Essay about
The Mystery of Science       Credit
  • Is the emergence of Science something that happened naturally along the path of human civilization ?
  • Or was it something so extraordinary that it evolved only once - in Greece, more than 2,500 years ago ?

    A surprising argument has been made that if the discovery of science had not happened in Greece, it would not have happened at all, that scientific thinking is not essential for human culture, and that most cultures did not have it.   

It is true that many civilizations had very impressive technologies but that is quite different from science. No one fails to recognize the contributions of the Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Chinese but it was the Greeks who crystallized science. It was in Ionia - where opportunity to learn about the wisdom of the Near East was close at hand - where inquiring Greeks first began to speculate what the real nature of the world was and what its destiny might be. This analysis was called philosophia, or 'love of wisdom', and included what we today distinguish as philosophy and science.
    Thales - in 600 BC - stood back from nature and tried to understand how it really worked. Without any relevance to application or technology, just genuine curiosity - how does this all work ?
    When Thales said:
           'I think everything in the world is made of water in different forms', that is a scientific idea. He may be wrong, but that is not the point - the important thing is to ask the relevant question in the first place. It is not what the man of science believes that distinguishes him, but how and why he believes it. Thales initiated the revolutionary notion that to understand the world one needed to know its nature ('physis', hence the modern 'physics') and that there was an explanation for all phenomena in natural (not supernatural) terms. Science is about understanding and about looking at underlying principles.
The Chinese were brilliant technologists and they were far more interested in technology than the Greeks were. But Needham, the author of 'Science and Civilization in China', points out that Chinese science was rather mystical. Gunpowder, for instance, was invented because alchemists for centuries were looking for an elixir that would bestow immortality to the emperor. Chinese methods were often astonishingly successful but success alone does not mean that their approach was truly scientific. For Needham, the great puzzle is why the Chinese did not do fundamental science, and part of the reason - which Einstein points out - is they did not have geometry.   ( Counter Argument )
    The Egyptians, of course, used some geometry (to build the pyramids for instance), but the Greeks invented geometry in the sense that they established generalized principles. The Egyptians knew how to construct a 90 degree angle from a triangle with sides 3, 4, 5.
    But the Greeks generalized this knowledge so that it applied to all right triangles and they proved mathematically why it worked. It was not only generality that made Greek geometry novel; it was the development of the concept of proof. Assuming a few common notions, Greek geometers began to build up an established body of proved theorems. The great feature of proved theorems is that it provides certainty, or incontravertibility.
The most intriguing question of all is, why did Greek scientists choose to do science ? We have to keep in mind that science did not help anybody, as far as technology was concerned, until the sixteenth century. It might as well have been regarded as a completely useless enterprise. (There are a few exceptions, such as the siege engines Archimedes devised in a military emergency - but such practical things were not the motivation for his science).

What then provoked the voracious appetite for new knowledge which inspired Aristotle ? Why did Archimedes decide to find new ways to measure curved areas and volumes ?

   Was it just intellectual satisfaction ?
   Or the fact that they had leisure ?
   Was it the open nature of their society ?

   (See also connection story 'From Dionysus to Aristotle')

The Socratic method - this close questioning and answering, not letting any assumption go unchallenged - was probably also crucial. One characteristic that distinguishes science from our day-to-day thinking is the requirement for internal consistency. Under close examination many of our common-sense ideas turn out to be contradictionary. One cannot be like that in science. The fact is that the Socratic method really questions what our assumptions are. If we look closely at everything, do any of two assumptions contradict each other ?

( The most beautiful example of this method came two thousand years later when Galileo used the concept of logical consistency to proof the law of uniformly accelerated motion - a law which by sheer logic turned common-sense ideas upside down. )
Another element was the fierce competitiveness of different philosophical schools. There would be public debates about particular theories, about what those theories were based on, and so forth.
That was very different from what was going on in China. There it was most important to persuade first the emperor of the validity of ones theories, which was often a risky operation, because if you got it wrong, the fate of intellectuals in China could be pretty terrible. The emperor was the one that counted, it was not persuading your peer group.

What emerged in Greece, on the other hand, was the pursuit of vigorous, close, logical discussion. Aristotle, with his ideas about logic, setting up a series of postulates and then drawing conclusions, was of monumental importance in this regard.
   (See the logic of Syllogism and the scientific vocabulary introduced by Aristotle.)

Of course there were thinkers before the Greek philosophers, and there had been great technologies for thousands of years - we know about the scope of mathematical activity in Mesopotamia - but science, that specific, abstract, even peculiar way of thinking, does seem to have begun only in Greece. Thales, Aristotle, Archimedes, and other Greek thinkers initiated a completely new way of thinking about the nature of things. It all happened in a small corner of the world - in the Greek eastern part of the Mediterranean.

After the Macedonian conquest the center of learning shifted from Greece to Alexandria. There, where Middle Eastern and Greek culture overlapped, Babylonian astronomy and Greek philosophy interacted to produce the sophisticated science of the Hellenistic Age. In Alexandria Euclid wrote the classical book 'The Elements', a collection of geometrical theorems which became a standard work for over 2000 years.
Greek learning was passed on to the Romans, influenced Hindu mathematicians, and after the fall of the Roman empire - when Europe retreated into the' Dark Ages' - it was preserved and developed by the Arabs and by some Greeks in Constantinople.

Applied Science
In the fifteenth and sixteenth century science began to have an impact in Europe. Proper oceanic navigation was impossible without pure mathematics. Once a ship turns away from a coastline, one cannot find the coast again without advanced trigonometry. And advanced trigonometry was developed by the ancient Greeks; the texts of Archimedes had been studied and preserved in the Greek-speaking world and also in the Arabic-speaking world, where Greek was a familiar language.

Following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, a few Greek scholars began to arrive in the West, bringing their ancient manuscripts with them. And in Spain - which was recently reconquered from the Muslims - Europeans were exposed to Arabic/Greek knowledge from the libraries of Cordoba.
At about the same time Gutenberg had invented his printing press, and mass-production of key Greek mathematical texts, in the original and in translation, was started in 1471 in Italy and continued until Copernicus used those very texts to produce his new world system in 1543. And soon after - in the 16th and 17th centuries - such giants as Galileo and Isaac Newton helped to initiate the modern scientific age.

What if
We will never know for sure if the birth of science was as unique as described here but it is interesting to speculate why we have not received any signals from other civilizations in the universe.

  • Is it only because of the immense distances whereby any intelligent signals would be swallowed by intervening stars, or galaxies ?
  • Or is it, perhaps, because science is such a rare aberration in the nature of things that other civilizations never aquired it ?
It would seem obvious that some civilizations would develop sophisticated technologies like the Babylonians or Egyptians here on earth, but without science electronic broadcasting, or space exploration would be utterly impossible. So, we are still waiting for an answer!

Note :
Hyperhistory has added another possible difficulty of finding other civilizations Communication with Alien Civilizations