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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

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The Origins of Science

The true origins of science are lost in the mists of time. Possibly it started when some Australopithecus observed that a stick with a knot at the end was more effective in warding off a rival for its[1] mate than one without a knot. Since then the use of the scientific method has occasionally intruded into mainstream life but until the seventeenth century was always beaten back into the ground by philosophers, theocrats, and the proponents of common sense: Of course the earth is flat[2] and no, stones do not fall from the sky.  But in the seventeenth century science “took” and began its path to mainstream acceptance. To be definite, I would take the date for the emergence of science to be that night in 1609 when Galileo first pointed his telescope to the heavens.  Two questions then present themselves: 1) Why was it so late in the advance of civilization that science arose and 2) Why did it arise when and where it did? The first question was addressed in a previous post and the second will be addressed here.

The date chosen for the beginning of science is rather arbitrary since science did not spring full blown out of nothing. There were precursors and aftershocks but the early seventeenth century is as good a starting point as any. And it was not just in astronomy. In 1600, William Gilbert, (1544 – 1603) published his work on magnetism, De Magnete, Magneticisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure, and in 1628 William Harvey (1578 – 1657) released his work on blood circulation, De Motu Cordis.  Back in astronomy, Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630) published his first book on elliptic planetary orbits in 1609 (1609 was indeed a propitious year) and a multi volume astronomy text book about ten years later.  So back to the basic question: why so much activity then and there?

There are a number of different reasons. The first is a slow accumulation of ideas that suddenly reached a critical point and took off. Even Galileo Galilei’s father, Vincenzo Galilei, played a role. He helped put music theory on an empirical and mathematical basis, and influenced his son towards applied mathematics. Inventions also played a role; for Galileo to point his telescope at the heavens, the telescope had first to be invented. Besides the telescope, the invention of the printing press around 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg[3] played a key role. It greatly increased the ease with which new ideas could propagate. It played a key role in the Protestant Reformation and allowed Nicolaus Copernicus’s (1473 – 1543) ideas of a heliocentric planetary system to spread throughout Europe. It also played a key role in disseminating Galileo’s ideas.

But there is more than that. In the thirteenth century, Western Europe began to rediscover the ancient learning of the Greeks, especially Aristotle. This came by way of the Arab world which added original contributions (e.g. Arabic numerals) to the store of knowledge and also collected information from other sources, for example, India (e.g. zero). Building on that foundation, Western Europe built an academic tradition at universities and monasteries.  This mostly consisted of scholasticism and the worship of Aristotle but it did set the stage for intellectual debate and the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself. In the end, science destroyed the scholasticism and the worship of Aristotle that had laid the foundation for its success.

The rediscovery of Greek learning in the thirteenth century had a surprising side effect. The Greeks were long on rational thought, but regarded the things of the world as changing and unpredictable, probably due to their belief in capricious Gods and fickle Fates. Christian Europe believed in a supreme, omnipotent God. This lead at least one part of the church to regard science, the study of how the world worked, as sacrilegious since it seemed to imply a limit on what God could do.  But combine the Greek ideal of rationalism with the idea of an omnipotent being and suddenly things change.  The very concept of perfect was taken to imply rationality. Hence, the perfect God must be rational and create a rational and ordered universe; namely one in which it made sense to look for orderly laws. Indeed, in nineteenth century England, it was a common belief that God ruled through orderly natural laws.  And of course, it was a scientist’s role to discover these laws.

Religion played another role. The Protestant Reformation was a shift from the authority of a man, namely the Pope, to the written word of the bible. Science was also a shift from the authority of a person, Aristotle, to the unwritten word, namely the universe. The people of the time talked of God’s word and God’s work and considered both worthy of study; study without the need for a human intermediary.

The Protestant Reformation also destroyed a source of central authority—the Catholic Church. This, coupled with political fragmentation (especially in Germany) led to more change. There was no longer any central authority to suppress new ideas, yet enough rule of law to allow fairly rapid communication (again thanks in part due to the printing press). For example, Galileo’s works were published by the Jewish publishing house of Elsevier in protestant Holland while he was under house arrest in Italy by the Catholic Church.

It is also 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. It was also sufficiently complicated so the motions of the planets could not be predicted trivially, but sufficiently simple to be amenable to treatment by the mathematics of the day. Hence, it became the Gold Standard of science.

As noted in the first paragraph, science has had from the beginning three main opponents (using anachronistic terms): the academic left, the religious right, and common sense. For Galileo, the academic left was represented by the natural philosophers, the religious right by the Catholic Church that the philosophers sicced on him, and common sense by those who “knew” heavier objects fell faster than light ones.  At various times, different ones of these have been predominated: editorials attacked the idea of rocks falling from the sky (meteorites) or rockets working in space were there was no air to react against. In the 1960s, the main opponents were the academic left with the idea that scientific laws were mostly, if not entirely, cultural and postmodernism remains an opponent of science. But today, the main opposition to science comes from the religious right with evolution being the main fall guy. But same three protagonists—the academic left, the religious right and common sense—have remained and will probably remain into the indefinite future as the main opponents of science. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. World without end. Amen.

Additional posts in this series will appear most Friday afternoons at 3:30 pm Vancouver time. To receive a reminder follow me on Twitter: @musquod


[1] Note, gender neutral pronoun

[2] In British Columbia and Switzerland it is crinkly rather than flat.

[3] Although the Koreans may have invented it earlier.

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