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A History Of Science

Natural History Museum

When I was at school a question in science was marked right or wrong. In English and history, my favourite subjects, there was potential for waffling on and presenting different points of view. Truth in my favourite subjects seemed a fluctuating thing. I enjoyed the waffling, but somehow it never felt quite right that any answer was alright so long as you could back it up with a few quotes. In science, meanwhile, there was a seemingly rather harsh sense that it didn't matter about my point of view. Things were as they were. So what happens when you have a go at writing a history of science? A history of science might seem like a contradiction in terms. John Gribbin in his Science A History makes this point: "like many other scientific facts the inverse square law of gravity is an ultimate truth, in a way that no historical account of how that law was discovered can ever be 'the' truth" (p615). So even if writing a history of science seems, by definition, a hopeless task this is my attempt. If a history of science is a contradiction in terms, maybe we'll find by the end of this story that science itself is similarly contradictory. The long history of science has revealed definite laws, but we might come to see that the truth of those laws actually enshrines not so much clarity as contradiction.


Science says that certain truths can be demonstrated, and are objective. Truth is never taken on faith. An outlook like this has long set itself against a religious conception of the world, where basic conceptions are taken on faith. To take this difference of opinion back to its beginnings, it is thought by some historians of early humanity that religion became firmly established in new hierarchical societies during the last ice age. Both John E. Pffeifer in The Creative Explosion and James Shreeve in The Neandertal Enigma begin their explanations of human social development by pointing out that hunter gatherer societies rarely have a leader. Modern Kalahari Bushmen have no specific leader, and train their children from an early age to share all they have with each other. Once societies settle, things change. Around 20,000 years ago people moved north from the aridity of ice age Africa, into a small area sandwiched between parched Africa, and mile high glaciers which at their furthest extent moved down to just north of present day London. In southern France and on the Russian plain, ice age survivors led a precarious life, probably finding it impossible to move around much. For a large portion of the year extreme weather must have kept them close to home, and the old hunter gatherer lifestyle became more settled. Early in the period known as the Upper Paleolithic huts on the Russian plain seemed to be clustered around a central pit, suggesting an egalitarian sharing of resources, typical of hunter gatherers. Later each hut had its own pit, and some pits were bigger than others. Perhaps a hierarchical society offered benefits of specialisation of roles which helped survival. But hierarchical societies were potentially more unstable than the egalitarian communities preceding them. If society had crystallised into a hierarchy, people at the top needed a way of defending their position. Olga Soffer says:

"It's hard to tell archaeologically, but after the glacial maximum I think there were people who were running the irrational - leaders in charge of ritual. Sacred information is, after all, the easiest to control, because it can't be checked. If I were to tell you that there were reindeer over the next hill, you can climb up and see for yourself. But if I tell you that I speak to God and he speaks to me, how are you going to prove me wrong?" (Quoted The Neandertal Enigma P 317)



Recreation of a stone age domestic scene at Kents Cavern, Devon

This it seems to me is the crucial difference between religious and scientific outlooks. A scientist would want to go up the hill and see if there really are reindeer on the other side. A mystic would demand that their pronouncements are taken on faith. Perhaps in the extreme times of the Ice Age this kind of religious leadership was necessary to hold people together. Certainly it became ingrained in people and their societies and remains with us today. It is easy to dismiss the dancing, waving of feathers, and the self promoting delusions practiced by a religious hierarchy, as Olga Soffer does. It is also easy to imagine that ice age man survived inspite of, rather than because of, holy men who thought there were more important things than checking on the actual reindeer situation. Nevertheless we should remember that religion seems to have grown up during one of the most desperate periods in human history. In terms of strict survival only that which helped is likely to have remained part of human behaviour. This might give pause for thought in the following story of the struggle between the outlook of religion and science.




The change to a more scientific outlook took a long time. It wasn't until the establishment of ancient Greek and Roman civilisations that people really began in a systematic way to try and find out about the world from direct observation. In the fifth century BC Herodotus and Hippocrates were investigating the role of environment in determining how an individual will look and behave. Herodotus actually looked at skulls, comparing those of dead Persian and Egyptian soldiers. For some reason he found that Persian skulls were more brittle, and suggested their penchant for felt hats as a reason. This might seem laughable, but even so an attempt was being made to understand the world by looking at it. This approach led to more sophisticated views. By the fourth century BC Aristotle was writing about general anatomical similarities between humans and monkeys. But then with the fall of the Greek and Roman civilisations institutionalised Christianity replaced scientific method. For early Christian scholars knowledge about the world was not obtained through personal experience but through prayer and meditation. Europe was in chaos, and the old, unquestioned authority provided by religion was seemingly required.


This religious outlook persisted virtually unchallenged until calmer times in the fifteenth century. At this point the learning of lost Roman and Greek civilisations was rediscovered. In a sense, however, the early Renaissance was characterised by a similar trust in faith, except Greek authors replaced more traditional religious authorities as the objects of faith. It took a significant shift to decide that maybe the work of revered ancients should be checked and verified. Early moves towards this new confidence in observation came in medicine. Andreas Vesalius, a sixteenth century surgeon, realised the Greek writer Galen was incorrect in his ideas about blood circulation. He knew this because he had actually looked at human bodies. Direct observation also lay behind great progress in sixteenth century astronomical science, beginning with the work of Copernicus, who published his sun centred model of the universe, De Revolutionibus in 1543. Copernicus, and the transitional figures of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, made way late in the sixteenth century for the first true scientists, Galileo Galilei of Italy, and William Gilbert of England. William Gilbert, physician to Elizabeth I, carried out work on electricity and magnetism, and used the scientific method of experiment and observation. In the preface to his great book of 1600 Concerning Magnetism, Magnetic Bodies and the Great Magnet Earth Gilbert wrote:

"In the discovery of secret things, and in the investigation of hidden causes, stronger reasons are obtained from sure experiments and demonstrated arguments than from probable conjectures and the opinions of philosophical speculations."

I've seen different sized iron spheres kept at the Royal Society which Gilbert used in studying the Earth's magnetic nature. He didn't just think about the Earth, he tried to find physical models for its nature. Meanwhile in Italy Galileo, refining what was probably the invention of a Dutch spectacle maker named Hans Lippershey, developed the world's best telescopes. The telescope, and any other type of visual aid, had to overcome a deeply engrained Christian view that "man-made instruments for multiplying, deflecting, enlarging or reducing, and doubling or inverting visual images were means of distorting the truth" (see The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin P313). Galileo had moved into a world where visual aids, rather than distorting a revealed truth, were a means of revealing hidden truths. Using his telescopes he looked at other planets in detail. He also conducted experiments in mechanics, studying inertia and pendulums. In 1638 he published the world's first modern scientific textbook Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Concerning Two Sciences. This book made plain his view that the universe is governed by laws which can be understood by the human mind.




Royal Society

But of course all of this science was in effect going up the hill to see if reindeer really were on the other side. In a very fundamental way the scientific world view came into conflict with that provided by religion. Martin Luther, founder of Protestantism, was infuriated by Copernican ideas. Similarly Galileo found himself in great difficulties with the Roman Catholic Church in Italy. His Dialogue of the Two Chief World Systems of 1629 offended the Church, after Galileo failed to veil quite enough his support for a Copernican sun centred conception of the solar system. Inspite of Galileo's political skills, he was tried by the Inquisition, and had to retract his views to avoid torture or execution. Sadly Church attitudes meant that Italy went from being a world leader in science to a backwater. The world's first scientific society, the Academia del Cimento (Academy of Experiment) was set up in Florence in 1653 by two of Galileo's former pupils. Religious hostility meant it had to close after only ten years. Science had to make progress elsewhere, and in 1662, under a charter from religiously uninterested Charles II, the Royal Society was formed in London. The Royal Society is now the oldest scientific society in the world.


The struggle between religious and scientific world views was now set. The popular image of science remains cold, "unspiritual," taking away from the divine mystery of the universe. There is much irony in this. In many ways the Church, rather than trying to maintain the mystery of creation, was actually trying to maintain a world view that was small and limited enough for people to easily cope with. In 1654 Archbishop Ussher counted back through the generations described in Genesis and concluded that the world was created on 23rd October 4004BC. This fixed date, within a few thousand years of the present was part of a general view based on comforting limits and stability. The universe was seen as something fixed, with Earth at the centre, planets and stars attached to crystalline spheres around the Earth. Man was also at the centre of life, created in God's image, with all other species of animals created as we see them today, in a chain being below man. And this all began on 23rd of October 4004BC. Meanwhile science was revealing a a picture so much bigger and diffuse that it is easy to understand the fear which resulted.




Gresham College, where the Royal Society began, still providing public lectures, now in Holborn, London

By as early as the seventeenth century scientific investigation was showing that the Earth must be much older than religious authorities claimed. The study of fossils was revealing past worlds, very different to our own. In 1665, one of the founders of the Royal Society, Robert Hooke published Micrographia in which he identified fossils as the remains of once living creatures and plants. These were not, as was thought at the time, ordinary rocks which mysteriously mimicked life. In lectures given at Gresham College in London, Hooke implied that fossils indicated major transformations of the Earth's surface: "Parts which have been sea are now land. Mountains have been turned into plains, and plains into mountains, and the like" (quoted Science A History by Charles Gribbin P156). Changes like this suggested a much longer history for the Earth than religious orthodoxy allowed. By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries Georges Louis Leclerc, known as Comte du Buffon, was carrying out early experiments into the age of the Earth. He had the forward looking idea that the Earth had been formed from the Sun, after being ejected by a comet impact. His experiments took the form of heating up different sized balls of iron and timing how long they took to cool. Then it was a matter of extrapolating up to a ball of iron the size of Earth and estimating the time needed for cooling. His estimate came out at 42,964 years. This of course was incorrect. But using the most basic of physical experiments the age of Earth was ten times Ussher's biblical estimate. In the next generation of French scientists, Jean Fourier devised a series of equations to describe heat flow, writing the equations down by 1820. No doubt he used them, but was so shattered by the result when applied to the age of Earth that he then destroyed the answer. Fourier's estimate came out at 100 million years. He may have destroyed the result, but Fourier's equations remained, and could be used by any scientist. By 1820, then, the true timescale of history was beginning to open up. With the discovery of radioactivity in 1898 it became clear that material making up the Earth could generate its own heat. This added thousands of millions of years to estimates of the Earth's age. Knowledge of radioactivity also allowed rocks to be dated, and the current estimate for the age of planet Earth was calculated in 1956 by C.C. Patterson to be 4.5 thousand million years. With a lengthening of Earth's time scale there was opportunity for the theory of evolution, outlined in Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), to demolish old categories of life. The old view had species created separately, with man in his own category right at the top of the hierarchy. Following acceptance of evolution a picture emerged of species shifting and merging. In the words of Charles Darwin, there is "a sense of actual passage" between the many species of life. Man is another animal, sharing 98.4%of his genetic make up with chimpanzees.



Royal Observatory, Greenwich

Meanwhile in astronomy the Earth centred universe, challenged first by Copernicus with De Revolutionibus in 1543, then by Galileo, was going through a similar upheaval. Astronomical investigation was finding stars that moved, or that appeared and then vanished. Unimaginable distances were being revealed. By 1908 a sixty inch reflecting telescope had been built on Mount Wilson in the United States, and Harlow Shapley used it to work out where the Sun lay in the Milky Way. The Sun, once considered the centre of the universe lies on one of the Milky Way's spiral arms, about 30,000 light years from the galactic centre. Better telescopes revealed billions of stars in our galaxy alone. Up until the 1920s it was still widely thought that at least this huge Milky Way galaxy dominated the universe, but work by Edwin Hubble, using a hundred inch telescope in 1923/24 put pay to that idea. He looked at a large spiral nebula called M31 and found individual stars within it. Subsequent observations with ever better telescopes eventually showed that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars, in a universe which extends for billions of light years in all directions.


At the other end of the scale, increasing knowledge of what happens within atoms revealed a very strange situation. People once thought of atoms as being made up of very small, hard round balls. The nucleus of an atom would be a collection of balls, and around it would circle other little balls called electrons. And indeed some experiments suggest the constituents of an atom as particles: others show these same constituents as vague waves, even as a kind of force which is smeared over an undefined area. Light is similarly contradictory. Sometimes experiments show light acting as a particle, and sometimes as a wave. This difficulty in pinning down the reality of what is sometimes called "inner space" is summed up by Werner Heisenberg's famous Uncertainty Principle of 1927. The Uncertainty Principle says that it is impossible to know where an electron is and where it is going at the same time. Science reveals something so mysterious that in everyday, familiar terms it is impossible to understand. It is much easier to understand the homely picture that religion tried so hard to maintain for so long. This all means that the idea that science denies mystery and wonder is hard to justify. It could in fact be seen as a hangover from the long struggle with a religious outlook which claimed mystery for itself.



Statue of Newton by Paolozzi , outside the British Library

And yet science retains a cold, almost robotic image. The eighteenth century scientist Isaac Newton is known by many for his creation of a model of the universe as a clockwork mechanism. There's a statue outside the British Library depicting Newton as a robot. Certainly the laws he devised relating to gravity suggest that the universe really does run on predictable "clockwork" patterns. Halley used Newton's inverse square law of gravity to precisely predict the path of Halley's Comet, and give the correct date of its return to the proximity of Earth. Halley died in January 1742; Halley's Comet returned, as predicted, on Christmas Day 1758. With predictability like this, working over vast distances of space, Newton is deservedly known for the mechanistic vision he placed on the universe. But he is less known for the fact that he introduced what we can call the mathematics of change. Newton, amongst his other achievements, invented calculus. Calculus allows the study of processes in which change occurs, the position of a planet in orbit for example. Modern science could not exist without calculus, since it is the kind of mathematics required to replace a world view where things were fixed. The clarity and order Newton brought to our view of the universe also brought new variability. Newton was not a robot. Apart from the fact that he was very human, almost insane in his obsession with work, and in pursuing vendettas against people he felt had crossed him, he helped create a modern view of change. Rather than being something cold and fixed, science actually brings change, which is the basis of excitement. When Michael Faraday was giving his public lectures on electricity at the Royal Institution in the early nineteenth century, Albermarle Street outside became so packed with carriages that the authorities felt compelled to act. It was the traffic problems caused by Faraday's lectures that led to Albermarle Street becoming London's first one way street.



Royal Institution, London - photo by Julian Jones

Some people have always wanted to go up the hill to check on what they've been told regarding the reindeer allegedly on the other side. In conclusion we could ask whether the world is better for their efforts. It would be impossible to say no. Science reveals objective truth that can be tested. It is not dependent on fashion, political correctness, or the desire of one group to hold power. This is illustrated in modern times by the fate of Soviet agriculture in Stalinist Russia. Trofim Denisovich Lysenko presented a politically correct view of the biological world. The Soviets believed that environment shaped people, and therefore liked Lysenko's idea that plants immediately adapted to their environment. They also liked the fact that Lysenko was from a peasant background without any links to the awkward academic community who had the temerity to think for themselves. In 1948 all biological theories except those favoured by Lysenko were officially outlawed. Hundreds of scientists who held other views were either expelled, imprisoned or killed. Russia's greatest plant geneticist Nikolai Vavilov was starved to death in Saratov prison. The result was crop failure and starvation. Science is often termed arrogant, but is actually essentially humble. In place of an earth centred universe with man at the top of creation science has forced us to see our planet as a speck in an unimaginably vast universe, and ourselves as part of the animal kingdom. A ruling group may want to present the world in a way flattering to themselves, but science insists they do otherwise, as the Soviets found to their cost. However, we should also remember that Soviet Russia was officially a country which proclaimed itself based on rationality, and had suppressed religion. Religion has always been associated with maintaining the illusions of power, but removing religion in favour of "rationality" did not change anything under the Soviet system. The ruling group still wanted to present its own self promoting picture, and in a dark irony the "science" of Lysenko was used to do this at the expense of truth. Science dictates that inspite of our own prejudices we have to accept what observation and experience shows us. I would suggest once again, that religion seems to have emerged during one of the most difficult times in human history. This was the sort of time when human survival must have balanced on a knife edge, and only basically helpful patterns of behaviour could have remained. Bearing this in mind it is not easy to dismiss religion as merely an old superstition which we will soon grow out of.

Investigation of the world within atoms shows a contradictory picture, one of order and disorder existing together. Life cannot be chaos, there has to be order and structure. And yet if that structure isn't to freeze into lifelessness, there has to be continuing disorder within it. If I started this essay worrying about a history of science being a contradiction in terms, then perhaps contradiction is a major part of the picture science itself is now revealing.