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Modern Science

We are told a wonderful story about the history of modern science. It is the story of singular geniuses and big breakthroughs. These geniuses could see beyond others using only logic and intuition. This same logic forced the scientific community to accept their vision. The real story is more complicated. Modern science is much more than the sum of the work of famous scientists. It doesn't have to work according to the 'storybook'. New theories often arrive with gaping holes (see Wegener and Continental Drift). Some great advances result more from mind-numbing repetition than from anyone's genius (see Mendel and Darwin). It is the storybook version of science that we see in discussions of the church and science. That is why they often devolve into discussions of personality. They could be improved by reaching beyond the storybook.

There is a lot missing from storybook science! There are elements of science that are not that glamorous; the science of the skeptic and the science of the 'lesser lights'. Theories and experiments must be vetted before they are accepted. This is the skeptical side of science. The 'lesser lights' are also very important. Minor advances in science can accumulate to the point where a breakthrough is almost inevitable. And just because a scientist isn't famous doesn't mean that he/she couldn't be important. Fame is a poor measure of importance in science. Modern science also can't stand on its own; it needs enablers. Two important enablers are technology and universities.

Storybook Science

Popular histories of the Scientific Revolution are hopelessly simplistic. This simplistic view is helped by an equally simplistic view of science. In "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", Thomas Kuhn argues that scientific communities do not embrace radical new ideas without resistance [_1_] . This is true even when the new ideas agree with the data better than the status quo. New ideas that challenge the status quo are scrutinized much more carefully and sometimes openly ridiculed. And when these new ideas are ridiculed, they are likely to be ridiculed by some very important scientists. In 1672, when Laurent Cassegrain proposed the design used in most modern research telescopes (see Reflecting on History), he was publicly ridiculed by Isaac Newton. Galileo ridiculed Kepler for suggesting that the Moon could affect the earth's tides [_2_] .

There is a disconnect between storybook tales of the singular genius and common practice in science. You can see this by looking at the beginning and end of most published papers in scientific journals. At the beginning of the papers you will often find that there are multiple authors. At the end of the paper, there is a list of citations that the work depended on. This communal nature of science shows in the recipients of Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry and Medicine as well. Having multiple recipients for a Nobel Prize is the norm not the exception.

For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have more than enough. But from the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.
Matthew 25:29, Bible (HCSV)

Just because a great scientist receives credit for a discovery doesn't mean he or she deserves it. Mythologies grow around famous scientists (see The Galileo Myths). And great scientists sometimes benefit from the Matthew Effect. The Matthew Effect is a historical term that gets its name from a verse in the Bible (Matthew 25:29). Very simply, the Matthew Effect says that credit for a discovery often goes the person associated with the discovery that is already famous regardless if they are the most deserving or not (see The Matthew Effect in Science by Robert K. Merton).

The Skeptics

Skeptics are the whipping boys in popular histories of science. We all know the stories of those who doubted Galileo and Darwin. But skeptics play a very important role. New theories and discoveries must be vetted. Theories are scrutinized to see that they have no obvious flaws, that they fit the data as well or better than existing theories, and that they have explanatory power equal to or greater than existing theories. This helps prevent inferior theories from being widely accepted. Experiments are supposed to be scrutinized too. It is expected that an experiment's methods be described and that it be repeatable by other scientists using those methods. This scrutiny of theories and experiments can easily be interpreted by naive commentators as "reactionary".

It is possible to be on right side of history and still be on the wrong side of science. That's because being right is not good enough in science. Our current theory of evolution is based largely on what Darwin wrote in the Origin of Species in 1859. After some initial enthusiasm for the theory, it was rejected by biologists. Were these biologists reactionary? Darwin's theory had a very big hole. It required that the beneficial traits acquired through natural selection be passed on whole. Given the understanding of inheritance at the time, this would have been impossible. This hole was not plugged until the 1900's when Darwin's theories were modified to account for Gregor Mendel's work on heredity (see Mendel and Darwin). The early skeptics of Darwinian evolution had good reason to be skeptical.

The Lesser lights

Another important part of science is what Kuhn refers to as 'normal' science; the science of the lesser lights. This work is often ignored. Sometimes this work is important within a discipline but the work hasn't caught the attention of either historians or the general public. Sometimes, the work, taken individually, is actually not very important. Taken together, these minor incremental advances can be extremely important. Small incremental steps can accrue until a major discovery is almost guaranteed.

These lesser lights may not shine simply because their story has not been told. Gregor Mendel might have been forgotten by history if there had not been a priority dispute between three botanists (Correns, de Vries and Tschermak) studying inheritance decades after Mendel's death. Referencing Mendel put an end to the priority dispute. How many Mendels have been forgotten or ignored. In biology, homeostasis, energy processing (e.g. photosynthesis,respiration), and cell structure and function are every bit as important as evolution and inheritance. None of these areas of biology have a widely known 'hero'.

Sometimes singular geniuses aren't so singular. Multiple Discoveries are common in the history of science. Here several researchers make the same breakthrough independently around the same time. Is this just coincidence or is it because the time was ripe for the discovery? Around the time Einstein developed his Special Theory of Relativity so did Henri Poincare and Hendrik Lorentz. While Newton gets credit for the development of infinitesimal calculus, Leibniz developed infinitesimal calculus around the same time. There are many other examples of multiple discoveries.

Science's Handmaidens

Science doesn't stand on its own. Some disciplines in science would not even exist if it weren't for a specific technology. Without microscopes there would be no microbiology. The astronomical discoveries of seventeenth century astronomers such as Galileo and Cassini are widely celebrated. These discoveries were only possible due to centuries of progress in the craft of lens making. The image below shows a continuous rotation lathe that was used to grind lenses. It had been devised in the fifteenth century. The technology of lens-making had advanced so far by the end of the seventeenth century that Giuseppe Campani was able to produce lenses with spherical curvatures as good as can be made today.


Cherubin D'Orleans Lathe

If you go to a scientific conference anywhere in the world, you will find that most (if not all) of the speakers and attendees were university-educated. The model chosen around the world for higher education in science originated in Europe in the eleventh and twelfth century. Universities are important as research centers, for training new scientists, and for communicating scientific information. They played an important role in the development of modern science. It really wouldn't have mattered how brilliant and accomplished Newton and Galileo were if they existed in a vacuum. There was no vacuum because Europe was home to a large network of universities. Galileo and Newton had many university-trained contemporaries who could understand their work, and in some cases carry it forward (see Galileo's Contemporaries). The map below shows the European universities in existence in 1618 (modified from here).


Medieval Universities

The Church and Science

Discussions of the church and science highlight what is wrong with storybook science. These discussions focus on the famous scientist. Like many discussions of great historical figures these are often peppered with myths. Galileo is a favourite in church and science discussions. While many scientists have a few popular myths about their life, Galileo spawned at least 16 major myths about his life (see The Galileo Myths). The victims of these myths include noted science communicators such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, and Carl Sagan. You will find all the other flaws of storybook science in Church and science discussions as well. You will see examples of the Matthew Effect, the demonizing of skeptics, and a narrow view of science that ignores the communal nature of science and the importance of 'normal science', technology and universities.

Galileo is credited with the discovery of the Law of Free Fall. The Law of Free Fall is so important because there is so much behind the Law. The mathematical description of constantly accelerated motion signalled a new mathematicization of the study of nature. Galileo was able to prove the nature of this constantly accelerated motion both experimentally and geometrically (via a diagram). Along the way, a short cut to calculating the distance travelled by constantly accelerating objects, the Mean Speed Theorem, was also developed. To understand this monumental achievement in the history of physics, it might be better to read Matthew 25:29 than to read any physics book. The mathematical description of constantly accelerated motion, the geometric proof of the times square law, and the Mean Speed Theorem had all been developed about 250 years before Galileo by Roman Catholic clerics writing on natural philosophy at the Universities of Oxford and Paris. The works of these men, known as the Oxford Calculators and the Parisian Doctors, were very popular and had a strong following in universities throughout Europe. In fact, the Law of Free Fall had been published in a popular physics textbook before Galileo was born (see Galileo Myths:Myth 10).

Discussions of Galileo and his defense of the Copernican Model commonly paint his skeptics as irrational. The skeptics did have a rationale, but it was based on what was known then, and what was observable then. If the earth really revolved around the sun, there should be some evidence of Stellar Parallax. None was found until 1838. Even back in Galileo's time, astronomers could measure the angular error of predictions from the different astronomical models. What people are not told is that the Copernican Model did not predict planetary positions any better than any of the competing models [_3_] . In fact, by the time of Galileo's trial, any competent astronomer with an open mind should have had room for doubt about the Copernican Model. Gassendi's Transit was an important experiment conducted in 1631 that confirmed one of the major predictions of Kepler's Model.

Discussions of church and science rarely venture beyond a few famous scientists. Galileo had many contemporaries who made advances to different areas of science (see Galileo's Contemporaries and Galileo-Contemporaries-Timeline). This was possible because of a huge network of universities spanning from Scandinavia down to the southernmost parts of Spain and Italy. Galileo's debt to his technologists is also ignored. Galileo made some very important advances in the production of telescopes, but he had help. He spent his entire professional career a short distance from two of the hubs for lens manufacturing in Europe (Florence and Venice). The expertise that was available to him through these artisans would culminate by the end of the century in lenses whose curvature compares with those manufactured today.


Copyright Joseph Sant (2016).
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1. Kuhn Thomas S., University of Chicago Press, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, ,
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2. Johannes Kepler, Edward Rosen, Courier Corporation, Kepler's Somnium: The Dream, Or Posthumous Work on Lunar Astronomy, , 69
In the references, Edward Rosen, notes that Galileo considered Kepler's concept that the moon could affect the earths water as childish.
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3. Babb, Stanley E.,, Isis, Sept. 1977, Accuracy of Planetary Theories, Particularly for Mars,, , pp. 426-34
In this article Stanley Babb compares the predictions of the Copernican and Ptolemaic models against the actual planetary positions using computer-based statistical analysis. The results did not show a dramatic difference between the two systems, but the earth-centred system (the Ptolemaic) did perform better for planets such as Mars.
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