Thomas L. Isenhour is an analytical chemist with a PhD from Cornell University. He is a teacher, researcher, administer, and consultant to industry and government. He has taught more than 10,000 students in chemistry, environmental science, mathematics and the history of science. Isenhour has publishe...
The Evolution of Modern Science outlines the story of science from Aristotle to the present. The first third progresses from the ancient Greeks to the developments of the Renaissance that prepared the way for the Scientific Revolution. The second covers the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment and the final third is devoted to the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.
My goals are to show the evolution of modern science in historical and political context and to demystify science. We stand at the threshold of momentous advancements ranging from human cloning to fusion power. An understanding of science is essential to being a modern citizen.
When I was a child, I would lie in the grass on a summer’s evening and stare into the starry sky. All sorts of imaginations led me to wonder about the universe, about life beyond Earth, about the beginning and the end, about where we are, what we are and most of all why we are. Why may have been the most important word in my vocabulary because it allowed me to bombard adults with questions about everything. Because of a patient father, I got a reasonable number of answers. Most of all, I learned that it was alright to question, to wonder and to seek explanations.
Science (from the Latin scire, to know), seeks answers, explanations of the natural world. From the first cave person that wondered why the mountains rumbled during a storm, we have evolved a set of consistent explanations for natural phenomena. In effect, the cave dwellers were crudely practicing science when they hypothesized that the noises were made by monsters, or gods, in the mountains. The cave dwellers were practicing a crude political science when they decided to give offerings to these gods to make them benevolent. The cave dwellers were practicing religion when they decided to worship (and fear) the gods in the mountains. Perhaps religion and science began simultaneously. Unfortunately, there developed a mythology around these suppositions and, when humans became able to measure phenomena more accurately, they found the conclusions of science at odds with religion, or at least with mythology. Much of the rocky road of scientific progress has been impeded by these potholes of mythology.
The Evolution of Modern Science outlines the history of science from Aristotle to the present. (I have been asked why I chose the word Evolution for the title and not Development or something else. I will answer that at the end, but we need to cover some important ideas first.) Scientific progress has always been coupled with human progress and subject to the politics and culture of the time. Scientists, in most instances, have been in the main stream of society; however, through their curiosity and innovation they have often clashed with the prevailing culture.
Aristotle, who some say was the first scientist, was a student of Plato and integrated philosophy, science and religion. Aristotle tried to explain everything in the universe. Aristotle’s cosmology was incorporated into Christianity by St. Thomas Aquinas and when Galileo disproved much of Aristotle’s mechanics and cosmology, he found himself on trial for heresy.
Isaac Newton was born the year Galileo died and, at the age of 22, launched the Scientific Revolution with the invention of calculus. However it took a hundred years of advocacy by such notables as Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, and Madame du Chatelet, to establish Newton’s physics.
Wöhler disproved the vitalist theory of life by synthesizing an organic compound in 1828 and his laboratory research was seminal to the development of the great chemical industry. Darwinism, even though it is 150 years old, is still the favorite target of fundamentalists. A recent court battle in Dover, Pennsylvania, in 2005, ruled that Intelligent Design was religion, not science.1 (Karl Marx admired Charles Darwin, believing the theory of evolution was a scientific basis for his economic theory. The admiration was not returned.)
The definitive experiment that gave birth to special and general relativity was done by Michelson and Morley in 1888, but seventeen years passed before Einstein found the correct interpretation – that time is a function of your frame of reference. In 1905 Einstein published papers that led to the development of quantum mechanics and relativity, including the famous equation that led to the discovery of nuclear energy and, inevitably, to the building of nuclear weapons.
After a brief introduction to pre-Greek science, The Evolution of Modern Science will begin with the ancient Greeks and Aristotle. This section will reach a pentacle with Archimedes who solved the mathematics of levers and said: “Give me a place to stand, and I shall move the Earth.”2 The first third of the book will progress from the science of the ancient Greeks through the developments of the Renaissance that prepared the way for the Scientific Revolution. The second third will cover the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment concentrating on the 17th and 18th centuries. The final third of the book will be devoted to the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.
We will move in parallel through the basic disciplines of physics (including astronomy and cosmology), geology, chemistry and biology. Mathematics, as it has influenced the development of science, will be included and presented in a manner that will provide an understanding of its importance. We will briefly introduce arithmetic, Euclidean geometry, formal logic, algebra, analytical geometry, calculus, statistics, and Boolean algebra and set theory. (No special background in either science or mathematics is required, but you must gain an understanding of the essential role of mathematics to understand science.) We will focus on how science developed in the context of major historical movements.
The Scientific Revolution played a major role in the development of the social sciences. I believe one cannot understand Marx, Locke or Adams without first understanding Galileo, Newton and Darwin. Carl Sagan parallels science and democracy by stating that both are based on the principles of open debate, have mechanisms for correcting errors, and must not depend upon authorities that must be believed and obeyed.3
I have two goals for this work. The first is to show the evolution of modern science in historical context. The second is to demystify science by demonstrating that science is understandable; I believe an understanding of science is essential for a person to be educated.
We stand upon the threshold of momentous possibilities ranging from the cloning of human beings to the development of unlimited energy through fusion power. Science does not develop in a vacuum, but rather as part of the overall progress of human society. One needs to be prepared to deal with the dramatic changes that science is bringing to one’s life. By knowing the tenets, methods, and history of science, you will be better able to deal with scientific advances on a day-to-day basis.
In some ways the scientist is like the main character in a Greek tragedy. I believe this is what Steven Weinberg, an American Nobel Laureate in physics, is saying in the conclusion to his remarkable book, The First Three Minutes. “But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is some consolation in the research itself. Men and women are not content to comfort themselves with tales of gods and giants, or to confine their thoughts to the daily affairs of life; they also build telescopes and satellites and accelerators, and sit at their desks for endless hours working out the meaning of the data they gather. The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little bit above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.”4
The Evolution of Modern Science tells a strange story, a history that is intertwined with politics and religion; one that turns on personalities and the ever curious drive to understand, to make sense of the world. And, as the world was expanded by instruments like the telescope and microscope, to make sense of the universe and life, to ask ultimate questions and seek their answers.
Science is respected and worshiped in our modern world. The man on the street uses the word science to mean anything that has reached a state of sophistication, predictability, and understanding. To say something is a science, whether it is surgery or political forecasting, is to give it the highest level of credibility. Science has given us remarkable rewards from the preservation of foods by refrigeration to the preservation of health by inoculation. The benefits of science, and its partner engineering, are so ubiquitous in this world of technology, that most cannot differentiate the three. (An interesting exercise is to ask someone to differentiate science, engineering and technology.)
Science was not always so highly regarded. Science emerged from the darkness of mysticism, alchemy, astrology, and sorcery. In fact, metaphysics was the original attempt to give rational explanations for natural phenomena and a necessary step in the development of an objective science.
There has always been and still is a fundamentalist movement to return to the days when answers were given by holy men rather than wise men. It was certainly the case before the first great era of science, that of the ancient Greeks, and for another period of a thousand years, called the dark ages.
We will start our discussion with the world as it was before the ancient Greeks. We will then spend some time on the Greeks and, after a brief discussion of science in the Golden Age of Islam, skip to the Renaissance and the stories of Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton. From the wonderful 17th century we will move forward making continuous progress in science up to the present day. We will discover atomic theory, electricity and magnetism, heat and energy, and radioactivity, all of which will give us the ability to build devices for the greatest and worst of uses.
As a preview, here is my selection of the five most important scientists of all time: Galileo, Newton, Lavoisier, Darwin, and Einstein. (How could I have left out Faraday?) By the end of the book, I hope the reader will have their own list and, if it differs from mine, will feel free to write and tell me.
Do demons cause volcanoes, whirlpools, diseases? Does the sun go around the Earth? Would a cloned human being be identical to its twin? These, and other questions, are issues of science and through science we can find rational answers.
What is science? Science is the philosophy that the natural world can be known through human reason and that nature is rational, ordered and regular. When things seem irrational, the scientific answer is that we don’t have enough data to solve the problem. Scientific studies lead to hypothesis, theory and law. Scientific (natural) law is transcendent of time and culture; independent of ethical or value systems; and cumulative and progressive.
We feel that we understand a phenomenon when we can formulate it mathematically. In many ways, science is the mathematical description of nature. Welcome to The Evolution of Modern Science. There is no more exciting story.
Thomas L. Isenhour
Norfolk, Virginia USA
To the Student