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.