|THE TIME MACHINE|
A Historical Timeline of Experimental Science
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|        As we know, the classical learning of the Golden Age of Greece did not die out, but it came close. From the perspective of almost three thousand years, as one looks back over the endless catalogue of battles, the rise and fall of empires, the horrible scourges of famine and pestilence and the widespread superstition and ignorance, one has to be amazed that humans have managed to survive and accomplish so much. I do not intend to make of this dissertation a complete history of experimental science. I simply want to attempt to trace some possible connections in the progress of scientific thinking as embodied in the lives of the lesser known scientists and non-scientists and in the cultural events of the time. There have been innumerable scholarly books written on the Greek philosophers, Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Leeuwenhoek, Harvey, Faraday and a host of other great scientists, and I will not attempt to review this huge body of literature. |
My hope is to bring together an interesting collection of lesser-known figures and events relating to experimental science, and biology in particular, in such a way as to show the reader the human side of science as reflected in letters, diaries, the press and literature. I borrowed the name Time Machine from H.G.Wells who's writing helped to popularize science in the 19th and early 20th century. My purpose in constructing the timeline of scientific progress was to allow the reader to quickly grasp the historical context in which a particular event occurred. By organizing the information on a yearly basis, one can turn to the timeline and immediately see, for example, what other world events were occurring at the same time as da Vinci was designing flying machines and what effect these events may have had on his thinking. Alternatively, if one wishes to know the state of European science in the year that the Pilgrims came to this country, one can find that information by looking up that date in the timeline.
This is a massive project and I have chosen to restrict it to the 800 year period from the beginning of the thirteenth century to the end of the twentieth. It will be a work in progress and never really complete because new facts and interpretations emerge continuously and must be tested for fitness in the historical record. In scientific research, we construct hypotheses and test them, then attempt to describe a model system in which our observations operate consistently and generate new testable predictions. My goal is to apply such methods to the study of the history of experimental science and to produce a useful and interesting tool for students, teachers and anyone interested in history from a scientist's point of view.
The inquiry into nature and the cosmos has been going on since ancient times and the history properly begins there. What follows is a barebones outline of this unique and fascinating period. Here are the roots and foundation of later studies in astronomy, medicine, biology, chemistry, and physics.
|I. Science before Socrates
The historical roots of modern science can be discovered within ancient civilizations such as the Babylonian and the Egyptian (3000-1000 BCE), but it is to the early Greeks that we owe the development of these nascent scientific ideas, the philosophy of science. It is here that we begin to read of people, of philosophers famed for their powers of reasoning and intuition. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are the names we naturally think of as the progenitors of western science but there were quite a number of earlier Greek thinkers who proposed interesting physical theories about the origin and workings of the universe. They were observers and reasoners, but not experimenters. Their ability to argue and use logic was highly developed but basing theories only on observation is not science as we have come to practise it.
Thales (~640-550 BC)
He was born (at least we are fairly certain) in Miletus, a city in Asia Minor which is now Turkey, but which was then for the most part Greek. The relative closeness of this area to the Babylonian civilization may have influenced the thinking of the Greeks who lived there more so than those on the Ionian peninsula. Thales appears to have believed that life and the material world were created according to a set of natural laws--not through the agency of gods and mythical beings. According to Aristotle who wrote about him in his Metaphysics, Thales proposed that all things began as a single substance which he described as water-like. We may find this idea amusing in its simplicity, but in an age when few persons doubted that the world was created and run by mythical beings, this concept of a physical origin of things was radical indeed. As one of the original Seven Sages, he is credited with many accomplishments in astronomy and mathematics, but these must be viewed with some skepticism since there is much disagreement in this quarter among historians. He is said to have learned geometry from the Egyptians, and his predictions of eclipses probably came from knowledge of the Babylonians who kept records of astronomical events for centuries. But his naming of the solstices and descriptions of constellations are most likely from his own observations.
Anaximander (~610-540 BC)
We possess only fragmentary writings directly attributable to Anaximander and know of his theories primarily through other sources such as Aristotle and Aristotle's protégé, Theophrastus. Anaximander was probably a student of Thales. Like Thales, he rejected the gods as the creators of everything and instead sought for natural explanations. He proposed that the heavens were without boundaries (what we would call infinite) and that they originated as an undifferentiated mass that would eventually return to that state. Compared to our current Big Bang theory of the origin of the cosmos, Anaximander’s ideas over 2500 years ago were remarkably prescient. He proposed the then novel idea that the earth was unsupported and floated in the void, and that the celestial bodies moved completely around the earth. These are such basic concepts to us that we cannot imagine a time in which people thought otherwise, yet our knowledge did have an origin and Anaximander seems to have been one of the originators. He also constructed maps of the earth and was one of the first to describe constellations as animals and mythical beings.
Anaximenes (~550-475 BC)
Another of the Milesian disciples of Thales, Anaximenes rejected the watery origin of the world and substituted for it, air. He observed correctly that water could be turned into vapor (an 'air'), while air (vapor) could be condensed into water, and water could be frozen into a solid body. Thus he reasoned that other forms of gas, liquid and solid could have arisen from the same sort of condensation and rarefaction. He noted that air was always in motion and that fire seemed to be a form of air that gave off heat and light, so he reasoned that the sun and stars were composed of rarefied airs that moved and burned. One can see how dangerous it is to draw conclusions from assumptions based solely on observations.
Anaxagoras (~500-428 BC)
Pericles, the ruler during Greece’s Golden Age, was taught by Anaxagoras and maintained a peace and prosperity that allowed the intellectual life of his people to flourish. Anaxagoras correctly described the origin of solar and lunar eclipses, the phenomenon of respiration in plants, and noted that our upright posture allowed both hands to be free for tool using compared to creatures that walk on four legs.
Heraclitus (530-470 BC)
The heavens were born in fire, said Heraclitus, and because of that all matter is in flux. The cosmos eventually will return to fire and the cycle will begin anew.
Empedocles (fl. 445 BC)
Charles Darwin's discovery of the origin of species was foreshadowed by this philosopher who proposed that the traits of animals were selected by fitness to survive—only those organs and physical features that made the animal best suited for life were maintained in future generations. This was perhaps the earliest description of natural selection.
Democritus (460-360 BC)
The cosmos described by Democritus contained an infinite number of worlds like our earth constantly in motion, colliding, being destroyed and reformed. All matter can ultimately be reduced to small particles called ‘atoms’, he said, with only empty space (the void) around them.
Hippocrates (fl. 400 BC)
Little is known about the life of Hippocrates, and what we have derives mostly from Plato. As were most of the physicians of his time, Hippocrates was a member of the Society of Aesculapius, the god of healing. He came to Athens some time in the early 400's to practice and to teach. His writings are still wonderful examples of clear observation and reasoning based on the knowledge of his time. He constantly spoke out emphasizing that the best physicians were those who could see the entire patient as a whole rather than just a liver or spleen.
|II. Aristotle and the Beginnings of Modern Science|
Aristotle was born around 384 BC in Stagira about 200 miles north of Athens of an upper-class family. His father was the physician to King Philip of Macedonia. Plato was the most renowned philosopher of the time and Aristotle most likely studied under him at the Academy in Athens. But Aristotle was a more down to earth philosopher than Plato and sought to learn about nature through observation and study rather than theoretical concepts. Possibly because of the influence of his father, he was appointed as the tutor for Philip’s son, Alexander. Philip must have been an unusually enlightened ruler for his time to want his son to be taught natural philosophy as well as the more common arts of war and statesmanship. Alexander no doubt felt as many students do today, that all this learning was merely a waste of his time when what he really wanted to do was rule the world.
With money from the state treasury, Aristotle established a school in Athens near the temple of Apollo Lyceus (protector of the sheep against wolves – ‘lykos’) and called it the Lyceum. This must have been an exciting time for Aristotle and for those who realized his greatness as a teacher and natural philosopher and joined his team at the Lyceum. There were armies of individuals who ranged the known world, collecting specimens of plants and animals, making observations, and gathering information about the people to report back to the Lyceum where other workers codified the information, created a zoo and botanical garden for the specimens and attempted to organize the accumulated facts into a logical description of the natural world. Aristotle created the first university and research foundation and, in his teachings established the rules of logic and reasoning by which theories could be postulated to fit the observations. He does not appear to have been an experimenter in the sense that we use the term today, but his ability to comprehend a large body of observations and organize them into a coherent set of concepts, an Encyclopedia Graecia, was far in advance of his time.
His works can be grouped into four categories: (1) the Organon, the 'tool' or instrument of correct thinking by utilizing logic; (2) the scientific works, Physics, The Heavens, Growth and Decay,etc.; (3) the esthetic works, Poets, Rhetoric; and (4) the philosophic works, Ethics and Politics. Boethius in the 6th century rediscovered the Organon and translated it into Latin. He studied it thoroughly and used its precepts as the foundation for his own system of logic and rhetoric. At this point, the teachings of Aristotle were already a thousand years old and no doubt were tied up with the collective attitudes towards the ancient Greek civilization. It has always struck me as quite unusual that the churchmen of the Middle Ages should have adopted the works of a pagan philosopher as their guide for debating the religious questions of the time. They obviously recognized the power inherent in Aristotle's methods and overlooked the polytheism of the Greek culture.
The intellectual high point of the Golden Age of Greece was a fortuitous coalescence of a time of relative peace and the presence of a small group of highly gifted persons. Pericles, who was the ruler during this period, used money from the Persian war treasury to rebuild Athens and create a center of learning and creativity. Unfortunately, this period was all to brief, ending abruptly with the wasteful Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, which sapped the vitality of the race and prepared the ground for conquest by Philip of Macedon.
Philip, who had been named regent, took over the throne of Macedon in 359 BC and declared himself king. A gifted military strategist and ruthless leader, he quickly took over the unruly states of Macedonia then turned his armies against Athens. In 338 BC, Athens was defeated and the intellectual life of the city was destroyed or forced underground. It is fortunate that Aristotle, as the son of Philip's physician, was tutor to Philip's son Alexander since this protected him from the ruinous destruction around him. In 336, when Alexander was only 21 years old, his father was murdered and he took control of the government of Macedonia and Greece. Alexander had already distinguished himself as an able military leader in the battle of Chaeronia against the Greeks, and he was well liked and respected by the people. Aristotle’s teaching may have helped the young Alexander to view the world with a broader perspective but it most certainly did not diminish his ambitions of world conquest. One has to wonder what might happen today if a ruler with the skill, courage and extreme intelligence of Alexander should get control of the government of one of the major powers.
We need not go into the details of Alexander’s career as empire builder, only insofar as to note that he swiftly subdued the Persians and captured their great city of Babylon before turning south to conquer Egypt. Thereafter he and his unstoppable army marched east as far as what is now Pakistan amassing more wealth and slaves as they went. Finally having become emperor of all the known world, Alexander returned to Babylon where the invincible warrior was brought low by a mere microbe and died of a fever at the age of 33. What Aristotle thought of all this has not been recorded, but he no doubt felt sadness at the death of his illustrious pupil, acceptance of the transitoriness of man’s existence and apprehension for the future now that the empire without its leader lay vulnerable to its many enemies. Aristotle had little time to ponder the outcome of Alexander’s death for he died just two years later.
The Alexandrian empire, once unified through his brilliant leadership, now broke up into several smaller kingdoms, each ruled by a family who thought they were the rightful heirs of Alexander. The line of Antigonus (‘Antigonids’) took over Greece and Asia Minor while the Ptolemies dominated Egypt. The remaining parts of Mesopotamia and the Middle East became the possession of the Seleucid dynasty. What happened to Plato’s Academy and the Lyceum of Aristotle in this world of continuously warring factions? Fortunately for Western civilisation, the Ptolemies recognized the value of learning and the preservation of the accumulated knowledge of the past and built the greatest library the world had ever seen in their city of Alexandria. Founded in 300 BC, the Alexandrian Library continued its work of acquiring and copying manuscripts, educating the youth and providing a forum for debate until 400 AD when it was destroyed by fire. Thanks to the support of the Ptolemies and some rather aggressive acquisition policies, the library was able to amass nearly the entire written works of all the philosophers, poets, dramatists, and other writers of the past and present. There are conflicting numbers with respect to how many manuscripts the library held, but it must have been close to half a million. The destruction of the library and the loss of so many works of which we now have only tantalizing references in the descriptions of later writers is one of the great tragedies of history.
The period after the breakup of Alexander's empire up to the rise in power of the Romans in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE is known as the Hellenistic Age. There was a great increase in the growth of cities and in what we would call 'technology'--the creation of harbors and bridges, new forms of architecture, sanitation and water distribution systems, and the like. The two great philosophical schools of the time were the Stoic founded by Zeno and his followers and the Epicureans associated with Epicurus. Neither of these philosophies was particularly interested in the pursuit of scientific inquiry, and we do not find much of note in the development of experimental science during this time.
|The scientists we read about in textbooks were not some strange creatures who lived totally beyond the cares and passions of everyday life. We lose sight of the individuals who worked and pondered and stayed up late trying to figure out what makes something tick. Curiosity is the little imp who sits on the scientist's shoulder constantly asking "Why does it work that way?" or "Why can't you make it work better?"|
|Why do we like to know things? Curiosity, of course. But why? I mean--why are we curious? To answer that question might take a lifetime. I accept curiosity as a way of life and enjoy the many wonderful discoveries that a nosy mind can lead you to. Let's see what we can discover and learn together. It gives me pleasure to teach others what I have found out and in turn to see through their eyes. The synthesis of many minds creates a super biocomputer that will take us to new truths and understanding.|
Using the Time Machine (under construction)
The history covers eight centuries from the 13th through the 20th. If you want general information just click the century button in the contents menu at left. For specific scientists, great inventions, critical events, and historical context click on the desired link on the century page. To read some of the original scientific writings from the periods, there is an excellent website called the Internet History of Science Sourcebook out of Fordham University. It is a collection of links organized into a table of contents that covers the entire stretch of history from the Babylonians to modern times. The links are briefly described and helpfully labeled according to whether they are major sites containing a wealth of information or very specialized sites focused on a single topic. Always try to read primary source material whenever possible, but keep in mind that errors in transcription, bogus content and deletions are not uncommon.
|Science History Links|
|Science, Civilization and Society - The New Age of Science in Greece. This lecture by Matthias Tomczak covers the beginnings of Greek civilization through Aristotle and is thoughtful and well-written. The text contains explanatory hyperlinks that describe 'Homer', 'Mycenae', 'Sparta', etc. in more detail and expand upon concepts such as 'democracy' and the view of history as 'his story'.||The Galileo Project - An online biography of Galileo. Provides comprehensive information about the society in which Galileo lived and detailed biographies of Galileo and other scientists of the 16th and 17th centuries. There are also sections on the instruments Galileo built and used, the experiments he performed and the theories relating to them.|
|Hyperhistory Online - An outline of world history in a format similar to the printed History Wallchart. Among other things, the site contains timelines of events and 'lifelines' of people extending back to 1000 BC arranged in a handy format with the chart in the middle frame, information appearing on the right and the navbar on the left. Brief text descriptions are included along with numerous links for more information. There is a specific lifeline of scientists.||Institute and Museum of the History of Science - Highlighting the accomplishments of major scientists such as Galileo, this online museum takes one on a virtual tour of the exhibits and provides much information on the historical context of scientific inventions. There is a digital library with links to Galileo's writings and other scientific archives.|
|Inventor of the Week - The Lemelson Foundation working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology produced this searchable collection of brief bio's of inventors. The group includes the famous and well-known inventors of such things as the telephone and polaroid camera but also those reponsible for commonplace items like crayons and velcro.||The Enlightenment and Romanticism - Course notes containing numerous links to biographies, works and information about writers, scientists and historical figures.|
|Journal of the History of Biology - Published quarterly by Kluwer (Netherlands) and edited by Garland Allen of Washington Univ., St Louis, Missouri, USA. The journal contains essays on important historical figures in the development of biology as a science in the context of philosophical and social concerns. There are also editorials and book reviews.||History, Journal of the Historical Association - Published by Blackwell beginning in 1912, this superb journal covers the entire range of history with reviews, essays, book discussions, editorials, and more.|
|Victorian science, an overview - The Victorian Web is one of the best and most complete online collections of Victoriana. This essay on the attitudes towards science in the 19th century by John van Wyhe of Cambridge University covers the major themes of evolution and new technology and their effects on religion and society. There are specific sections on astronomy, biology, botany, chemistry, geology, physics. mathematics and medicine, and short bio's of Victorian men of science.||Victorian science, a bibliography - This collection of important references in the history of Victorian science was put together by the eminent historian Dr John van Wyhe of Cambridge. There are a few primary sources readable online - Darwin's writings and letters, Babbage's "The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise", 1837, George Campbell's "The Reign of Law", 1867, the collected essays of T.H.Huxley, 1894-1908, and William Paley's classic 1802 "Natural theology; or evidences of the existence and attributes of the deity, collected from the appearances of nature".|
|Online Resources for Science History - This collection of references by the University of Delaware library provides a comprehensive set of links to online source material on the history of science.||British astronomers, paleontologists and other scientists - Enchanted Learning, a supplier of video learning games and educational materials for teachers and home-schoolers provides a list of scientist links with a photo and brief bio.|
|Papers of John Montagu Sandwich (1771-1784) - This site, administered by the National Library of Australia, contains scanned images of 45 letters to Lord Sandwich from many famous scientists, explorers, noblemen and even the King himself (James). The letters may be downloaded and printed for study but no publication is to be done without permission. The manuscript images are archived with 'persistent identifiers' (PIs) which means they will remain live even if their relative location within the hierarchy changes. Primary sources such as these are usually hard to come by and this collection provides an invaluable resource for historians and writers of the period.||Papers of Joseph Banks This collection of manuscript images of the correspondence and papers of Joseph Banks and Sarah Banks is part of the digital collection of the National Library of Australia and is available free for download and study. Permission must be obtained for publication, however.||Free online encyclopedia -