legitimate child, the misfit relative somehow missed being included, and Uncle Ben aged 15 years during the 10 years between censuses and died at age one hundred although he was only eighty[1] according to the earliest records. The roots of science, like all family histories, have undergone a similar sanitization process. In a previous essay, I gave the sanitized version. In this essay, I give the unauthorized version. Aunt Martha would not be happy.

The Authorized Version has the origins of science tied closely to the Greek philosophical tradition with science arising within and from that tradition. While that has some truth to it, it is not the whole truth. It was two millennia from Aristotle to the rise of science and there have been many rationalizations for this delay, many starring Christianity as the culprit. However, Christianity did not gain political strength for a few centuries after Aristotle’s death. So, if the cause was Christianity, it must have had a miraculous non-causal effect.

A lot happened between Aristotle and the rise of science: the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of Christianity and Islam, the Renaissance, the reformation, and the printing press.  A lot of what could be called knowledge was developed but did not provide major gains in philosophy. The Romans were for the most part engineers not philosophers, but to do engineering takes real knowledge. Let us pass on to the Arabs. They are generally considered as a mere repository for Greek knowledge which was then passed on to the West largely intact but with some added commentary. I suspect that is not correct, as I will argue shortly.

There are two contributions to the development of science that are frequently downplayed: astrology and alchemy. These are the ancestors that science wants to hide. We all know the story of the Ptolemy and Copernicus, but the motivation for the development of astronomy was astrological and religious. From the ancient Babylonians to the present day, people have tried to divine the future by studying the stars. It is no accident that astronomy was one of the first sciences. It had practical applications: astrology (Kepler was a noted astrologer) and the calculation of religious holidays, most notably Easter.  One of the reasons Copernicus’s book was not banned was because the church found it useful for calculating the date of Easter. The motion of the planets is also sufficiently complicated that they could not be predicted trivially, yet they were sufficiently simple to be amenable to treatment by the mathematics of the day. Hence, it became the gold standard of science.  Essentially we dropped the motivation but kept the calculations.

Alchemy, the other problem ancestor, is even more interesting.  The Arabs, those people who are considered to have produced nothing new, had within their ranks Jābir ibn Hayyān (721 – 815),  chemist and alchemist, astronomer and astrologer, engineer, geographer, philosopher, and physicist, pharmacist and physician—in general, an all-around genius. He, along with Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691), is regarded as the founder of modern chemistry, but note how far in advance Jābir ibn Hayyān was—900 years.  Certainly he took alchemy beyond the occult to the practical. Although the alchemists never succeeded in turning lead into gold, they did produce a lot of useful metallurgy and chemistry. It is indeed possible that along with his chemical pursuits, Jābir ibn Hayyān forged the foundation of science by going down to the laboratory and seeing how things actually worked.  It is no surprise that the first two people to introduce something like science into Western Europe, Frederick II (1194 – 1250) and Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1294), were both very familiar with Arab scholarship and presumably with Jābir ibn Hayyān’s work.  In addition, both Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) and Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691) were alchemists. A major role for alchemy in the development of science cannot be creditably denied.

It is perhaps wrong to think of astrology and alchemy as separate. To turn cabbage into sauerkraut, you need to know the phase of the moon[2] and the same probably holds true for turning lead into gold. Hence, most alchemists were also astrologers.  But alchemy and astrology have always had a dark side of occult, showmanship, and outright fraud. A typical, perhaps apocryphal, example would be Dr. Johann Georg Faust (c. 1480 – c. 1540). He was killed around 1540 when his laboratory exploded. Or his laboratory exploded when the devil came to collect his soul.  This person is presumably the origin of the Dr. Faust legend of the man who sold his soul to the devil for knowledge.  It interesting that this legend arose in the late sixteenth century just as science was beginning to rise from obscurity. The general population’s suspicion of learning, there from the beginning, has perhaps never really gone away.

The philosophers and theologians, the beautiful people, had their jobs in the monasteries and universities but science owes more to the people who sold their soul, or at least their health, to the devil for knowledge. These were the people who actually went down to the laboratories and did the dirty work to see how the world actually works.

To receive a notice of future posts follow me on Twitter: @musquod.


[1] My genealogy of the Musquodoboit Valley has all these and more (http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~canns/mus.pdf).

[2] Or so my uncle claimed.

  • The rise of science requires a society with three attributes: 1) Material surplus. The Severely and Profoundly Gifted are subsidized, though they are never profit centers. Greece was a comfortable place. 2) Intellectual independence. A politically blasphemous solution that profoundly works is lethal. Spain dumped its Inquisition surplus into Turkey, followed by a Renaissance – in Turkey. 3) Optically clear glass. Ancient China never had a chance.

  • Lisa R

    Very well presented article. I would be interested in hearing your take on pre-industrial, pre-rennaissance societies and their contributions or side developments that perhaps did not directly influence Western Civilization’s scientific development, such as the Mayan astronomy and concept of zero, and the contribution of Ancient China to fireworks and other technologies at that time – improvement in weapons forging, etc.

    Very well-written article, thank you.

  • Mike Will

    “The alchemists in their search for gold discovered many other things of greater value.”
    – Schopenhauer

  • LarryJayCee

    I would take issue with your comment that “the motivation for the development of astronomy was astrological and religious” because this ignores the role of astronomy in Egypt where the heliacal rising of Sirius was linked to the annual Nile floods (and so to the planting season). I don’t know of any other direct links between astronomy and agriculture, but even one example involving one of the greatest civilisations of antiquity must be significant.

  • The stars can be used to tell time and aid navigation but the motion of the planets has no practical application.

  • Yes. The alchemists made many practical discoveries, itself, was one of them.

  • There were certainly lots of one-offs, discoveries here and there. The work of Archimedes is a prime example. But it was only in Europe that a coherent pattern arose and science developed.

  • Mike Will

    “Astronomy teaches the correct use of the sun and the planets.”
    – Stephen Leacock

  • Oxford University’s C. S. Lewis, whose speciality was medieval and renaissance literature, held a similar point of view, claiming that science was bornthe twin of magic. That theme is explored in a new book, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, edited by John West.

    Here’s the relevant quote from Lewis’s The Abolition of Man:

    “There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavor and the serious scientific endeavor are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse.”

  • Ton Jorg

    Interesting view. Magical endeavor and serious scientific endeavor being twins, it gives no explanation why the Scientific Revolution took place in Europe only.

  • Malik Koné

    I like this article but I don’t think the difference between alchemy, astrology and chemistry, astronomy is so clear as to oppose one side versus the other. This is clear if one stop thinking that science is an absolute rational enterprise. And paradoxically that is the trend of recent psychological studies. For me, today’s science is like a religion whose dogma is the existence of a universal untemporal truth.

    The rational methodology we employ to get closer our dogma lead us to what I would call “modern alchemy”. The theoretical hypothesis of existence of black matter of black mater right at the heart of modern astronomy is an alchemy attempt to me until we can observe the existence of it and not the absence of it as it is the case now.

    Funnily if we come to invent a black matter chemistry we will only be repeating the etymological idea that chemistry is a black science, because etymologically, chemistry comes from the Egyptian word kemet by which the ancient Egyptians called themselves and which means black as in black men (some say black land). Any way it is worth mentioning that the roots of chemistry are also linked to the research needed to preserve the human body in the Egyptian rituals. Nothing shameful there.
    Also since we speak of the roots of science, should we mention that “Algebra” comes from the Arabic title ” Kitab al-Jabr w’al-Muqabala” (Rules of Reintegration and Reduction) of a not mentioned Arabic scholar Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizm (1550s). We all know what great role algebra plays in computer science and hence in all modern science why don’t we mention theses non occidental roots more often?

    In my sens the real UNAUTHORIZED VERSION of THE ORIGINS OF SCIENCE is that Europeans (at large) have a significant recent role in the history of science but not a major role if we look at the roots of science. Oh yes I can hear the people trying to define real science starting a few centuries ago to make sure it stay a European product. but for me science like other great inventions, is a bastard product (unauthorized version you said). It has deep and unknown roots. If we were to go deep enough we would find that at least it take its essence in an undifferentiated humanity sharing a common biological psychological traits that has nothing much to do with cultural traits.

    To conclude this long intervention, I will add that alchemy motivations are still alive in modern science but for many it is a sin to say so. The idea of turning lead to gold, or something common to beautiful (the goal of nuclear fission) is the kind of by products of that subatomic researchers still hide discretely at the back their head. But As you said, this is an unauthorized version.

    Thank you very much

  • Jābir ibn Hayyān was not Arab, but Persian. His 3,000 books were, in great part, a vast summary of preceding works, much of them Roman and Greek.