The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of its Greatest Inventors, by John Gribbin (Random House, NY, 2006)
How science began is fascinating and there is much to learn from it - much more than just the science, there is the struggle, conflict, drama, danger, failure, triumph, and heroism that are inherent in the scientific pursuit - especially so in its originating struggle in a deeply religious, ignorant, superstitious, dictatorial, medieval Christendom. A very interesting and enlightening account of this history is in John Gribbin's book, The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greates Inventors,
Gribbin begins his history of the scientists in the medieval period and goes up through to contemporary science. It is a book for the educated layman, but having a decent background in history and philosophy is a great asset to bring to one's reading of this book as that sheds more relevant light on this subject than what happens to be within the author’s scope.
When science began it was not merely new knowledge; it was a new way of thinking and observing the world, indeed, a revolutionary way of thinking and observing. We take it for granted. At one time it was so revolutionary that it was dangerous for the early scientists because this new thinking led to discoveries threatening to the Church's version of the universe. A salient point I learned from reading Gribbin's dramatic history is that science had to be established from scratch by itself in an intellectual climate of a contrary nature. Like a frail infant, early science could have perished through its own weaknesses and feeble health - or it could have easily been killed by its stronger, experienced enemies, namely tradition, theology, or the Papacy. Fortunately, it managed to not succumb to either. If the scientists somehow failed then, medieval Christendom could have lasted far longer than it did. There lies the exciting drama of the history of science: so much was at stake. The discovery and use of scientific thinking took much time and application for the sciences as we now recognize them to be first of all, defined, and secondly, to be so situated as to be able to progress. The ceaseless labor of some scientists pointed the way forward into new areas to be discovered by their successors - without any guarantee that they would venture in those directions.
Furthermore, as Gribbin takes his reader to the initial understandings of vast areas of the natural world newly opened by a then-different method of thinking, the questions force themselves upon the reader as they more intensely must have upon the scientists: how to proceed successfully?; to what will this lead?; can it even be done at all?
All that we now possess of science and technology and take for granted - this was not inevitably to be ours; it could have been otherwise.
What the medievals believed about the world and the universe was preposterous, to be blunt. The earth was centered and encased in a large invisible sphere with the stars suspended from its ceiling and the planets were pushed around by angels. They seriously believed it. Why? It made perfect theological sense based on The Bible, of course.
Some brief examples from astronomy's development especially illustrate the revolutionary and struggling nature of scientific thinking.
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was an example of the mix between the dominant mysticism and the nascent science. He believed the heretical view that the earth revolved around the sun, but in a manner that was neat and tidy, or, "perfectly." Copernicus "wanted a model in which everything moved around a single centre at an unvarying rate, and he wanted this for aesthetic reasons (11)." Planetary rotations of perfect circles around the sun do not exist, but he wanted them to in conformity with theology, so he fit his data and their explanations into that model.
Martin Luther, his contemporary, was quite upset with this new thinking. He "objected to the Copernican model, thundering that the Bible tells us that it was the Sun, not the earth, that Joshua commanded to stand still (13)."
After Copernicus came Tycho Brahe. He took on the decades-long task of observing the planets to correct the tables of planetary motions. His discovery of a supernova was the beginning of the end of the theological dogma that the heavens are eternally perfect. Tycho was "the first astronomer to imagine the planets hanging unsupported in empty space (46)."
The first true scientist was Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who wrote, "In disputes about natural phenomena one must not begin with the authority of scriptural passages, but with sensory experience and necessary demonstrations (92)." In the end, he was placed under house arrest by the Inquisition for his heretical teachings that the sun is the center of the solar system.
Besides the heavens being totally misunderstood so was man's body and the earth under his feet. Inquiry and understanding of the physical world was virtually nil, as shown by the examples of the birth of two other areas of science.
Until the Renaissance, the accepted authority on human anatomy was Galen (Claudius Galenus) from the 2nd century. "Galen's work was regarded as the last word in human anatomy until well into the sixteenth century," (p.21). Andraes Vesalius (1514-1564), was the scientist who concluded that Galen must have done little dissecting of humans, and was therefore very wrong about human anatomy, so Vesalius took the initiative and produced an accurate book on the human anatomy, the Fabrica. In it, Gribbin writes, Vesalius "stressed the importance of accepting the evidence of your own eyes, rather than believing implicitly the words handed down from past generations - the ancients were not infallible." (25)
A contemporary of Vesalius was William Gilbert. After concluding that alchemy was a fantasy, Gilbert began studying magnetism and electricity, and like the instance of Vesalius and anatomy, this was "a feature of the world which had remained essentially neglected since the investigations (or rather, speculations) of the Greek philosophers some 2000 years earlier. (69)"
Fourteen centuries passed before man seriously studied his own anatomy; and even longer until magnetism and electricity were studied. They were known to exist but were not understood - other than superficially and superstitiously; that was sufficient in Christendom.
Scientists were not immune to making the error of accepting assertions based on authority, be it theological, the ancients - or one of their own even. Rene Descartes (1596-1650), a mathematician, scientist and philosopher, could not bear the thought of a vacuum and argued against it. His influence was so strong that the further investigations into the nature of the vacuum ceased for about a century.
What Gribbin captures for his reader about the first few centuries of science's development is a two-fold joy and thrill. It is the joy and thrill of discovering something about nature for the very first time and realizing that right there is a valuable new path to travel upward. Secondly, it is also the joy and thrill of also discovering for the first time how the human mind can know reality, that its cognitive ability is metaphysically efficacious. The implication is that man need not tremble before an unknowable universe, nor be forever enslaved to the authority of other men; but that he is in a knowable universe that he can master and the proper use of his mind creates his independence, which is his proper, natural state.
The scientists in the course of their pursuits were to varying degrees burdened with unscientific thinking that retarded their scientific progress. The scientist’s mind, insofar as it was scientific, (it was also partly a product of the dominant non-scientific mentality) was dramatically different than the prevailing mentality and psychology. Pseudo-science, religious dogma, superstitious psychology and beliefs were everywhere. Developing, refining, and integrating the proper inductive, scientific methods had to be discovered in the face of various obstacles and even opposition - and it took centuries. It was a change of mind for an entire civilization that began with a few brave, independent, intensely curious individual minds.
The type of thinking the early scientists did, in its immaturity, that produced its first results was demonstrably far superior to the dominant alternative type of thinking based on mysticism, appeal to scripture, religious authority, and its false, groundless assertions about the nature of the world. The religious response against the scientists was all assertions, rationalizations, arrogant intimidation - and no substance. (Its essence has not changed, incidentally. Although what it claims as its special knowledge has been reduced proportionally to science's growth.) The religious way of "knowing" would be hysterically laughable were it not so destructive.
The most salient lesson from The Scientists that remains relevant is of the actual interplay of reason and faith, that they are fundamentally incompatible. They were so in science's beginnings and remain so today in the "intelligent design" and evolution controversies.
Another striking lesson to apply from Gribbin's book is how the Islamic world is still in the philosophical and psychological state that medieval Christendom was in. There are few indications that Islam will go through any Renaissance or Enlightenment soon, however. Muslims certainly want the products of the types of minds that made the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution - without changing to that type of mind, retaining their backwards, religious-type minds and ways.
Also, the West, especially America, is experiencing a resurgence of religion. How this will play out remains to be seen, but as long as science is at its best - without seriously flawed premises and methods - it will again soundly defeat religion.
All the technology we now have and take for granted springs ultimately from the efforts of the minds of a relatively small handful of men who, daring to think differently from their social environment of arrogant and ignorant Christian superstitions, desired to discover and know the nature of this universe mankind is in and put that knowledge to practical use, thereby elevating the quality of man’s life.
The least we could do for the scientists is understand their struggles and their triumphs - and give them a silent, solemn “thank you.”