The Significance of Science (Part 2: Our Changing Perception).

In my previous post I discussed some of the important cultural changes and innovations in our history that would ultimately foster an environment conducive to scientific enquiry. With that settled, we can now investigate the rise of science within its proper context. Let’s get to it, shall we?

The term science is derived from the latin word scientia, meaning knowledge. Science as we know it today,  (being the collection and analysis of physical information about the universe) began in ancient times, with such work carried out across civilisations as distinct as ancient China and Greece. Yet, the word used to describe those engaged in science – scientists – is a recent one, originating only some 200 years ago. Prior to 1833 when the term was coined at a meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Science in Cambridge, those who studied the natural world were known as natural philosophers.

And so from the ancient term came a new class of people willing to direct their efforts towards an empirical understanding of the universe. But just as we pulled the term from the ancient word, so have we pulled many ideas from the ancient world that inform our thinking to this day. From the ancient Greeks alone we gained insights on the circumference of the earth, the classification of animals, the idea that light travels in straight lines, the invention of geometry, and of course the notion that all matter is made up of atoms.

Yet many of the ideas of the ancients we now know to be incorrect. The ever self-correcting, reassessing nature of science has allowed us to see the flaws in previous theories and to postulate ever more accurate ideas.

It is this evolving body of knowledge, this transforming of our understanding, that has been so crucial to humanity’s progress and which demonstrates the significance of science. Below I briefly touch on several scientists, their lives and their associated discoveries that I consider to be of particular interest. Each has forever altered our perception of the universe and our place within it, and deserve our respect and perhaps our admiration. Enjoy!

Advancement of Science: http://www.flickr.com/photos/justaslice/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543)

Copernicus and his model of our solar system: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bbeyer/

This is a man who tipped conventional thinking on its head when he published his work, De revoltuionibus orbium coelestium (On the revolutions of the heavenly spheres). Throwing out the ancient ideals of Aristotle and Ptolemy, the Polish born Copernicus argued that the solar system did not revolve around the earth, but that the planets in fact orbited the sun. This heliocentric model of our solar system was a revolution, and it would change science forever.

His work would go on to inform the likes of Keppler, Galileo, and Newton. Copernicus himself had been reluctant to publish and did not see a printed copy of his manuscript until, following a stroke; it was shown to him on the day he died. His work was largely ignored until the later endeavours of Keppler and Galileo who believed his heliocentric theory to be factual, upon which it was banned by the Catholic Church.

In 1972 NASA launched the Copernicus satellite in honour of the astronomers 500th birthday, and more recently his skeleton was genetically identified and, a man who had previously lacked the fame to be given a marked grave was honoured with a black granite tombstone.

 

Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743-1794)

Laviosier and his wife in the chemists home laboratory: http://www.flickr.com/photos/uncle_buddha/

You may not have heard of this Frenchman, but he had a profound impact on science as we know it. When Lavoisier began studying chemistry in the 1760’s the discipline was still dominated by Aristotle’s theory of the four elements: earth, water, air and fire. By the time of his death, he had transformed it into the science recognizable as modern chemistry.

The man was a genius and is credited with the shift from a qualitative to a quantitative method of studying chemistry. He recognized and named Oxygen and Hydrogen, helped to construct the metric system, and among other feats, discovered that while matter may change its form or shape its mass always remains the same.

Unfortunately, he was caught up in the Terror of the French Revolution, and as he worked for an institute related to the old regime (and therefore seen to be decadent and wasteful) was labelled a traitor by architect of the Terror, Maximilian de Robespierre. At the age of 50 he was guillotined.

In response to his death, mathematician Joseph Lagrange famously said; “Only a moment was required to cut off that head, and perhaps a century will not be sufficient to produce another like it.”

 

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

The man behind the beard, Charlse Darwin: http://www.flickr.com/photos/30593522@N05/

Okay, so there are some scientists of great renown that you can afford not to discuss in a post like this, and then… there is Charles Darwin. Blame my zoological background or perhaps biological bias if you wish, but when discussing the influence of science on our changing view of the universe and our place within it, how could I not touch on the paradigm shifting power of Darwin’s theory of natural selection?

Few of you reading this are likely to not know about his voyage on the Beagle, and subsequent publishing of On the Origin of Species. Darwin kicked convention in the teeth when he argued that species were not fixed, as biblically proposed, but had changed over time to suit their respective environments. Famously, he pointed to the finch species of the Galapagos archipelago and humanity’s own dealings in breeding domestic animals and crops.

While he didn’t know the unit of heredity that functioned to ensure the “survival of the fittest”, later work by Gregor Mendel would lead to knowledge of genetics, and today Natural Selection is a crucial concept in evolutionary theory.

Despite causing a huge controversy during his lifetime, nowadays a statue of Darwin sits in the British Museum of Natural History, where once the statue of the museum’s first director and great opponent to Darwin’s theory, Richard Owen stood.

Alfred Wegener (1880-1930)

Wegener in his trademark Arctic-explorer clothing: http://www.flickr.com/photos/paleophilatelist/

In his book The Origin of Continents and Oceans, this German climatologist argued that all continents had once been joined in a single land-mass, which he called Pangea (From the Greek meaning ‘All-lands’). His basis for this argument came from his observations of similar life-forms, fossils, and geological structures on the coasts of different continents that appeared to fit together like jig-saw puzzle pieces.

Wegener termed this theory ‘continental drift’ and proposed that the continents literally floated around on the surface of the oceans. He was met with a storm of bitter controversy that resulted in two conferences where others met to discuss, and usually defy, his theory: OUCH!

Wegener was sure our planet’s continents had been previously connected and believed other scientists to be ignoring the evidence. While he never figured out the real means of continental drift, he kept adding to his theory until his death. He died perhaps as fitting a death he could have, lost in the Arctic on one of his many paid expeditions at the age of 50.

We now know some of Wegener’s assertions to be true. With a new theory of plate tectonics, we can see how the climatologist’s strident belief that the continents had been previously connected was on the money, and contributed to our understanding of this dynamic planet of ours.

 

John von Neumann (1903-1957)

Neumann and his brain child: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tellytomtelly/

With a near photographic memory and an astounding ability to perform mental arithmetic, this Hungarian born Jewish man seemed destined for scientific greatness. In 1933 he escaped the political ferment of Europe and found a permanent position in the US as one of the first four founding professors of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (alongside Albert Einstein).

While Neaumann played an important role in the Manhattan Project and the development of Game Theory, his greatest contribution to our lives is perhaps his work on the first stored-program computer, from which all computers hence have been based on.

Interestingly, Neumann differed to many of his scientific colleagues in his strong militaristic views and staunch defence of democracy, saying “If you say why not bomb [the Soviets] tomorrow, I say, why not today. If you say today at five o’clock, I say why not one o’clock?”. Nevertheless, despite what you might think of the expression of his ideals, the man had a huge influence on the way we live our lives today. In fact, you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog without him.

Thus concludes my brief discussion of just a few of the many hundreds of brilliant individuals who have contributed to our ever changing understanding of this big wide world: truly we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Of course, I should mention that I’d have liked to add a number of others but have been constrained by time. For one thing, there are numerous women who deserve recognition and admiration (Marie Curie and Dorothy Hodgkin for a start), and of course there are other fields of science I have not touched on (physics, psychology, medicine etc). Those that I have discussed I have done so purely for the broader implications of their work and how it has governed the way we view and understand this universe.

My next post will discuss the on going importance of scientific enquiry, and conclude my arguments for the significance of science.