The important role of science through history.
Estimated reading time: 46 minute(s)
Science plays a key role in today’s society, but the thing is many people don’t realize this. There are even people who don’t “believe” in science. Yet the very reason I am able to write this on a computer is thanks to science. Without it we would go nowhere, and in this document I will look at where it has taken us and were it can take us throughout history.
My approach will be to look as objectively as possible on the role that different sciences have had in time. I will later add my personal opinions on things. This work is inspired by some of the works of Carl Sagan, specifically the books “The demon haunted world” as well as “Billions and billions”. These books take up similar questions, but in my work I will try to take up points that were absent in these books. Also my writing style will be somewhat different.
What does “Science” even mean?
Science comes from the Latin word “scientia”, meaning “knowledge”. It can be defined as an effort to discover, understand, or to understand better, how the physical world works, with observable physical evidence as the basis of that understanding. It is done through observation of existing phenomena, and/or through experimentation that tries to simulate phenomena under controlled conditions.
The good thing about Science is that it is self-correcting. If a false conclusion is made (which is by no means uncommon), then you can’t go any further using that conclusion. It simply wouldn’t work, and so retesting is made until a solution that does work is reached; thus correcting its own fallacies simply by the passage of time.
One of the benefits of science therefore being that it is always true. You might be thinking, but it isn’t always true. Besides false-conclusions which will to the extent of human understanding be solved on their own, there is something called pseudoscience. This is something that basically seems legit but in fact is just clever sounding voodoo-magic. Astrology being one example, phrenology another. However studies not based on fact simply can’t be called science.
The Origins of Science
One could argue that science has always existed, from the very beginning of the universe. This is because the laws of physics have always been the same. And the laws are what govern everything in science, in the world. From this you could also deduct that science is a universal language, since these laws are the same everywhere in our universe. For example E=MC2 is always correct, no matter where you are. And no matter your opinions, this theory will always be findable.
To the human race however science started when we began using stones and sticks for tools. Soon humans began building simple housing, and not far after that fire was discovered. And with fire and rough tools at our disposal we began improving, improving our tools, coming up with ways to transport fires etc.
In 2010, fossilized animal bones with markings from stone tools were found in Ethiopia. At 3.4 million years old they are the oldest evidence of stone tool use ever found anywhere in the world.
Humans are naturally born curious, from the first breath we start to learn. And so with new tools and methods It’s only natural to want to see if you can make it better, or make a new kind of tool. And It’s not limited to tools, there is medicine, cooking and other things too that were being discovered. Though curiosity was hardly the only reason for our sudden use of tools, it was simply necessary for survival. Today with modern architecture the earth’s climate seems incredibly friendly, but let’s say you live in a hut or a cave, and along comes an ice-age. This is one the scenarios that forced our race to grow more intelligent.
It can be said that evolution is like a lottery, testing all options and the winning ones survive and are passed on. Some animals developed husks, specialized teeth and other tools. Meanwhile we developed intelligence, in order to make our own tools. Judging by how the world looks today I’d say intelligence was a winner. If in doubt you could always ask a mammoth.
The problem with history is that we only know what we find evidence of, and unfortunately time erases a lot of evidence.
Humans appeared 200,000 years ago. Written records begin 6000 years ago. That means 97% of history is lost.
Indeed, there is a lot of our history that we will never be able to recover. Many would argue that during the time we missed, nothing much happened anyway. Some cavemen hunted, made some clubs, and that’s it. But we don’t actually know this for a fact.
Evidence of humans being more technologically advanced earlier than we thought possible has already been found. One example is the Antikythera Mechanism, which is essentially an advanced 3D star chart. This mechanism appears to be constructed upon theories of astronomy and mathematics developed by Greek astronomers and is estimated to have been made around 100 BC. It is often referred to as the first analog computer, way before computers where even an idea.
So who’s to say a few individual cavemen didn’t come up with different kinds of tools and techniques? We will never know for sure.
Another example of lost history is the library of Alexandria which was one of the world’s largest archives of information. Eratosthenes, Euclid and Archimedes are examples of famous people’s work that was lost in the destruction of the library. The library was burned down somewhere between 48bc and 600AD depending on which source you trust.
The first technological civilizations
From what we can deduct from archeological findings the first truly advanced societies sprung to life around 5000 BC. The obvious example is ancient Egypt, earlier examples include Uruk, Nippur, Nineveh, Assur and Babylon.
These ancient civilizations where incredibly skilled in architecture. They could even construct fairly advance watering systems. Babylon’s hanging gardens is one of these examples. However this hasn’t been confirmed by archeological findings and it may very well be the only of the seven wonders of the ancient world purely based on fiction.
When we think of the first civilizations we think of ancient Egypt, and with good reason. Their architectural skills superseded anything we know of from that time. Evidence shows that the ancient Egypt’s even knew how to make electricity, for which purpose remains unknown. In fact their technological skill was so great for the time that even today; some people believe it was simply too advanced for humans at that time. And so they blame alien visitors, claiming that alien visitors built the pyramids, and that it explains the chimeras that can be seen in hieroglyphs. In reality we should have more faith in our ancestors, and we shouldn’t deny them the credit for building the pyramids, considering what enormous effort it must have taken.
The fact that some people go to such extremes to explain these kinds of things is evidence of lost history. Because clearly we don’t know everything when something that obviously happened, seems so unbelievable. This also suggests huge jumps, up and down in our level of development.
Possibly the most promising civilization of all times, with great focus on mathematics and astronomy, the ancient Greeks were quite advanced. And they showed no signs of slowing down. History tells us their civilization was a failure after all, mainly due to war and religion.
The Greeks of ancient times had some very interesting theories on how the world works. When we think of philosophers many Greek names come to mind, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. But many of the famous mathematicians of that time were also quite philosophical. Euclid and Pythagoras are examples of Greek mathematicians that are admired to this day.
Euclid had theories on the three dimensional universe and its workings, and our 3D world is to this day called “Euclidean space”.
Pythagoras was more directed towards angles, and his formula is widely used even today.
Plato had an interesting idea, he called ”The five solids”, later to be called “Platonic solids”. While I won’t go into details, this idea theorizes that the world is based on five base shapes. Plato tried applying this to everything in our world, below is a model of the solar system based on this idea. However not a correct theory it is both philosophically and mathematically interesting to think about. Many different theories on the world come from that time.
Let’s fast forward a few hundred years, to the age of modern science. When thinking about science the USA often comes to mind, mainly because of the space race. But that was hardly the beginning of modern science as we know it, more accurately it began right after the industrial revolution. With far more advanced tools and machinery, even early computers we had a lot more to work with.
But let’s focus on the space race, as that was a time where the human species were forced to advance incredibly fast. Keep in mind that at that time we barely had functioning rockets, let alone any technology to withstand the climate and vacuum of space. Therefore to make it to our goal, the moon, it required a lot from the people working on it.
In 1957, the US’s greatest foe, The Soviet Union successfully launched a satellite into orbit. The satellite was called “Sputnik”, and it did little more than transmit a beep. However, the Russians had done it; they had actually gotten something functional up there. Something that was enough to stir the entire US, the population grew worried of what the Russians might do next. And with all this pressure on them, the government funded the Apollo missions. Although there were earlier missions before that, for example the mercury program and the construction of the Saturn V rocket, the Apollo mission were the paramount of the space age.
Rapid advances were made in rocket-science, materials, computers and other areas. Much of the technology originally developed for space applications has been spun off and found other uses.
The idea of using rockets initially came from Germany, as they had the most advanced ballistic missile technology during WW2. A German rocket scientist was brought in by the US, his name was Wernher Von Braun.
Von Braun had romantic dreams about conquering outer space with rockets, and did not initially see the military value in missile technology.
At the end of World War 2, American, British, and Soviet scientific intelligence teams competed to capture Germany’s rocket engineers along with the German rockets themselves and the designs on which they were based. Each of the Allies captured a share of the available members of the German rocket team, but the United States benefited the most with the so called “Operation Paperclip”, recruiting von Braun and most of his engineering team, who then later helped develop the American missile and space exploration programs. The United States also acquired a large number of complete V2 rockets.
And so after 12 years of extensive research and development the first man finally landed on the moon. This man was Neil Armstrong. This changed.. Everything.
Suddenly we were no longer confined to our own planet; we had in the haze of a technological battle found something beautiful. A new frontier to explore, space.
Neil Armstrong works at the LM in the only photo taken of him on the moon from the surface.
Shuttle/ISS astronaut Ron Garan:
“When we look down at the earth from space, we see this amazing, indescribably beautiful planet. It looks like a living, breathing organism. But it also, at the same time, looks extremely fragile.
… Anybody else who’s ever gone to space says the same thing because it really is striking and it’s really sobering to see this paper-thin layer and to realize that that little paper-thin layer is all that protects every living thing on Earth from death, basically. From the harshness of space.”
Post Space Age
Even after the space race was over, humans had discovered a new kind of curiosity. And so we kept exploring. Yet even today, to quote Carl Sagan:
The surface of the earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. … Recently, we’ve managed to wade a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting.
So far we’ve managed not to destroy ourselves so far, and technological progress is only accelerating, not bad one might say. Today we have sent crafts to all planets in our solar system, by 2015 we will even have visited pluto. This is a very exciting time to live, we are learning new things everyday about our world, our origins, and where we are going.
Besides space exploration, science has advanced a great deal in other areas too, medicine, nano technology and consumer electronics are good examples. And without doubt the future holds many interesting feats for us.
In just a few years China will start mining the moon for the nuclear fuel Helium-3, and not far behind is the US, whom plan to 3D print a moon base.
Threats against development
After fire was discovered we must have advanced incredibly quickly, albeit nowhere near the rate we advance today. Today’s rate of technological advancement is the quickest ever seen, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Fact is we could advance even faster, but there isn’t enough money to make every project reality. But history tells us there have been some hiccups in our advancements. And Mother Nature is not the only problem; humans themselves are sometimes the threat. This chart here gives you a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about.
Other threats against humanity made by ourselves are nuclear weapons and global warming. Regarding nuclear weapons, Albert Einstein, one of the greatest scientists in history, was highly involved. First of all he came up with the theory that allowed for the atom to be split. But he did not endorse nor build this terrible weapon. He was visiting the United States when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 and did not go back to Germany. On the eve of World War II, he alerted President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Germany might be developing an atomic weapon and recommended that the U.S. begin similar research; this eventually led to what would become the Manhattan Project. Einstein was in support of defending the Allied forces, but largely denounced using the new discovery of nuclear fission as a weapon. While Einstein wouldn’t help build an atomic bomb, Robert J Oppenheimer who was also a physicist at the time contributed a lot to the Manhattan project. And he is therefore often called the father of the atomic bomb.
Oppenheimer remarked later that it brought to mind words from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Analysis and Opinions
Astronomer Carl Sagan often spoke of pseudo-science and the people who chose to dismiss reality and replace it with fiction. And quite like him, I feel sorry for them. Why? Because they escape to false-science when in fact the real world is far more beautiful and exciting. You just need to take the time to understand it.
Does war benefit scientific development?
I’ve literally heard people say ”Without war we would not go anywhere”. And needless to say war has brought us a great deal of good things, the space race for example was all thanks to war. But are humans really that pathetic? Do we need science to be a requirement for survival before we pursue it? Or is the satisfaction of discovery alone enough?
To conclude, I think there are situations where war does indeed benefit us, but I also think that we disgrace ourselves as a species by saying out loud ”I refuse to think unless It’s for the purpose of killing”. Carl Sagan once said that there is great satisfaction in understanding things, and there is indeed. He also said most people don’t even know this, which is probably the reason for this rather sad attitude. That’s why science is important, it not only allows us to understand our universe, but it also gives us a logical form of compassion which is desperately needed in this world.
I believe it is important to understand the world we live in, and in this increasingly technological society even more so. Previous civilizations have fallen because of ignorance; let’s not do the same mistake. But I am optimistic, I think the human race shows great promise.
Hope you enjoyed reading this.
Sources and references
The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan
Billions and Billions by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan
Tv series Cosmos by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan
Copyright John-Erik Krahbichler 2013