I’ve been enjoying this book, The Invention of Science by David Wootton, which was just published in the US back in December. It’s a history of the beginnings of the scientific revolution back in the 1500s and 1600s, and it takes a lot of issues with how that history has been told by some other authors. (In fact, he has issues with a lot of history-and-philosophy-of-science people, and good for him).
It’s not always light reading, I will say that, but I’ve learned a great deal of interesting stuff. Wootton has put a vast amount of scholarship into the book, going back to rare primary sources in many cases to try to figure out what people really said (and did) while scientific thinking was gaining a foothold in the world. Among the things I had no idea about where how common words such as “fact”, “discovery”, “invention” and others that we use every day in science are actually fairly recent usages in English. You just don’t find them with their modern meanings if you go back earlier than the mid-1500s. You can see examples of authors from the period talking about subjects that needed these words, but they weren’t there for them.
To pick one example, the whole idea of a discovery, in the sense of finding out something that no one else had ever known, was very controversial indeed in Europe. Surely the ancient Greeks or Romans already knew this thing that you seem to think you’ve somehow “Found Out”? Surely they knew better, and you’re just wrong? Surely elementary philosophical reasoning – which is, after all, just as good as any other means of settling such questions, right? – would show you the error of your ways? It’s staggering to think, but for centuries, educated thinkers were convinced (following Aristotle) that ice was more dense than liquid water, because colder things were always denser. It floated on the surface of water because of its shape, not because it was somehow less dense, because it wasn’t less dense. Similarly, Plutarch (among others) said that garlic would neutralize a magnet – and the very idea of taking an actual piece of magnetic iron and rubbing it with garlic to see if that worked was something that just Wasn’t Done, because it did work, because Plutarch said so.
Much less the thought of seeing how much garlic it might take, how long it took to act and from what distance, whether the effect ever wore off, whether a whole clove would work or if it had to be (freshly?) chopped. . .because the idea of systematic experimentation was not yet loose in the world, either. You didn’t do that sort of thing, because anyway, reading the ancient texts was even more definitive, as was philosophizing from Aristotelian and/or Biblical principles. The word “evidence” was only used in law, and (as Wootton shows) it, and the modern idea it conveys, only gradually made it out of the courtroom and into general usage.
Consider John Smeaton, who in the mid-1700s worked out the efficiencies of various types of water wheels (and helped kick off the Industrial Revolution by doing so). He could do this – and it was a great boon to humanity, make no mistake – because he was working inside Isaac Newton’s framework of physics and realized that measuring energy going in versus energy coming out was the way to settle the question. (He also built on a good knowledge of friction as applied to the moving parts of scale models, which had tripped up others in the past). And most importantly, he went into this work knowing that a thorough exploration of all the design features (water from on top? wheel dipped into the stream? mounted sideways or vertical?) would provide him with the definitive picture of how water wheels worked. In earlier centuries, tedious variable-isolating experimentation of this sort, assuming anyone had thought about doing it at all, would have been seen as an eccentric, laughable waste of time.
But now we know that Nature really does speak when asked questions in this way, and we’ve never looked back. I was setting up 37 variations on a single experiment the other day, and yeah, it was a fair amount of work, and not particularly exciting work, either. But I am the heir of Smeaton, and Newton, and Boyle, and Galileo, and I and the rest of the scientific world know that this is the way to make things happen. I didn’t try to find out what Aristotle might have said about the issues I’m investigating, and I didn’t try to reason my way through to the results while staring out the window. I went into the lab and got to work instead, and that, by the standards of human history, is something very new and strange. But it works.