The Mystery of Science Credit
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.
- 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.
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 ?
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 )
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 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.
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).
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.
What then provoked the voracious appetite for new knowledge which inspired
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 ?
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.
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
Isaac Newton helped to initiate the modern scientific age.
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.
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!
- 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 ?
Hyperhistory has added another possible difficulty of finding other civilizations
Communication with Alien Civilizations