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Modern science is a body of verifiable empirical knowledge, a global community of scholars, and a set of techniques for investigating the universe known as the scientific method. The history of science traces these phenomena and their pre-cursors back in time, all the way into human prehistory.

The Scientific Revolution saw the inception of the modern scientific method to guide the evaluation of knowledge. This change is considered to be so fundamental that older inquiries are known as pre-scientific. Still, many place ancient natural philosophy clearly within the scope of the history of science.

The history of mathematics, the history of technology, and the history of philosophy are covered in different articles. Mathematics is closely related to, but distinct from science (at least in the modern conception). Technology concerns the creative process of designing useful objects and systems, which differs from the search for empirical truth. Philosophy differs from science in that, while both the natural and the social sciences attempt to base their theories on established fact, philosophy also enquires about other areas of knowledge, notably ethics. In practice, each of these fields is heavily used by the others - but only as an external tool.

Patterns in the history of science

The Ptolemaic system of celestial motion, from Harmonia Macrocosmica, 1661.
History of science in summary

History of Science Information

The history of science shows a definite progression from protoscience to science.

1 Natural Science

Main article: Natural history

Natural science is the study of the physical, nonhuman aspects of Nature: the Earth and the universe around us. Originally called natural history and natural philosophy, natural sciences generally attempt to explain the workings of the world via natural processes rather than divine processes. The term natural science is also used to identify "science" as a discipline following the scientific method. In contrast, the social sciences study the works of mankind.

The laws of nature are the concise statement of the findings of science.

2 Social Science

Main article: Social science

Psychology studies the human mind and behavior; sociology examines human society and human relationships within it; political science studies the governing of groups and countries; communication the flow of discourse via various media; and economics concerns itself with the production and allocation of wealth in society. Social sciences diverge from the humanities in that many in the social sciences emphasise the scientific method or other rigorous standards of evidence in the study of humanity, although many also use much more qualitative methods.

Three models of theory change.png

Theories and sociology of the history of science

Main article: Theories and sociology of the history of science

Much of the study of the history of science has been devoted to answering questions about what science is, how it functions, and whether it exhibits large-scale patterns and trends. The sociology of science in particular has focused on the ways in which scientists work, looking closely at the ways in which they "produce" and "construct" scientific knowledge. Since the 1960s, a common trend in the study of the sociology and history of science ( science studies) has been to emphasize the "human component" to scientific knowledge, and to de-emphasize the view that scientific data is self-evident, value-free, and context-free.

A major subject of concern and controversy in the philosophy of science has been to inquire about the nature of theory change in science. Three philosophers in particular who represent the primary poles in this debate have been Karl Popper, who argued that scientific knowledge is progressive and cumulative; Thomas Kuhn, who argued that scientific knowledge moves through " paradigm shifts" and is not necessarily progressive; and Paul Feyerabend, who argued that scientific knowledge is not cumulative or progressive, and that there can be no demarcation between science and any other form of investigation.

Pre-experimental "science"

Main Article : Pre-experimental Science

Aristotle (sculpture)

From Antiquity up to the time of the Scientific Revolution, inquiry into the workings of the universe was known as natural philosophy, but this included fields of study which today have been divorced from science. The ancient people of Western civilization who we might think of as scientists may have thought of themselves as natural philosophers. In other cases, systematic learning about the natural world was a direct outgrowth of religion, often as a project of a particular religious community. An account of the development of (natural) philosophy from ancient times until recent times can be found in Bertrand Russell's History of Philosophy.

One important feature of "pre-scientific" natural philosophy is a reluctance to engage in experiment. For example, Aristotle is one of the most prolific natural philosophers of antiquity. He made countless observations of nature, especially the habits and attributes of plants and animals in the world around him, which he devote considerable attention to categorizing. He also made many observations about the large-scale workings of the universe, which led to his development of a comprehensive theory of physics in his missives of the same name. (See Physics (Aristotle).)

But until the time of the Scientific Revolution, these theories were never really tested experimentally. At the time, the utility of experiment was unproven. Some believed that setting up artificial conditions in an experiment could never produce results that described nature as it was in the world around them.


Early cultures

Main articles: History of science in early cultures, Alchemy

In prehistoric times, advice and knowledge was passed from generation to generation in an oral tradition. The development of writing enabled knowledge to be stored and communicated across generations with much greater fidelity. Combined with the development of agriculture, which allowed for a surplus of food, it became possible for early civilizations to develop and more time to be devoted to tasks other than survival, such as the search for knowledge for knowledge's sake.

Many ancient civilizations collected astronomical information in a systematic manner through simple observation. Though they had no knowledge of the real physical structure of the planets and stars, many theoretical explanations were proposed.

Some basic facts about internal human anatomy were known in some places, and alchemy was practiced in several civilizations. Considerable observation of macrobiotic flora and fauna was also possible.

The Middle Ages

Main article: History of science in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages: Western World

See Also: Medieval medicine, Medieval philosophy

With the loss of the Western Roman Empire, much of Europe lost contact with the knowledge of the past. Because of this regression in knowledge, the long period that followed is also known as the Dark Ages. While the Byzantine Empire still held learning centers such as Alexandria and Constantinople, Western Europes knowledge was concentrated in monasteries until the development of medieval universities in the 12th and 13th centuries. Initially these universities were organized to only teach theology, but people like Roger Bacon encouraged teaching of the sciences. Scientific teaching of the period was based upon copies of ancient texts that remained in Western Europe, and is known as the philosophic school of scholasticism. The rise of Christianity saw a strange paradox: classical Greek philosophy (along with Greek and Roman art, literature and religious iconography) was suppressed while at the same time it was safeguarded.

Renaissance Period

Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, an example of the blend of art and science during the Renaissance

See Also: Renaissance

The Renaissance was instigated by rediscovery of the works of ancient philosophers and an intellectual revitalization of Europe. This provided a solid foundation for all future scientific work. Contact with the Islamic world in Sicily and Spain allowed Europeans access to preserved copies of Greek and Roman works along with the works of Islamic philosophers. Translations and commentaries of Aristotle by the Islamic scholar Averroës were influential in much of Europe. The published works of Marco Polo along with the Crusades helped spark interest in geography. Most importantly, the development of the printing press in the 1450s allowed for new ideas to be rapidly copied to multiple people.

The Middle Ages: Eastern World

Sample of Islamic medical text

See Also: Islamic science

In the Middle East, Greek philosophy was able to find some short-lived support by the newly created Arab Caliphate (Empire). With the spread of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries, a period of Islamic scholarship lasted until the 14th century. In Islamic versions of early scientific method, ethics played an important role. During this period the concepts of citation and peer review were developed. Islamic scholars used previous work in medicine, astronomy and mathematics as bedrock to develop new fields like alchemy which proved to be in inspiration to Roger Bacon, and later to Isaac Newton. Also in astronomy, Al-Batani improved the measurements of Hipparchus, preserved in the translation of the Greek Hè Megalè Syntaxis (the great treatise) translated as Almagest. About 900, Al-Batani improved the precision of the measurement of the precession of the earth's axis, thus continuing a millennium's legacy of measurements in his own land ( Babylonia and Chaldea- the area now known as Iraq).

The Scientific Revolution

Main article: Scientific Revolution

The birth of modern science in Europe began in a period of great upheaval. Events such as the Protestant Reformation, the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus, the Fall of Constantinople, and the Spanish Inquisition caused both social and political changes to occur throughout Europe.

The works of Ptolemy (Astronomy), Galen (Medicine), and Aristotle (Physics) were also found to not always match everyday observations. An example of this is an arrow flying through the air after leaving a bow contradicts with Aristotle's assertion that the natural state of all objects is at rest. Work by Vesalius on human cadavers also found problems with the Galenian anatomy.

The willingness to question previously held truths and search for new answers resulted in a period of major scientific advancements, now known as the Scientific Revolution. Its origins can be found in the European re-discovery of Aristotle in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This period culminated with the publication of the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687 by Isaac Newton (dates disputed). Development of the basics of scientific method also occurred during this time. The new way of thinking emphasized experimentation and reason over traditional considerations.

Contemporary science

The Scientific Revolution led to an explosion of knowledge. This growth has been largest through the 19th and 20th century.

Natural sciences


Main article: History of physics

After Newton defined classical mechanics, the next great field of inquiry within physics was the nature of electricity. Observations in the 17th and 18th century by scientists such as Robert Boyle, Stephen Gray, and Benjamin Franklin created a foundation for later work. These observations also established our basic understanding of electrical charge and current.

In 1821, Michael Faraday integrated the study of magnetism with the study of electricity. This was done by demonstrating that a moving magnet induced an electric current in a conductor. Faraday also formulated a physical conception of (what are now called) electromagnetic fields. James Clerk Maxwell built upon this conception, in 1864, with an interlinked set of 20 equations that explained the interactions between electric and magnetic field. These 20 equations were later reduced, using vector calculus, to a set of four equations.

In addition to other electromagnetic phenomena, Maxwell's equations also can be used to describe light. Confirmation of this observation was made with the 1888 discovery of radio by Heinrich Hertz and in 1895 when Wilhelm Roentgen detected X rays. The ability to describe light in electromagnetic terms helped serve as a springboard for Albert Einstein's 1905 publication of his theory of special relativity. This theory combined classical mechanics with Maxwell's equations. Einstein built further on this by including gravity into his calculations and published his theory of general relativity in 1915.

Diagram of the expanding universe

One part of the theory of general relativity is Einstein's field equation. This describes how the mass-energy tensor creates a curvature in spacetime, and when combined with the geodesic equation forms the basis of general relativity. Further work on Einstein's field equation produced results which predicted the Big Bang, black holes, and the expanding universe. Einstein believed in a static universe and attempted to fix his equation to allow for this, but by 1927, the expanding universe was sought for by astronomers, and in 1929 evidence was found by Edwin Hubble.

Henri Becquerel accidentally discovered radioactivity in 1896. The next year Joseph J. Thomson discovered the electron. These discoveries revealed that the assumption of many physicists that atoms were the basic unit of matter was flawed, and prompted further study into the structure of atoms.

In 1900, Max Planck published his explanation of blackbody radiation. This equation assumed that radiators are quantized in nature, which proved to be the opening argument in the edifice that would become quantum mechanics.

During the 1920s Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, and Max Born were able to formulate a consistent picture of the chemical behavior of matter, a complete theory of the electronic structure of the atom, as a byproduct of the quantum theory. Schwinger, Tomonaga, and Richard Feynman were able to explain the Lamb shift using a quantum field theory and quantum electrodynamics by the 1940s.

During World War II, physics in the USA began to receive unprecedented amounts of government funding through the projects to develop radar and the atomic bomb. After the end of the war in favor of the Allied powers, the U.S. government became a major source of funding for physics and established an extensive national laboratory system to centralize research spending. The reliance on ever larger machines for experimentation, and ever larger laboratories and staffs, led physics to be thought of as dominated by the era of " Big Science" in the late 20th century.

The two themes of the 20th century, general relativity and quantum mechanics, are not currently consistent with each other. General relativity describes the universe on the scale of planets and solar systems while quantum mechanics operates on sub-atomic scales. This challenge is being attacked by string theory, which treats spacetime as a manifold, not of points, but of one-dimensional objects, strings. Strings have properties like a common string (e.g., tension and vibration). The theories yield promising, but not yet testable results. The search for experimental verification of string theory is in progress.


Main article: History of chemistry

The hypothesis that all matter is made out of of atoms, the smallest indestructible parts of matter, originated in ancient Greece, and was confirmed in 1803 by John Dalton. Dalton also formulated the law of mass relationships. Based on this law, in 1869 Dmitry Mendeleyev composed the periodic table of elements.

The beginning of the twentieth century saw the explanation of chemical properties in physical terms, as the result of the electronic structure of the atom. Linus Pauling's work on The Nature of the Chemical Bond used the principles of quantum mechanics to deduce bond angles in complicated molecules, culminating in the physical modeling of DNA.

Geology and Astronomy

Technology has allowed exploration of the solar system

Main articles: Geology, History of astronomy

In China, the polymath Shen Kua (1031 - 1095) formulated a hypothesis for the process of land formation: based on his observation of fossil shells in a geological stratum in a mountain hundreds of miles from the ocean, he inferred that the land was formed by erosion of the mountains and by deposition of silt.

The work on rocks Peri lithōn by Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle, remained authoritative for millennia. However, its interpretation of fossils was not overturned until after the Scientific Revolution. It was translated into Latin and the other languages of Europe such as French. Georg Bauer ( Agricola), a physician, summarized the knowledge of mining and metallurgy 1556.

Plate tectonics - seafloor spreading and continental drift illustrated on relief globe of the Field Museum

19th Century geology revolved around the question of the Earth's exact age. Estimates varied from a few 100,000 to billions of years. The most significant advance in 20th century geology has been the development of the theory of plate tectonics in the 1960s. Plate tectonic theory arose out of two separate geological observations: seafloor spreading and continental drift. The theory revolutionized the Earth sciences.

George Gamow, Ralph Alpher, and Robert Herman had calculated that there should be evidence for a Big Bang in the background temperature of the universe 1. In 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson 2 discovered a 3 Kelvin background hiss in their Bell Labs radiotelescope, which was evidence for this hypothesis, and formed the basis for a number of results that helped determine the age of the universe.

Biology and Medicine

Main articles: History of biology, History of medicine

Hungarian physician Ignác Fülöp Semmelweis in 1847 dramatically reduced the occurrency of puerperal fever by the simple experiment of requiring physicians to wash their hands before attending to women in childbirth. His discovery predated the germ theory of disease. However, his discoveries were not appreciated by his contemporaries and came into use only with discoveries of British surgeon Joseph Lister, who in 1865 proved the principles of antisepsis. His work is based on the very important discoveries made by French biologist Louis Pasteur. He was able to link some microorganisms with disease. This brought a revolution in medicine. He also devised one of the most important methods in preventive medicine, when in 1880 he produced the vaccine against rabies. Pasteur also invented the process of pasteurization to help prevent the spread of disease through milk and other foods.

Among the most prominent and far-reaching theories in all of science was the theory of evolution by natural selection put forth by the British naturalist Charles Darwin in his On the Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin's theory proposed that all differences in animals were formed by natural processes over long periods of time, and that even humans were simply evolved organisms. Implications of evolution on fields outside of pure science have led to both opposition and support from different parts of society, and profoundly influenced the popular understanding of "man's place in the universe".

In the early 20th century, the study of heredity became a major investigation after the rediscovery in 1900 of the laws of inheritance developed by the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel in 1866. Mendel's laws provided the beginnings of the study of genetics, which became a major field of research for both scientific and industrial research. By 1953 James Watson and Francis Crick clarified the basic structure of DNA, the genetic material for expressing life in all its forms 3. In the late 20th century, the possibilities of genetic engineering became practical for the first time, and a massive international effort began in 1990 to map out an entire human genome (the Human Genome Project) has been touted as potentially having large medical benefits.


Earthrise over the Moon, Apollo 8, NASA

Main article: Ecology (history)

The famous Earthrise picture, taken in 1968 by the astronauts of Apollo 8, was important in creating awareness of the finiteness of Earth, and the limits of its natural resources. The interconnection and interpendence of each component ecosystem may imply that human beings should not exploit Earth's resources, without regard for its main ecosystems ( air, water, ground, plants and animals). This change of sensitivity to ecological issues has now been well established in Western civilization. Still, industrialized deforestation has occurred in the exploitation of the forests of Southeast Asia and the Amazon rainforest. It may be hypothesized that other vital and free goods (such as air) will, one day, be subject to price.

Social Sciences

Political Science

Main article: History of political science

One of the basic requirements for a scientific community is the existence and approval of a political sponsor; in England, the Royal Society operates under the aegis of the monarchy; in the US, the National Academy of Sciences was founded by Act of Congress; etc. Otherwise, when the basic elements of knowledge were being formulated, the political rulers of the respective communities could choose to arbitrarily either support or disallow the nascent scientific communities.


Main article: History of linguistics

Linguistics as a discipline has been in close contact with such disciplines as philosophy, anthropology and philology. In some cultures linguistic analysis has been applied in the service of religion, particularly for the determination of the religiously preferred spoken and written forms of sacred texts in Hebrew, Sanskrit and Arabic. Contemporary Western linguistics is close to philosophy and cognitive science.


Main article: History of economic thought

The basis for classical economics was developed by Adam Smith in 1776 in his An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Smith criticized mercantilism, advocating a system of free trade with division of labour. He postulated an " Invisible Hand" that large economic systems could be self-regulating by a system of supply and demand through a process of enlightened self-interest. But Karl Marx' Marxian economics assumed the value of a good was based on the amount of labor required to produce it. The Austrian school replaced the labor theory of value with a capitalism driven by entrepreneurship as the basis of economic development.


Main article: History of psychology

The end of the 19th century marks the start of psychology as a scientific enterprise. The year 1879 is commonly seen as the start of psychology as an independent field of study, because in that year Wilhelm Wundt founded the first laboratory dedicated exclusively to psychological research (in Leipzig). Other important early contributors to the field include Hermann Ebbinghaus (a pioneer in studies on memory), Ivan Pavlov (who discovered the learning process of classical conditioning), and Sigmund Freud.

The final decades of the 20th century have seen the rise of a new interdisciplinary approach to studying human psychology, known collectively as cognitive science. Cognitive science again considers the "mind" as a subject for investigation, using the tools of evolutionary psychology, linguistics, computer science, philosophy, and neurobiology.

Sociology and anthropology

Main articles: History of sociology, History of anthropology

Sociology as a scientific discipline emerged in the early 19th century as an academic response to the challenge of modernity: as the world is becoming smaller and more integrated, people's experience of the world is increasingly atomized and dispersed. Sociologists try to understand what holds social groups together, and to develop an "antidote" to social disintegration.

Anthropology can best be understood as an outgrowth of the Age of Enlightenment. It was during this period that Europeans attempted systematically to study human behavior. Traditions of jurisprudence, history, philology and sociology developed during this time and informed the development of the social sciences of which anthropology was a part. At the same time, the romantic reaction to the Enlightenment produced thinkers such as Johann Gottfried Herder and later Wilhelm Dilthey whose work formed the basis for the culture concept which is central to the discipline.

Big Science developed even larger social structures in the scientific communities, as the respective nations came to view them as political assets.

Emerging disciplines

With the explosion of learning and knowledge during the 20th century a number of new scientific fields emerged.

See also


^Note 1 : Alpher, Herman, and Gamow. Nature 162,774 (1948). ^Note 2 : Wilson's 1978 Nobel lecture ^Note 3 : James D. Watson and Francis H. Crick. "Letters to Nature: Molecular structure of Nucleic Acid." Nature 171, 737–738 (1953). ^Note 4 : C.S. Wu's contribution - see also the CWP, below


  • Thomas S. Kuhn (1996). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (3rd ed.). University of Chicago Press. ISBN  0226458075
  • Howard Margolis (2002). It Started with Copernicus. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN  0-07-138507-X
  • Joseph Needham. Science and Civilisation in China. Multiple volumes.
  • Bertrand Russell (1945). A History of Western Philosophy: And Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Leonard C. Bruno (1989), The Landmarks of Science. ISBN  0-8160-2137-6

External links


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