HISTORY OF SCIENCE


This section is still under construction (i.e. waiting for the builder to get his finger out),
but here is an introduction and some original literature to be going on with

               



INTRODUCTION
Biographies of some important Greek philosophers (courtesy of Encyclopaedia Britannica)
Extracts from Pliny's Natural History
Galileo's account of his discovery of Jupiter's moons (1610)
Cardinal Bellarmine points out the dangers of Galileo's ideas in letter to Father Foscarini (1614)
Born March 13, 1733, Birstall Fieldhead, near Leeds, Yorkshire, Eng.--d. Feb. 6, 1804, Northumberland, Pa., U.S.), English clergyman, political theorist, and physical scientist whose work contributed to advances in liberal political and religious thought and in experimental science. He is best remembered as one of the discoverers of the element oxygen. Joseph Priestley's account of how in 1771 he discovered "one of nature's ways of restoring air damaged by the burning of a candle"  (photosynthesis) 
Joseph Priestley's account of how in 1774 he discovered oxygen 
(or, as he called it, "dephlogisticated air") 
An Essay on the food of plants and the renovation of soils, by John Ingen-Housz (1796) 
Early contributions to microbiology (incl. essays on spontaneous generation and fermentation)
Works of Aristotle (local selection)
Works of Hippocrates
Galen: On the Natural Faculties (local)
A Letter by Evangelista Torricelli concerning the Barometer (1644)
 

 

INTRODUCTION

There is a strong tendency for us to take for granted what we have learned and presume to know: the shape and size of the Earth, for example, or that it is a wandering star (planet) which spins on its axis as it revolves around the Sun. But imagine that your memory has been wiped clean and all you have is your 5 senses and an inquisitive, intelligent mind, like a young child or someone living in the distant past  . . . . The history of science tells the story of how mankind (not just, but mainly Europeans) first came to know what we know. 

How could you or I even begin to work out for ourselves these and all other things we have learned and take for granted? Where would we start? What questions would we ask? What ideas and speculations might we come up with, with what arguments for their validity?

What we know today - or could know if we had the time (and ability) to learn it all - is the culmination of 3 millennia of painstaking observations, recordings, attempted explanations, forgetting, rediscovering, and attempts at better and still better explanations. During the past 400 years our knowledge and understanding have increased at an exponential rate. It is very difficult to comprehend just how much things have changed - and continue to change. 

We are extremely fortunate to be the heirs of such a vast wealth of knowledge. It is amazing that we know so much - and at a deeper level, even more amazing that we know anything at all.

If you have ever tried explaining Pythagoras's theorem, for example, to your dog, you will know what I mean. You can spend ages trying to get across to him some simple facts - even ones relating to dogs - and he will just look at you in a way that plainly says he hasn't a clue what you're on about. And as far as I have been able to ascertain, it is much the same with all animals - even with elephants and dolphins, which are thought to be among the most intelligent.

When did humans first start to wonder at and about the world around them, rather than just using their senses instinctively, as animals do, for survival? 

The story of Adam and Eve perhaps provides at least a symbolic answer. After disobeying God and eating fruit from the tree of knowledge, "the eyes of both of them were opened and they discovered that they were naked". 

Why Adam and Eve's awareness of being naked should cause them to feel ashamed is an interesting question. I suspect it had to do with them also becoming aware of the responsibility they now bore for the consequences of their sexual inclinations and behaviour

After getting over that initial shock (and covering themselves up), I suspect that they started to see other things in an entirely new light as well, like the Sun and Moon, and countless other things in the world about them. They would have had mixed feelings of fear and wonder, leading them to ask questions and seek answers and explanations, which would alleviate, but could never completely dispelled, their fears. 

Initially, all explanations were fanciful and full of the supernatural. It was the Ancient Greeks, it is said, who first sought and found (more-or-less) rational explanations. They were the ones who first determined the true shape and size of the Earth. One of them even suggested the Earth was a wandering star (planet is Greek for "wanderer") which spun on its axis and circled the Sun, along with the other wandering stars, such as Venus, Mars and Jupiter, but this was too fantastic an idea, flying in the face of common sense. Everyone could see with their own eyes that Earth was at the centre and that everything else revolved around it. About 1800 years were to pass before this "incredible" idea was again put forward (by Copernicus in the 16th Century) and eventually (in the 17th Century) became generally accepted as being true. Nowadays we all learn it at school and and accept it without question, taking for granted what up until about 400 years ago most educated and all uneducated people would have considered an incredible and absurd idea.

Or what about the idea of plants having sex?! And flowers being their sexual organs?! Where do the days of the week come from, and the months of the year? Why is a day divided into 24 hours, an hour into 60 minutes and a minute into 60 seconds?

And what about the scientific and technological developments, which during the past century or so have completely transformed, not just our understanding, but also the very world in which we live and the way we live our lives? We enjoy (or would if only we appreciated it more) opportunities and levels of material prosperity, comfort and security that just a few generations ago were beyond peoples wildest dreams and could not have been bought for all the tea in China.

The History of Science is the ongoing biography of western civilisation. It is our autobiography, the story of how we got to where we are. It doesn't tell us exactly WHO we are, but has cleared up many myths and taken us a long way towards finding out.

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