Roger M. McCoy
In 1543 a man, Jakob Karrer from Basel, Switzerland, tried to kill his wife with a knife. The unfortunate wife survived but her husband was sentenced to death for attempted murder. By coincidence a well-known anatomist from the University of Padua, Italy was in Basel at the time of Karrer’s execution. The anatomist, Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), applied for and was granted possession of Karrer’s body with the intention of performing a public dissection and constructing an articulated skeleton. He was not the first to do this unpleasant task, but he was the first to write a detailed and grisly book about the skeleton-making process. The completed skeleton he made still exists and is on display in the anatomy museum in Basel. Vesalius was born in Brussels which was then in the Netherlands and part of the Hapsburg empire. His birth name was Andries van Wesel, but when he became a scholar he followed the common practice of Latinizing his name: Andreas Vesalius.
Vesalius also wrote a book on blood-letting. The most usual method of treating illness in many parts of the world was to draw some blood to rid the body of an excess of one of the four “humors.” This idea originated in antiquity and was practiced by the Greek physician, Galen (c 129AD - c 200AD), whose writings on human anatomy still had great importance in sixteenth-century Europe. In 1541 Vesalius realized that dissection of a human body was forbidden at the time Galen did his studies; Galen’s work had been restricted to animals, which he considered physically close to humans. By dissecting only animals some characteristics of the human body were undiscovered. Although Galen’s influence was still strong after almost 1,400 years, Vesalius found many errors in Galen’s books and he received criticism for daring to dispute the current understanding of human anatomy, which was then based on Galen’s study of animals.
For example, based only on his observations of animal dissections Galen wrote that the human lower jaw had two bones. Vesalius found that humans have only one jaw bone. [NOTE: Many animals have two lower jaw bones held together at the front by cartilage (dogs, cats, cows), but others (humans, apes, pigs, horses) are born with two jaw bones that fuse at the front and become one bone in the first year.]
After years of examining human anatomy Vesalius wrote a groundbreaking book, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, (On the Fabric of the Human Body). This seven-volume book contained 273 detailed illustrations and became the major tool for teaching anatomy and was a major step in the development of scientific medicine. Although Vesalius' work was not the first such book on actual dissection, the quality of the highly detailed illustrations made it an instant classic. The illustrations are so detailed one must conclude that the artists were present at the dissections.
Soon after publication of this book job offers began to appear. Vesalius was invited to become Imperial Physician to the court of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. When he announced that he would leave his post at the University of Padua, he was offered, and declined, an invitation to the university in Pisa. Vesalius chose to go to the Imperial Court of the Holy Roman Empire. When he arrived, however, he faced the other court physicians who mocked him for being a mere barber surgeon instead of an academic interested in theory.
Over the next eleven years Vesalius traveled with the Imperial Court, treating injuries caused in battle or tournaments, performing postmortems, and administering medication. During these years he also wrote a short text, The Epistle on the China Root, which covered the medicinal value of the plant as well as a defense of his anatomical findings. This elicited a new round of attacks on his work that called for him to be punished. In 1551 Emperor Charles V ordered an inquiry to investigate his methods. Although Vesalius' work was cleared by the board, the attacks against him continued. One of his main critics, Professor Jacobus Sylvius, even published an article claiming that the human body itself had changed since Galen had studied it. Eventually the royal court rewarded Vesalius with a pension for life.
In 1564 Vesalius went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The pilgrimage was said to be forced on Vesalius as penance for performing an autopsy on a man whose heart was still beating. For this criminal act Vesalius was condemned to death but the sentence was commuted to a pilgrimage. This story was later shown to be mistaken and the pilgrimage was more likely just a pretext to leave the royal court. He found court life unpleasant and he longed to continue his research. Given that he could not just resign in order to leave the royal service he chose to escape, asking for the permission to go to Jerusalem.
When he reached Jerusalem he received a message with an offer to return to a professorship at Padua, Italy, which had again become vacant. During his voyage back to Italy the ship encountered strong winds in the Ionian Sea off the southwest coast of Greece. After struggling for many days with adverse winds the ship wrecked on the the Greek island, Zakynthos. While on the island of Zakynthos Vesalius died a the age the forty-nine. He was buried on the island.
Vesalius achieved lasting fame because he published his research results in books, first of which was the great seven-volume, On the Fabric of the Human Body, discussing with many illustrations the human anatomy. Later he wrote a companion book on the procedure for drawing blood for curing illnesses. Vesalius’ ideas were clearly revolutionary as they upset many of Galen’s concepts on human anatomy that had held for 1,400 years. The following are some of his most important findings:
Ball, James M. Andreas Vesalius: the Reformer of Anatomy. New York: Franklin Classics. 2018.
Guerrini, Anita. Vesalius and the Beheaded Man Books, The New York Academy of Medicine, 2016.
Roger M McCoy
The earliest humans on earth no doubt sensed the immensity of the cosmos even though they could not fully comprehend. Simply by seeing the night sky they were aware of the Moon, and that the stars moved in unison across the sky through the night without changing their arrangement. They also must have noticed that a few features (the planets) seemed to move independently of all the others. On almost any night they might have seen with awe a few falling stars (meteors). Then to their great wonderment an occasional object (comet) would appear with no apparent regularity, remain visible for several days, then disappear. As mentioned in the first science blog, these people created stories about the origin of these heavenly bodies, how they moved, and what held them in place. Also they often attached supernatural myths to sun, moon and stars, and viewed some of the rare events, like comets and supernova (exploding stars), as omens of good or bad events in the future. There was usually a certain individual (shaman, seer, prophet, or priest) in any group that interpreted the meaning of these cosmic displays.
One of Plato’s (428BCE-348BCE) students, Eudoxus, proposed that the universe consisted of a series of concentric spheres rotating separately with Earth at the center (geocentric). Later Aristotle (384 BCE-322 BCE) adopted the idea as the grand design of the cosmos. The innermost sphere contained the moon, then a separate sphere for each of the then-known planets: Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Yes, the Sun was then viewed as a planet. The outermost sphere held all the stars in their position as they rotated around Earth in twenty-four hours. Some later cosmic diagrams added a sphere beyond the stars called the sphere of Divine Intelligence. Aristotle’s concept
of concentric spheres persisted among astronomers into the sixteenth century.
Bit by bit, scientists began to try to understand the nature of our well-ordered universe. The first scientist of note was a sixteenth-century Polish man named Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), and he is sometimes called the inventor of the solar system.
Copernicus is known for his open challenge to the long-held geocentric belief that the Moon, Sun, planets and all the stars rotate around a motionless Earth every twenty-four hours. Even as a youth Copernicus was interested in astronomy, and at the age of twenty-seven he was reading anything he could find about astronomy, works by men such as Aristotle and Ptolemy. This excerpt by Ptolemy was still the common geocentric belief in Copernicus’ time:
If the Earth did orbit it must be the most violent of all motions seeing that it makes one revolution in such a short time. …the Earth would move so fast that any time a bird lifted off its perch, or any time a cat leapt up, these poor creatures should go howling off into space, their world ripped out from under them. This is shown not to be the case, hence the Earth is immobile.
Inspiration for heliocentrism came to Copernicus from his avid reading habits. He learned that early Greeks like Plato, and later Aristotle, believed in geocentrism and an immobile Earth, but a few such as Aristarchus and Philolaus, and a Syrian philosopher, Al-Urdi, suggested that Earth rotated on its axis and made the Sun and stars appear to move. Copernicus cited these men in an early draft of his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) but not in the final publication. Probably he was concerned about public and papal reaction if he used pre-Christian sources.
One big problem with such a new idea was that it went counter to Christian beliefs which held that Earth and humanity were the central focus of all creation. In one statement Copernicus wrote, “The Sun is appropriately called the lantern of the universe. As though seated on a royal throne, the Sun governs the family of planets revolving around it.” This statement was enough to stir a controversy.
In order to present his new idea in a way the Church might accept, Copernicus wrote a lengthy letter to Pope Paul III in 1543. His letter was a proposal advocating a reform of the cosmic order and at the same time obtaining the pope’s approval. Despite this effort Copernicus was still criticized roundly by the Church. Here are some excerpts from his letter of dedication to the pope. (Very slightly edited for clarity)
The philosopher’s [read scientist’s] aim is to seek truth in all things
as far as God has permitted human reason—yet I hold that opinions
which are quite erroneous should be avoided. I thought I also might
easily be permitted to try to show whether by postulating some motion
of the Earth, more reliable conclusions could be reached regarding the
revolution of the heavenly bodies than those of my predecessors.
Thinking therefore for myself to ascribe movement to the Earth must
indeed seem an absurd performance on my part… Nor do I doubt that
ingenious and learned mathematicians will sustain me, if they are
willing to recognize and weigh…with that thoroughness which
Philosophy demands, those matters which I propose in this work
will demonstrate these theories.
[At this point he makes a hopeful stroke to the pope’s ego.]
I have preferred to dedicate these lucubrations [studies] of mine
to Your Holiness rather than to any other, because, even in this
remote corner of the world where I live, you are considered to be the
most eminent man in dignity of rank and in love of all learning and
even of mathematics, so that by your authority and judgment you
can easily suppress the bites of slanderers from critics.
[Here he asserts certainty that his idea is correct
and based on his analysis.]
If perchance there shall be idle talkers, who, though they are
ignorant of all mathematical sciences, nevertheless assume the
right to pass judgment on these things, and if they should dare to
criticize and attack this theory of mine because of some passage
of Scripture which they have falsely distorted for their own purpose,
I care not at all; I will even despise their judgment as foolish.
Despite this, Copernicus managed to maintain a good relationship with the Church. The papal office showed little concern for his heliocentric theory at first and did not actually impose a ban on heliocentric beliefs until the seventeenth century. The ban lasted from 1616 until 1835, and was finally lifted 292 years after Copernicus’ letter of dedication to the pope in 1543.
The most intense resistance came from sixteenth-century Protestant theologians such as John Calvin (1509-1564) and Martin Luther (1483-1546). John Calvin wrote a fiery sermon about those who are so “deranged…they will say that that the sun does not move, and that it is the earth which shifts and turns. …we must indeed confess that the devil possesses them…” Nevertheless, Copernicus’ idea withstood the testing and tweaking by later scientists and heliocentrism prevailed.
Copernicus gave the world a new, innovative idea that caught on with other scientists who followed. Galileo (1564-1642) was the next major proponent. After his confrontation with the Church, heliocentrism became accepted among scientists as the only model of the solar system that could answer all questions about its function.
Copernicus’ idea initiated a revolution because it changed the way people viewed the universe and showed that long-held beliefs could be wrong. His effort promoted greater intellectual curiosity and inquiry about the universe. His heliocentric view of our solar system also initiated a new approach to astronomy and spurred many subsequent investigations.
Thomas Kuhn wrote in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), that a fundamental test of the validity of a theory is its ability to answer questions about the natural world. If some fundamental questions are left unanswered, the theory is flawed and the unanswered questions will eventually lead to a new theory.
Copernicus is a good example of those rare creative thinkers who have an insight that changes the way people see the cosmos and sparks a revolution in the scientific approach to learning. He challenged the view that Earth and its inhabitants were at the center of the universe and proposed that the Earth orbits the Sun, just like the other planets. The discoveries of Copernicus and other scientific theorists occurred around the same time as the religious Reformation of the sixteenth century when people were already questioning the general structure of the scientific, religious, and political components of society. This very gradually led to a greater freedom of thought throughout Europe.
Boorstin, Daniel J. The Discoverers. New York: Random House. 1983.
Fauber, L. S. Heaven on Earth. New York: Pegasus Books. 2019.
Robinson, Andrew (ed.) The Scientists: An Epic of Discovery. London: Thames &
Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1962.
Kuhn, Thomas. The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the
Development of Western Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press. 1957, renewed 1985.
Robinson, Andrew (ed). The Scientists: An Epic of Discovery. London:
Thames and Hudson. 2012.
Roger M McCoy
A few men in the early Greek civilization made attempts to understand natural phenomena by observation and reason rather than relying on supernatural forces. In some cases their conclusions lasted into the present time. When you study geometry you usually hear of a Greek living in the sixth century BCE named Thales. This man found that the ratio between the circumference of a circle and its diameter is a constant, which he identified by the Greek letter 𝞹 (pi). He used 𝞹 because it is the first letter of the Greek word, περίμετρος, which written in Latin script as perimetros, becomes perimeter. The use of pi is unavoidable for anyone making computations involving circles. In recent times math fans even observe a pi day, March 14th, which coincidentally is the approximate value of pi when the date is written as 3.14.
Thales also accurately predicted the solar eclipse of 585 BCE. Aside from these important contributions his other efforts involved wrong assumptions which led to inaccurate conclusions. Fortunately his wrong conclusions led to criticism from one of his own students, Anaximander, and thus was born a very important element of science…criticism from colleagues. Scientists today make a practice of testing, replication, and analysis of work by other scientists. Now all scientific discoveries are reviewed by other scientists who have no personal involvement in the discovery. This approach reflects back to Thales’ student, Anaximander questioning his mentor’s conclusions. Thales is sometimes called the "father of science” partly because he was the first to propose natural rather than supernatural explanations for common occurrences. Much of their work is now classified under mathematics.
Another sixth century BCE Greek, Pythagoras, is best known to geometry students for his useful Pythagorean theorem, which shows the relationships among the sides of a right triangle, i.e. one angle is 90 degrees. In addition, Pythagoras was also the first to propose that the Earth is a sphere. As the first to apply observation and analysis to come to conclusions about the natural world, Thales and Pythagoras showed us that science is more than a body of facts; it is a way of thinking. Their use of observation and deduction to test a theory is still an important foundation of science today.
Archimedes’ (b.287 BCE) study of fluids led to explanations of water pressure and an understanding of why some objects float and others sink. For an example of his idea, consider that a cubic foot of aluminum weighing 168 pounds will displace a cubic foot of water which weighs only 62 pounds and the aluminum will sink. If the aluminum cube is then made into an aluminum boat, its volume is greater and the amount of water it displaces increases. If the boat made from the cubic foot of aluminum now displaces more than one cubic foot of water (168 pounds), the boat will float. If the boat should leak and fill with water it will lose that advantage and sink. Archimedes is also credited with explaining the principle of the lever and devising Archimedes’ screw which is still used as a means of raising water from one level to another.
Among other early Greek scientists were Hippocrates (b.460 BCE) who was first to write descriptions of many diseases, and Galen (b.129 BCE) who actually performed many operations including eye and brain surgery which nobody tried again for almost two thousand years…no information on the fate of his patients. The Greeks under the guidance of Hippocrates made substantial progress in understanding the human body. Prior medical methods had been largely confined to religion, rituals and potions. Disease and mental disorders were considered a sign of the gods’ disapproval and must be dealt with by spells or prayers.
Meanwhile in China inventive minds were recording astronomic events such as solar eclipses and supernova (a star that suddenly increases brightness due to an explosion), and creating many useful things such as the abacus, sundial, the compass, paper, and gunpowder. Other centers of learning in the pre-science ancient world include Babylonia, Egypt, and Persia, where detailed astronomical tables were compiled.
Egypt produced some significant advances in geometry which developed from the land surveying needed to preserve the layout of farmland and ownership after flooding by the Nile River. Their most famous contribution, actually made by the Greeks who occupied the country, was the compilation of all known information of their time, written on scrolls for storage in the famous library in Alexandria. Many Greek intellectuals of the time are known to have used the Alexandria library, but unfortunately it was totally destroyed by fire in 275 CE while the occupying Roman army was putting down a rebellion, and all the valuable scrolls recording ancient literature and knowledge were lost.
Science made a significant beginning under the ancient Greeks and Persians and copies of the ancient scrolls had been made by European scholars. During the Middle Ages most of that ancient knowledge in Europe was destroyed by invading barbarians or suppressed as pagan ideology by the Christian Church in Rome. Thus Europe entered the “Dark Ages” while the rest of the civilized world (Persia, Babylonia, China, etc.) carried on the intellectual tradition with no suppression of knowledge. Fortunately much of the knowledge preserved in China, India, Babylonia, and even Ireland, was recovered during the European Renaissance in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when communication between Europe and the East was restored.
Boorstin, Daniel. The Discoverers. New York: Random House. 1983.
Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Cohen, Mark S.; Curd, Patricia; Reeve, C. D. C. Readings in Ancient Greek
Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle. Indianapolis, Indiana:Hackett
Violatti, Christian. Ancient Greek Science. World History Encyclopedia. 2013. https://www.worldhistory.org/Greek_Science.
Roger M McCoy
Underlying all the human pursuits there is one very important trait: curiosity. Especially we wonder about the natural world and how it works! This human trait of curiosity has led to an endless process of discovery about the extent of our Earth (explorers) and how it functions (scientists). Our natural need for understanding is expressed by questions about everything. We see the beginnings of this innate questioning in most children, who constantly ask “Why.”
Our species has always attempted to find answers for these eternal questions. Before the emergence of science involving observation and investigation, early humans devised stories to explain the origins of humans, of mountains, oceans, fire, volcanoes, and all natural phenomena. Many cultures have devised traditional origin stories, especially stories explaining where they came from and their early history. Often these stories, called by various names such as myths, folklore, oral history, fables, or fairy tales, involved an assortment of supernatural beings who created and controlled the natural world.
We also see evidence of human inquisitiveness in written records extending back almost 5,500 years from Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, China, India, and Iran, all trying to answer basic questions about Earth and the entire universe. These ancients were not called scientists, which is a word that is only about 200 years old. Rather they were called “natural philosophers.” “Philosopher” is a Greek word meaning “lover of wisdom” and a natural philosopher is one who seeks wisdom about the physical universe. Today we call these people scientists and they may include physicists, chemists, astronomers, geologists, geographers, biologists, zoologists, oceanographers, botanists, and others.
Prior to the nineteenth century, people we think of as “scientists” were still called “natural philosophers.” This would include such great men as Nicholaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton. In 1799 a school called the Royal Institution opened in London and appointed a Professor of Natural Philosophy to teach a subject we now call physics. In the middle of the nineteenth century the term scientist replaced “philosopher" for those investigating the natural universe.
The word “science” itself already existed and is derived from the ancient Roman word scientia which means “knowledge.” The word was applied to any subject including nature, philosophy, politics, theology, economics or any other area of interest to humans. In 1833 a new organization, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, first coined the term “scientist.” The members of this newly formed British organization felt that “philosopher” was too wide a term and deemed too “lofty.” One of their group suggested that a person who creates art is called an artist, therefore one who investigates science should be called a scientist.
NOTE: The broader term science is still in use for a few other fields such as Political Science, Social Science, and Economics (the “dismal science”).
As a starting point we must ask: what part did the ancient Greek thinkers play in the evolution of science? Aristotle’s view of the natural world, i.e. the Sun and planets revolving around the Earth, persisted for 1800 years. Soon after Aristotle came other natural philosophers such as Archimedes, Euclid, Eratosthenes and Ptolemy. These men observed, investigated, proposed answers, and achieved an understanding of many things that still stand today, i.e., matter is made up of small units called atoms, light travels in straight lines, the circumference of the Earth, and the concept of latitude and longitude.
On the other hand the ancient Greek natural philosophers were mistaken in many concepts which were eventually corrected in later eras of science. For example they believed the Sun and planets revolved around the Earth in perfect circles, and that a heavy object would fall faster than a light object. These and other early misconceptions were based on logic and mostly lacked any observation or experimentation. Yet the weight of early Greek thinking dominated the field of natural philosophy (science) until the seventeenth century when men like Newton, Darwin, and Francis Bacon began to criticize the ancient ideas.
In the sixteenth century a few thinkers, starting with Nicholaus Copernicus, began to challenge conventional thinking by simply making observations and analyzing data. All these ideas have been tweaked and modified as more precise instruments allowed greater measurement and deeper views into the universe.
In 1660 a small group of British scientists began the world’s oldest scientific society, The Royal Society (The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge). The name itself shows a great change from the earlier thinking that Aristotle’s philosophy was enough.
In 1936 Albert Einstein remarked that “The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking." Probably his “everyday thinking” was a bit different from most people’s everyday thinking. Galileo is known for basing his conclusions on observations, and Einstein echoed this in his perception of science:
Pure logical thinking cannot yield us any knowledge of the
empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts from experience
and ends in it. Propositions arrived at by purely logical means
are completely empty as regards reality.
By this time Einstein was already considered the most original thinker since Isaac Newton. His genius came from his ability to discover the simplicity in things of great complexity, and he did this through “everyday thinking.” See how simple it is to be a genius? Indeed many scientific ideas may be reached by everyday thinking. For example, fairly easy trials and observation revealed the laws of motion and gravity to Isaac Newton and the theory of evolution proposed by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace. Any of us can wonder why dropped objects fall toward the Earth, or why some objects float. Most of us can understand how these phenomena might be in the realm of “everyday thinking.” (However we might have more difficulty seeing Einstein’s relativity or quantum theory in the same way.)
Scientific research involving experimentation and observation has yielded many technological products that we use every day. Consider how much we take for granted: computers, cell phones, the internet, satellite communication, GPS, black holes, quantum theory, and many others must have little to do with everyday thinking. The development of these innovations required extensive observation and data analysis.
We may speak of the history of science as though science is an object but, as always, major advances in any field of study have always been driven by strong personalities with inquisitive minds. Charles Darwin, while reflecting on his life wrote:
I have been speculating what makes a man a discoverer of
undiscovered things, and a most perplexing problem it is.
Many men who are very clever—much cleverer than the
discoverers—never originate anything. As far as I can conjecture,
the art consists in habitually searching for causes or meaning
of everything which occurs. This implies sharp observation and
requires as much knowledge of the subject investigated.
Isaac Newton, when asked how he discovered the law of gravity replied, “By thinking on it continually.” I would add that for the human mind “Why” is the eternal question.
In the following blogs I wish to examine the lives and accomplishments of men and women who practiced science by “everyday thinking” and pondered the questions that led to a new understanding of the natural universe.