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Modern Science

There is a lot more to science than stories of geniuses and breakthroughs. You wouldn't know it from most discussions of science. 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 approach has many flaws. Major events are ignored if they can't be associated with a 'great man'. You can't really develop a big picture if you focus narrowly, one scientist at a time. And mythologies tend build up around 'great men' (see The Galileo Myths).

Focusing on great 'individuals' might work if science were an individual endeavour. It's not. Science is a communal process, punctuated by great individual achievements. You can see this in the papers published in scientific journals. Some 'genome' papers list hundreds of authors. The end of a typical paper often lists multiple references to previous work. 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)

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 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

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 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

Discussions of the church and science highlight what is wrong with storybook science. These discussions focus on the famous scientist, myths and all. Galileo is a favourite in church and science discussions. Galileo spawned at least 18 major myths about his life (see The Galileo Myths). You will find all the other flaws of storybook science too; the Matthew Effect, the demonizing of skeptics, a narrow view of science that ignores the communal nature of science and no mention of 'normal science', technology and universities.

Galileo is credited with the discovery of the Law of Free Fall. The Law of Free Fall is 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 these monumental achievements 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 at the Universities of Oxford and Paris. The works of the Oxford Calculators (see The Calculatores) and the Parisian Doctors were very popular and had a strong following in universities throughout Europe.

Discussions of Galileo's 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 [_1_] . At the time of Galileo's trial, any competent astronomer with an open mind should have had room for doubt about the Copernican Model.

There was a lot scientific activity during Galileo's lifetime (see Galileo's Contemporaries and Galileo-Contemporaries-Timeline). The achievements of Galileo's contemporaries include the creation of new scientific disciplines, the discovery of wonder drugs, the revival of atomism, and several important discoveries in chemistry, hydrology, human physiology and mathematics. Discussions of the church and science ignore these advances. A broader look at the science of Galileo's time would cloud the common narrative of the conflict between the church and science. At the time patronage was as important to science as it was to art. The church was an important patron of both (see section on Kepler at Galileo's Battle for the Heavens). And many contributions to the science of the day came from Catholic priests (Gassendi, Mersenne, Zucchi, Riccioli, Scheiner).


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Copyright Joseph Sant (2019).
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1. 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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