This week we celebrated Science Week across the College with many different and exciting activities for students of all ages. These heightened our awareness that everything around us involves Science: the note played on an instrument, the cooking of food, the curving path of a soccer ball, life-giving respiration, the operation of an engine, why ice is less dense than liquid water, and so the list goes on, ad infinitum. Many of the scientific principles that we take for granted today were proposed centuries ago by early pioneering scientists.
The earliest people whom society recognised as scientists were called Natural Philosophers of Ancient Greece. They discussed and hypothesised about the world around them. Their discussions were rarely challenged by experimentation and at times their logic led to misconceptions. For example, it was ‘logical’ to think that if an object was heavier, it fell to the ground faster. This could have been easily debunked by experimentation but for some reason, it was not challenged for centuries. Some theories though were well ahead of their time and often it was only the lack of scientific equipment that held the theory back from general acceptance.
Democritus (460 – 370 BC), proposed that all matter was composed of atoms that are physically indivisible. However, Aristotle and Plato rejected the theories of Democritus, instead accepting the theory of Empedocles who said that all matter was composed of four elements: fire, air, water, and earth.
Another Greek, Aristarchus of Samos (c. 310 – c. 230 BCE) hypothesised that the Sun, not the Earth, was the fixed centre of the universe, and all the planets revolved around it. Eighteen centuries later Copernicus, independently, proposed the same idea, risking ridicule at a time when most people believed that the Earth was the centre of the Universe.
Eratosthenese of Cyrene (276 – 195 BC) was the first person to calculate the circumference of the earth (to within 10% of the currently accepted value), the tilt of the earth’s axis and the distance from the earth to the sun. Later, in the 10th century AD, Abū Rayḥān Al-Bīrūnī, a pioneering Muslim scientist calculated the circumference to within 4% of the true value.
Through the Dark Ages in Europe, much of scientific learning was kept alive through the schools and universities of the Middle East. Universities and rulers had immense libraries and the thirst for knowledge was astounding. One regional ruler is reported to have offered the mass of gold, equal to the weight of the person who could bring him a text that was not currently in his library.
As an aside, Michelangelo connected science and art – maybe he started the STEAM concept? He lived during the renaissance and risked imprisonment, and possibly death, by performing human autopsies, which were illegal at the time, to improve his knowledge of the human anatomy and so be able to create more life-like artworks. Today we are still in awe of his many works, such as ‘The David’ and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Similarly, Galileo risked being excommunicated when he supported Copernicus’ theory of the solar system.
Gradually, science has become defined more by experimentation and numerical formulas than philosophical musings to explain the behaviour of our world. Today the fields of Science are many and they all demand experimentation to produce data and evidence to confirm observations and hypotheses that ultimately lead to the acceptance of theories.