The Meandering Path of Science from Ancient Times to the Modern Era

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Joy of Science

By Robert Hazen, Ph.D., George Mason University

Science is not a religion, and scientific truth is based on verifiable observations, experiments, and logic. But the importance of observations was not widely accepted or even obvious in earlier times. For Aristotle and his followers, logic was the ultimate arbiter of truth.

Skeleton of a giant reptile.
Albert Carl Koch would gather as many bones as he possibly could and then stack them together end to end, making fanciful reconstructions. (Image: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)

The supreme object of science and scientists is to learn how nature works and to discover its fundamental laws or rules.  Yet, there are rare cases when scientists engage in deceitful activities.

A Fraudulent Scientist?

Albert Carl Koch, who worked in St. Louis in the 1830s and 1840s, made it his passion to go out with an ox cart, ride along the countryside, and find fossil bones in various remote parts of North America. Through his exploration, he would find massive fossil bones of mastodons and whales. And he would display them in his St Louis museum, where he charged admission for the various exhibits that he put together.

The problem was that Koch would gather as many bones (vertebrae, ribs, etc.) as he possibly could, and then he would stack them together end to end. He would make long chains of vertebral columns constructed from different species.

The result was huge fossils that were much larger than an elephant. By stringing together hundreds of vertebrae, he would make sea serpent fossils more than 100 feet long and then he would charge an exorbitant admission fee of $0.25–$0.50 per individual for each of his exhibitions. And people would flock to see those remarkable, fanciful reconstructions.

Koch abused the scientific method. When scientists saw these artificial skeletons, they denounced the reconstructions, purchased his fossils, took them back to museums, and reassembled them in ways that were anatomically correct and reasonable.

This is a good example of how science can self-correct and weed out any unfounded claim.

This is a transcript from the video series The Joy of Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Philosophy Vs. Science

The scientific process is the systematic investigation of nature based on evidence. To modern scientists, each observation and measurement represents an objective or verifiable truth. Each measurement thus has meaning. But the importance of observations has not been at all obvious or widely accepted in earlier times.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived from 384 to 322 B.C., recognized that senses played a very important role in understanding the natural world, but for him and his followers the ultimate arbiter of truth was logic. It was the brain, not the hands, that led to an understanding of the natural world.

And prior to the 17th century, many scholars accepted Aristotle’s preference of logic over observation.

Learn more about properties of materials.

The Company of Educated Men

Painting of Aristotle holding a book and some papers.
For Aristotle and his followers the ultimate arbiter of truth was logic. (Image: Zambonia/Public domain)

In their book, The Sciences, Jim Trefil and Robert Hazen recount a story about a debate at Oxford College that occurred during this period. The debate was about the number of teeth in a horse’s mouth.

One scholar quoted Aristotle. Another countered with a different opinion from the theologian St. Augustine.

Eventually, a young monk at the back of the auditorium got up and noted that since there was a horse outside, they could just go out, look in the horse’s mouth, and count the number of teeth. At this point, the records claim, the assembled scholars “fell upon him, smote him hip and thigh, and cast him from the company of educated men”.

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Galileo Galilei

The great Italian scientist Galileo Galilei met a similar kind of response in the early 1600s when he first used the telescope to look into the heavens. Galileo had heard about the telescope as a Dutch invention. He made his own telescope in 1609 and focused it on various objects in the night sky.

He discovered moons orbiting Jupiter and saw what appeared to be a vague, fuzzy mass around Saturn. Galileo observed craters and mountains on the Moon and imperfections in what should be perfect spheres in the faultless heaven.

Historian of science Giorgio de Santillana writes, “Galileo had thought the discoveries of the telescope would provide irrefutable proof to any man in good faith. But a few months were enough to undeceive him. Surgeon doctors steadfastly refused to look through the telescope. Some did look and professed to see nothing. Most of them, however, said that they had never gotten around to looking through it, but that they knew already that it would show nothing of philosophical value.”

Nature Is Predictable

While many scholars have questioned the reliability of the senses, everyone relies, to some extent or another, on the predictability of the physical world.

Long before science, humans developed an absolute dependence on certain repeating patterns in nature. For example, the way objects fall and the way they move when they adopt curving paths through the air is absolutely critical to a hunting society. Consistency of nature is vital to the survival of any people. It is this regularity that makes science possible.

The idea of a regular and predictable universe with overarching laws that can be discovered by observation and experiment was not at all obvious to ancient societies. And yet, they, like people today, depended on it for their food and survival.

The Predictability of Astronomical Objects

Signs of the zodiac, ecliptic, stars, galaxies, and planets.
The idea of a predictable universe with overarching laws was not obvious to ancient societies. (Image: tutsi/Shutterstock)

Most astronomical objects also have predictable paths. The Sun rises and sets each day, while its position in the sky and the lengths of the day change in a regular pattern from season to season.

The Moon also changes position in a regular fashion, and it also passes through a predictable 29-day cycle of phases, from new Moon to full Moon, back to new Moon.

Some ancient societies displayed their belief in the predictability of the heavens by constructing large monuments in which the positions of massive stones were aligned with key events in the sky. One of the earliest examples of human faith in this regularity is Stonehenge. This great structure served as an astronomical calendar. Stonehenge demonstrates that ancient people recognized regularities and predictability in nature.

Learn more about entropy.

Toward an Understanding of Nature

Science depends on maintaining meticulous records of observations, and one of the most authoritative scientific accounts of ancient times is provided by Gaius Plinius Secundus, who lived from A.D. 23 to 79.

His encyclopedic Natural History tabulates the facts that were known to him directly, or through respected authorities of the time. This work provides an unparalleled view of knowledge at the time of the early Christian era, but the result is often an uncritical mix of facts and superstitions.

According to Professor Rackham who translated this book, “Pliny claims quartz crystals form from intense freezing of moisture from the sky. Amber, he says, is a prophylactic against tonsillitis and other afflictions. And diamonds can be fractured by soaking them in goat’s blood.”

Learn more about the quantum world.

The Advent of Science

To many ancient cultures, knowing the positions of the Moon and the planets was of great importance, both for astrological predictions and for navigation. One of the first descriptions of the universe that led to testable predictions was the model provided by the natural philosopher Ptolemy of Alexandria, who lived between A.D. 100 and 170.

Ptolemy argued that the Earth had to be at the center of the solar system, because otherwise if the Earth moved around some other object, the atmosphere would be stripped away. The Ptolemaic system was reasonably successful in predicting planetary positions, and it survived for 1,400 years; that is probably the longest-running scientific theory in history.

What is regarded as the scientific method has been shaped by scientists over a long historical timespan. The scientific method is a richly varied human construct and seldom operates as a simple cycle. Human intuition and creativity play central and vital roles in the scientific method.

Common Questions about the Meandering Path of Science

Q:  How did scientists react to Albert Carl Koch’s fraudulent scientific activity?

When scientists saw Koch’s artificial skeletons, they denounced the reconstructions, purchased his fossils, took them back to museums, and reassembled them in ways that were anatomically correct.

Q: What did Aristotle think about using observation and measurement as an arbiter of truth?

Aristotle recognized that the senses played a very important role in understanding the natural world. But for him and his followers, the ultimate arbiter of truth was logic and reason. It was the brain, not the hands, that led to an understanding of the natural world.

Q: What is the Ptolemaic model of the Solar System?

Ptolemy argued that the Earth had to be at the center of the Solar System because otherwise if the Earth moved around some other object, the atmosphere would be stripped away.

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