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The Complete History of Science

The Big History of Modern Science | Hannu Rajaniemi | TEDxDanubia

Hannu’s stories shows how our understanding of science (and the world) changed over time and the exponentially increasing complexities imposed in our lives. “To understand anything you must understand everything” Hannu Rajaniemi is a mathematical physicist, science innovator and writer. Self-described as “the Geometric Dreamer”. In the belief that science and technology are amongst the most important factors driving societal change and that modern physics is full of beautiful ideas that resonate with stories he would like to tell, Rajaniemi is also a renowned author of science fiction and fantasy. His trilogy, the critically-acclaimed and award-winning debut novel, The Quantum Thief (2010), its sequel The Fractal Prince, and the recently completed The Causal Angel have won worldwide acclaim.
The History of Science is the study of the historical development of science and scientific knowledge, including both the natural sciences and social sciences. (The history of the arts and humanities are termed the history of scholarship).  From the 18th century through late 20th century, the history of science, especially of the physical and biological sciences, was often seen as a narrative of true theories replacing false ones. More recent historical interpretations, such as those of Thomas Kuhn, portray the history of science in more nuanced terms, such as that of competing paradigms or conceptual systems in a wider matrix that includes intellectual, cultural, economic and political themes outside of science.   Attention is paid to science both inside and outside the context of Western Europe.

Science is a body of empiricaltheoretical, and practical knowledge about the natural world, produced by scientists who emphasize the observation, explanation, and prediction of real world phenomenaHistoriography of science, in contrast, often draws on the historical methods of both intellectual history and social history. However, the word scientist is relatively recent—first coined by William Whewell in the 19th century. Previously, people investigating nature called themselves natural philosophers.

While empirical investigations of the natural world have been described since classical antiquity (for example, by ThalesAristotle, and others), and scientific methods have been employed since the Middle Ages (for example, by Ibn al-Haytham, and Roger Bacon), the dawn of modern science is often traced back to the early modern period, during what is known as the Scientific Revolution that took place in 16th and 17th century Europe. Scientific methods are considered to be so fundamental to modern science that some consider earlier inquiries into nature to be pre-scientific.   Traditionally, historians of science have defined science sufficiently broadly to include those inquiries.

Early cultures – History of science in early cultures – Protoscience and Alchemy

In prehistoric times, advice and knowledge was passed from generation to generation in an oral tradition. For example, the domestication of maize for agriculture has been dated to about 9,000 years ago in southern Mexico, before the development of writing systems.  Similarly, archaeological evidence indicates the development of astronomical knowledge in preliterate societies.

The development of writing enabled knowledge to be stored and communicated across generations with much greater fidelity. Combined with the development of agriculture, which allowed for a surplus of food, it became possible for early civilizations to develop, because more time could be devoted to tasks other than survival.

Many ancient civilizations collected astronomical information in a systematic manner through simple observation. Though they had no knowledge of the real physical structure of the planets and stars, many theoretical explanations were proposed. Basic facts about human physiology were known in some places, and alchemy was practiced in several civilizations.   Considerable observation of macrobiotic flora and fauna was also performed.

Science in the Ancient Near East

Further information: Babylonian astronomyBabylonian mathematicsBabylonian medicineEgyptian astronomyEgyptian mathematics, and Egyptian medicine

Mesopotamian clay tablet, 492 BC. Writing allowed the recording of astronomical information.

From their beginnings in Sumer (now Iraq) around 3500 BC, the Mesopotamian peoples began to attempt to record some observations of the world with numerical data. But their observations and measurements were seemingly taken for purposes other than for scientific laws. A concrete instance of Pythagoras’ law was recorded, as early as the 18th century BC: the Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet Plimpton 322 records a number of Pythagorean triplets (3,4,5) (5,12,13). …, dated 1900 BC, possibly millennia before Pythagoras, but an abstract formulation of the Pythagorean theorem was not.

In Babylonian astronomy, records of the motions of the starsplanets, and the moon are left on thousands of clay tablets created by scribes. Even today, astronomical periods identified by Mesopotamian scientists are still widely used in Western calendars such as the solar year and the lunar month. Using these data they developed arithmetical methods to compute the changing length of daylight in the course of the year and to predict the appearances and disappearances of the Moon and planets and eclipses of the Sun and Moon. Only a few astronomers’ names are known, such as that of Kidinnu, a Chaldean astronomer and mathematician. Kiddinu’s value for the solar year is in use for today’s calendars. Babylonian astronomy was “the first and highly successful attempt at giving a refined mathematical description of astronomical phenomena.” According to the historian A. Aaboe, “all subsequent varieties of scientific astronomy, in the Hellenistic world, in India, in Islam, and in the West—if not indeed all subsequent endeavour in the exact sciences—depend upon Babylonian astronomy in decisive and fundamental ways.”

Ancient Egypt made significant advances in astronomy, mathematics and medicine.  Their development of geometry was a necessary outgrowth of surveying to preserve the layout and ownership of farmland, which was flooded annually by the Nile river. The 3-4-5 right triangle and other rules of thumb were used to build rectilinear structures, and the post and lintel architecture of Egypt. Egypt was also a center of alchemy research for much of the Mediterranean.

The Edwin Smith papyrus is one of the first medical documents still extant, and perhaps the earliest document that attempts to describe and analyse the brain: it might be seen as the very beginnings of modern neuroscience. However, while Egyptian medicine had some effective practices, it was not without its ineffective and sometimes harmful practices. Medical historians believe that ancient Egyptian pharmacology, for example, was largely ineffective.   Nevertheless, it applies the following components to the treatment of disease: examination, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis,  which display strong parallels to the basic empirical method of science and according to G. E. R. Lloyd played a significant role in the development of this methodology. The Ebers papyrus (c. 1550 BC) also contains evidence of traditional empiricism.

Science in the Greek world – History of science in classical antiquity

The School of Athens by Raphael.

In Classical Antiquity, the inquiry into the workings of the universe took place both in investigations aimed at such practical goals as establishing a reliable calendar or determining how to cure a variety of illnesses and in those abstract investigations known as natural philosophy. The ancient people who are considered the first scientists may have thought of themselves as natural philosophers, as practitioners of a skilled profession (for example, physicians), or as followers of a religious tradition (for example, temple healers).

The earliest Greek philosophers, known as the pre-Socratics, provided competing answers to the question found in the myths of their neighbors: “How did the ordered cosmos in which we live come to be?”  The pre-Socratic philosopher Thales (640-546 BC), dubbed the “father of science”, was the first to postulate non-supernatural explanations for natural phenomena, for example, that land floats on water and that earthquakes are caused by the agitation of the water upon which the land floats, rather than the god Poseidon.   Thales’ student Pythagoras of Samos founded the Pythagorean school, which investigated mathematics for its own sake, and was the first to postulate that the Earth is spherical in shape.   Leucippus (5th century BC) introduced atomism, the theory that all matter is made of indivisible, imperishable units called atoms.  This was greatly expanded by his pupil Democritus.

Subsequently, Plato and Aristotle produced the first systematic discussions of natural philosophy, which did much to shape later investigations of nature. Their development of deductive reasoning was of particular importance and usefulness to later scientific inquiry. Plato founded the Platonic Academy in 387 BC, whose motto was “Let none unversed in geometry enter here”, and turned out many notable philosophers. Plato’s student Aristotle introduced empiricism and the notion that universal truths can be arrived at via observation and induction, thereby laying the foundations of the scientific method.   Aristotle also produced many biological writings that were empirical in nature, focusing on biological causation and the diversity of life. He made countless observations of nature, especially the habits and attributes of plants and animals in the world around him, classified more than 540 animal species, and dissected at least 50. Aristotle’s writings profoundly influenced subsequent Islamic and European scholarship, though they were eventually superseded in the Scientific Revolution.

Archimedes used the method of exhaustion to approximate the value of π.

The important legacy of this period included substantial advances in factual knowledge, especially in anatomyzoologybotanymineralogygeographymathematics and astronomy; an awareness of the importance of certain scientific problems, especially those related to the problem of change and its causes; and a recognition of the methodological importance of applying mathematics to natural phenomena and of undertaking empirical research.   In the Hellenistic age scholars frequently employed the principles developed in earlier Greek thought: the application of mathematics and deliberate empirical research, in their scientific investigations.   Thus, clear unbroken lines of influence lead from ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophers, to medieval Muslim philosophers and scientists, to the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, to the secular sciences of the modern day. Neither reason nor inquiry began with the Ancient Greeks, but the Socratic method did, along with the idea of Forms, great advances in geometrylogic, and the natural sciences. According to Benjamin Farrington, former Professor of Classics at Swansea University:

“Men were weighing for thousands of years before Archimedes worked out the laws of equilibrium; they must have had practical and intuitional knowledge of the principles involved. What Archimedes did was to sort out the theoretical implications of this practical knowledge and present the resulting body of knowledge as a logically coherent system.”

and again:

“With astonishment we find ourselves on the threshold of modern science. Nor should it be supposed that by some trick of translation the extracts have been given an air of modernity. Far from it. The vocabulary of these writings and their style are the source from which our own vocabulary and style have been derived.”

Schematic of the Antikythera mechanism (150-100 BC).

Octahedral shape of a diamond.

The astronomer Aristarchus of Samos was the first known person to propose a heliocentric model of the solar system, while the geographer Eratosthenes accurately calculated the circumference of the Earth. Hipparchus (c. 190 – c. 120 BC) produced the first systematic star catalog. The level of achievement in Hellenistic astronomy and engineering is impressively shown by the Antikythera mechanism (150-100 BC), an analog computer for calculating the position of planets. Technological artifacts of similar complexity did not reappear until the 14th century, when mechanical astronomical clocks appeared in Europe.

In medicineHippocrates (c. 460 BC – c. 370 BC) and his followers were the first to describe many diseases and medical conditions and developed the Hippocratic Oath for physicians, still relevant and in use today. Herophilos (335–280 BC) was the first to base his conclusions on dissection of the human body and to describe the nervous systemGalen (129 – c. 200 AD) performed many audacious operations—including brain and eye surgeries— that were not tried again for almost two millennia.

One of the oldest surviving fragments of Euclid’s Elements, found at Oxyrhynchus and dated to c. 100 AD.

The mathematician Euclid laid down the foundations of mathematical rigor and introduced the concepts of definition, axiom, theorem and proof still in use today in his Elements, considered the most influential textbook ever written.   Archimedes, considered one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, is credited with using the method of exhaustion to calculate the area under the arc of a parabola with the summation of an infinite series, and gave a remarkably accurate approximation of Pi.   He is also known in physics for laying the foundations of hydrostaticsstatics, and the explanation of the principle of the lever.

Theophrastus wrote some of the earliest descriptions of plants and animals, establishing the first taxonomy and looking at minerals in terms of their properties such as hardnessPliny the Elder produced what is one of the largest encyclopedias of the natural world in 77 AD, and must be regarded as the rightful successor to Theophrastus. For example, he accurately describes the octahedral shape of the diamond, and proceeds to mention that diamond dust is used by engravers to cut and polish other gems owing to its great hardness. His recognition of the importance of crystal shape is a precursor to modern crystallography, while mention of numerous other minerals presages mineralogy. He also recognises that other minerals have characteristic crystal shapes, but in one example, confuses the crystal habit with the work of lapidaries. He was also the first to recognise that amber was a fossilized resin from pine trees because he had seen samples with trapped insects within them.

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