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Modern Science

There is a lot more to science than stories of geniuses and breakthroughs. Mind-numbing repetition can be more important than anyone's genius (see Mendel and Darwin). 'Breakthroughs' arrive with gaping holes (see Wegener and Continental Drift). Minor advances are important because they add up. Enablers and skeptics, so often ignored or even vilified, are critical to the function of science. The storybook version of science has corrupted many discussions, including the discussion of the church and science. It's time to look beyond the storybook.

Great Man Science

The history of the world is but the biography of great men.
Thomas Carlyle

Popular histories of science focus on the lives of the great men and women of science. This is the "Great Man" approach to history. This doesn't work well with science. Science is a communal process. You can see this in the papers published in scientific journals. Some 'genome' papers list hundreds of authors. The references at the end of a typical paper betrays the authors' debt to previous authors. The communal nature of science also 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..

Another problem with the "Great Man" approach is the Matthew Effect. The Matthew Effect says that credit goes to the most famous of those involved in a discovery whether they deserve it or not (see The Matthew Effect in Science by Robert K. Merton). The Matthew Effect gets its name from a verse from the Book of Matthew in the Bible (see below).

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)

Adding to the problems above is a tendency to mythologize great historical figures. Few mythologies are richer than those surrounding Galileo (see Galileo Myths).

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. 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. These actions are not 'reactionary'; they are 'cautious'.

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. The early skeptics of Darwinian evolution had good reason to be skeptical. Darwin's theory had some very big holes (see Mendel and Darwin). The major hole in the theory was not plugged until the 1900's when Darwin's theories were modified to account for Gregor Mendel's work on heredity .

Normal Science

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 their own 'Mendel'.

Sometimes singular geniuses aren't so singular. Multiple Discoveries are common in the history of science. 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. It seems timing is a factor in scientific discovery.

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 the seventeenth century are tied in some way with the progress in the craft of lens-making starting in the thirteenth 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.The image below shows a continuous rotation lathe that was used to grind lenses. It had been devised in the fifteenth century.


Cherubin D'Orleans Lathe

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 carry it forward (see Galileo's Contemporaries). The map below shows the European universities in existence in 1618 (modified from here).


Medieval Universities

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.

The Church and Science

If you focus on a few famous scientists you will miss a lot of what is important in science. You see this in discussions of church and science. They typically begin and end with a discussion of Copernicus's and Galileo's astronomical work. There was so much more to science than astronomy even during the time of Copernicus and Galileo (see Galileo's Contemporaries and Galileo-Contemporaries-Timeline). In fact, the most transformative discoveries relating to the church and science are never discussed.

Discoveries in the field of ethno-botany during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries rapidly transformed the human condition in Europe and the rest of the world. Ethno-botany is the scientific study of the native use of botanicals. During this time, a remedy for malaria was discovered in the foothills of the Andes (see The Jesuit's Bark). Malaria had been a scourge in Europe, and remained a problem for centuries afterward in other parts of the world. Many new foods were discovered in the 'New World' which resulted in more healthful diets and the effective elimination of famine from natural causes in Europe. Four of these foods, the potato, sweet potato, cassava and maize can legitimately be called superfoods. A diet of potatoes combined with dairy products provides complete nutrition. All four could produce 2 or more times the calories per acre/hectare than the grains that had been used as staples.

Fortune favors the prepared mind.
Louis Pasteur.

There were no 'great men' associated with ethno-botany or plant breeding but there were 'great' discoveries. The church, especially the Jesuits, were involved in some of these. The Jesuits had decided very early that there much to learn regarding foodstuffs and herbals from the natives of the lands encountered during the age of discovery. The Jesuits documented native customs including their use of herbals, plant foods and animals. The remedy for malaria, derived from a bark rich in quinine, became known as the Jesuit's Bark or Jesuit's Powder. Both the Jesuits and another Catholic order, the Carmelites, played important roles in the dissemination of the potato.

Miracle cures and superfoods are not the only things that are ignored in discussions of church and science. They ignore the groundwork that had occured in the middle ages that prepared for Copernicus and Galileo. Science, as we know it, would not have happened without universities. The university was a medieval invention codified by the church. Technology was important too. Early development of mechanical time-keeping devices was largely driven by the church. Church scholars were amongst the earliest users of eyeglasses. Both were drivers for developing the precision machining equipment required to produce quality telescopes and timing devices.

The theoretical groundwork that Copernicus and Galileo built upon is also ignored. Galileo is famous for discovering the law of free fall. In fact, his law of free fall had been published in a popular physics text before he was born...by a priest. There are other medieval advances that are falsely attributed to later scientists (see The Calculatores and The Isis Files ) . The authors of these advances (Buridan, Oresme, Heytesbury, Bradwardine) were typically Roman Catholic clerics.


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Copyright Joseph Sant (2019).
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