Tuesday, December 21

A History of Science

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The purpose of this paper is to introduce brief aspects of the history of science and show how its discoveries shaped religion, which in turn shapes our beliefs. John Gribbin’s book –Science a history –1543-2001 provides a splendid reference and for the sake of brevity only a handful of the multitude of exciting discoveries are covered.

Science as Philosophy

Early science was considered philosophy and it is only of recent times the two are separated. This has led to confusion as philosophy marches along to the tune of “logic” struggling valiantly to stay in tune with the pace of scientific discovery often at odds with the previous conventional wisdom. Nor have management theories and the social sciences kept up, to the extent, I believe, that if the latest science discoveries were better understood in the wider community, it would lead to better informed and more compassionate policies for society. More of this aspect later.

Early beginnings

In the beginning it must have been very hard indeed to accept the newly found ideas so foreign to everyday wisdom .The earth must be the centre of the universe. As you look around and see the multitude of stars it is not hard to imagine why it was commonly thought the earth was the fixed centre of the universe. If the earth moves on its axis and goes around the sun then surely you would feel the rush of wind in your hair just like you did when riding a horse. Of course the idea of motion was not clearly understood and many believed humans “might fall apart” if exposed to speeds exceeding that of a galloping horse. A heavier ball must fall more quickly to the ground than the one lighter –was this not common sense?

The beginning of science can roughly be attributed to the 16th Century as civilization "emerged from the Dark ages". A good beginning is to explore the elegance of the theories of Copernicus who indicated that the earth moves and risked being ex- communicated from his church. Later the Copernican model that explained planetary movement was banned as heresy. A primary candidate of universal interest must be Galileo who began his life in a monastery.

You may be interested in a little poem he composed when refuting the Aristotelian notion of an unchanging celestial sphere.
No lower than the other stars it lies,
and does not move in ways around,
Than all fixed stars-nor change in sign or size.
All of this is proved on purest reason's ground:
It has no parallax for us on Earth
By reason of the sky's enormous girth.

Galileo was able at the time with his refinement of the telescope to convince a subcommittee of learned priests that:
The Milky Way is a vast number of stars,
Saturn is a strange oval shape,
The Moon’s surface is irregular,
Venus exhibits phases,
Jupiter has 4 satellites.

Many of his views were at variance to biblical teaching at the time and Galileo’s approach was : “In disputes about natural phenomena one must not begin with the authority of scriptural passages, but with sensory experience and necessary demonstrations.”Later he had to renounce his beliefs to avoid going to the "rack" or the "stake" or possibly both. The great co-incidence is Isaac Newton was born the same year that Galileo dies in 1642.

Science perhaps also "found its feet " so to speak by Italian Giovanni Borelli who likened man or animal to a machine. Borelli was a Professor of Mathematics around 1640 and had also made some major discoveries in relation to the operation of the planetary systems. His most important work however was in the biological field of anatomy.
Borelli treated the body as a system of levers acted on by forces exerted on the muscles, and analysed geometrically how muscles on the human body acted in walking and running.He saw a role for "God"in the setting up of the system in the first place. God for him was likened to the designer of the machine, if you like. But this was different from the idea of a human body being operated by some kind of guiding spirit, which controlled activities from minute to minute.

Newton took a 7-year fellowship with Trinity College in 1667 but had to swear to an oath "I will either set Theology as the object of my studies and take holy orders when the time prescribed by those statutes arrives, or I will resign from the college"He was the first of the great Scientists to show the laws of science are indeed universal laws that effect everything. For Newton and many of his contemporaries God was he was the architect of it all. Newton even went on to say God was a "hands on” architect who might interfere from "time to time".

18th Century

At the beginning of the 18th century Linnaeus expanded the botanical horizons by providing descriptions of 7,700 species of plants and just about every species of animal known in Europe at the time.It was Linnaeus's belief that man belonged in the same genus as the apes, a belief thoroughly born out by modern studies of the similarities between the DNA of humans, chimpanzees and gorillas. If the classification were being made from scratch today, using the DNA evidence, man could be classified purely from a scientific point of view as perhaps a chimpanzee.
It is only through a historical accident and Linnaeus’s fear of arousing the wrath of the theologians that "Homo Sapiens" sit in unique and isolated splendor as the sole member of a genus. Although we have around 98% complete compatibility with the chimpanzee many would nevertheless still argue “that 2% difference makes all of the difference.”Linnaeus was religious and believed in God but saw himself as uncovering Gods handiwork, he believed the number of species existing on Earth in his day were the same as the number created by God in the beginning. He accepted the Biblical event of the flood, but reasoned it as a short event of less than 200 days.

19th Century

We enter then what might be termed the beginning of "enlightened science" where chemistry catches up as a number of new discoveries are made. Carbon Dioxide is discovered, the Steam Engine and the Industrial Revolution, Electricity, Oxygen and water as an element.There were many more dramatic developments, but undoubtedly the most important in terms of understanding the place of humankind in the Universe, was Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which, for the first time offered scientific explanation of evolution.

Much of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection remains in place today and his theory is generally accepted within modern theology except for fundamentalist sectors who loosely describe themselves as “Creationists” relying on literal interpretation of the Old Testament. Perhaps there is also a shift in belief away from the belief that God was merely the architect of the system to one in which God can be seen to be in all things as creation continues. Modern Science is also indicating a hitherto not fully understood in-built ability for simple life systems to continue to evolve more quickly than had previously been understood.

Hence many believe we can view the world as an ongoing creation adapting and evolving into complex systems to suit the ever-changing environment within which it operates.

In the 19th century science moved away from the interest or hobby of a privileged few to a well-populated profession. No longer could a single individual have such a profound impact except of course for Darwin who could be seen as somewhat of an anomaly. In fact with the rapid advancement in knowledge in atoms and molecules it became increasingly difficult to keep track of what was going on and by whom.During this time the work of William Thomson (who remained philosopher in Glasgow from 1846 until he retired in 1899) advanced the notion that the Earth and by implication the Universe had a definitive beginning.

20th Century

The pace of discovery quickens.
"Let there be Light”

In 1905 Albert Einstein special theory of relativity was published. The foundation stone was the constancy of the speed of light and that nothing exceeds the speed of light. By the time he developed his theory, there was experimental evidence that the measured speed of light is always the same, irrespective of how the person doing the measuring is moving. The equations contain a constant, c, identified as the speed of light.

He went to develop the special theory of relativity, which was terrifying for many at the time. Was everything relative? Were there no absolute moral standards? Although Einstein was able to show that space and time are relative it was in their union that the concept of space time emerged to be understood as an absolute. Wherever we are we are part of that large cake as if it could be cut into slices to pinpoint locations. No longer could space or time be thought of without the other as space time was shown to be a major player in the unfolding cosmos. Given that nothing exceeds the speed of light any motion through space time absorbs time so that anyone taking off on a very long rocket journey and returning to earth much later would be younger than an equivalent earth bound counterpart.

In many ways, modern astronomy –astrophysics –only began at the beginning of the 20th century, precisely because of the application of photographic techniques to preserve images of the stars.Various discoveries have enabled astronomers to work out the masses of the stars. It was Hertsprung who discovered the relationship between the brightness of star sand its color. The point of his discovery is that the temperature of a star is related to its color, which allows measurement of the distances to the stars.Astronomers are now able to calculate with great accuracy how much material of different kinds is manufactured inside stars and scattered into space by stellar outbursts described as a supernovae. This is an ultimate truth revealed by a process of enquiry that began when Galileo first turned his telescope towards the sky.From large systems (perhaps the infinite universe) to the tiniest particles unimaginable.

The beginning of the quantum revolution (study of sub atomic particles called protons and electrons) meant light could be seen behaving either as a wave or as a stream of particles.Much of this latter science discovery work following on from Einstein’s earlier discoveries seems so strange it often seems absurd to our minds. We have no hope in satisfactorily understanding the behavior of tiny particles such as electrons and protons inside or outside of atoms. All we can hope to do is to find equations –circumstances, sometimes more like a wave, sometimes more like a particle. Enter the world of quantum mechanics.Heinsberg made a contribution to quantum physics when he introduced his famous uncertainty principle. However the bizarre notion of quantum mechanics postulate where two photons were entangled any successful measurement of either will force the other distant photon (however far away- even were it to be on the other side of the universe ) into a corresponding same spin cycle rather than any expected haze of probabilities.

These relatively new discoveries have relevance to the social sciences. Although quantum mechanics and the duality principle only operate at the sub atomic level they tell us something about the nature of uncertainty in the universe and our tenuous grasp on reality. Ultimately although we have free will to determine our immediate actions the uncertainty principle is likely to lead to a much more random outcome for individuals and groups within a society that has hitherto been understood. The idea we can control our destiny and end result carries with it its idea that the poor are totally to blame for their plight. This seems at odds to what we know happens in the scientific world. More likely such groups were less effective in adapting to the random changes that occur in society at an ever-increasing rate with the advancement of civilization.

This calls for a more compassionate world in policy and management advancement. Although we tend to think of science in terms of great discoveries by individual geniuses on whose shoulders we rest, Gribbin shows us more often than not it is rather the “hard slogging” step by step building process by ordinary people that wins out in the end. This painstaking work is undertaken usually without “lust” for glory but to satisfy our intense curiosity about the world and how it works.
Visit his website by clicking on the icon link next to the heading.


byrnesbloglog said...

The history of science is very interesting, another insightful summary from lindsay lobe

Seraphine said...

so here is the genesis of galileo's poem that you shared with me!
i love discussions of science vrs. religion.
and i wonder, despite all of the intellectual advancement the world has made since the 16th century, whether we will find ourselves in another "dark age" where one is put to the rack for noting saturn has an odd shape or for sketching a likeness of muhammad on a matchbook cover.
i fear cultures and civilizations have their influence but wax and wane according to the day.
wibble-wabbling ("by reason of the sky’s enormous girth" of course) seems to be a human peculiarity.

Seraphine said...

p.s. your paper inspired today's comic.