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The Beginnings of Science

Science as it is known today is of relatively modern origin, but the traditions out of which it has emerged reach back beyond recorded history. The roots of science lie in the technology of early toolmaking and other crafts, while scientific theory was once a part of philosophy and religion. This relationship, with technology encouraging science rather than the other way around, remained the norm until recent times. Thus, the history of science is essentially intertwined with that of technology.

Practical Applications in the Ancient Middle East

The early civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates valley and the Nile valley made advances in both technology and theory, but separate groups within each culture were responsible for the progress. Practical advances in metallurgy, agriculture, transportation, and navigation were made by the artisan class, such as the wheelwrights and shipbuilders. The priests and scribes were responsible for record keeping, land division, and calendar determination, and they developed written language and early mathematics for this purpose. The Babylonians devised methods for solving algebraic equations, and they compiled extensive astronomical records from which the periods of the planets' revolution and the eclipse cycle could be calculated; they used a year of 12 months and a week of 7 days, and also originated the division of the day into hours, minutes, and seconds. In Egypt there were also developments in mathematics and astronomy and the beginnings of the science of medicine. Wheeled vehicles and bronze metallurgy, both known to the Sumerians in Babylonia as early as 3000 B.C., were imported to Egypt c.1750 B.C. Between 1400 B.C. and 1100 B.C. iron smelting was discovered in Armenia and spread from there, and alphabets were developed in Phoenicia.

Early Greek Contributions to Science

The early Greek, or Hellenic, culture marked a different approach to science. The Ionian natural philosophers removed the gods from the personal roles they had played in the cosmologies of Babylonia and Egypt and sought to order the world according to philosophical principles. Thales of Miletus (6th cent. B.C.) was one of the earliest of these and contributed to astronomy, geometry, and cosmology. He was followed by Anaximander, who extended Thales' ideas and proposed that the universe is composed of four basic elements, i.e., earth, air, fire, and water; this theory was also taught by Empedocles (5th cent. B.C.) in Sicily. The philosophers Leucippus and Democritus (both 5th cent. B.C.) held that everything is composed of tiny, indivisible atoms. In the school founded at Croton, S Italy, by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras of Samos (6th cent. B.C.) the principal concept was that of number. The Pythagoreans tried to explain the workings of the universe in terms of whole numbers and their ratios; in addition to contributions to mathematics and philosophy, they also made notable studies in the area of biology and anatomy, e.g., by Alcmaeon of Croton (fl. c.500 B.C.). The most important developments in medicine were made by Hippocrates of Cos (4th cent. B.C.), known as the Father of Medicine, who formulated the science of diagnosis based on accurate descriptions of the symptoms of various diseases. The greatest figures of the earlier Greek period were the philosophers Plato (427–347 B.C.) and Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), each of whom exerted an influence that has extended down to modern times.

Influence of the Alexandrian Schools

The later Greek, or Hellenistic, culture was centered not in Greece itself but in Greek cities elsewhere, particularly Alexandria, Egypt, which was founded in 332 B.C. by Alexander the Great. The so-called first Alexandrian school included Euclid (fl. c.300 B.C.), who organized the axiomatic system of geometry that has served as the model for many other scientific presentations since then; Eratosthenes (3d cent. B.C.), who made a remarkably accurate estimate of the size of the earth; and Aristarchus (3d cent. B.C.), who showed that the sun is larger than the earth and suggested a heliocentric model for the solar system. Archimedes (287–212 B.C.) worked at Syracuse, Sicily, and made contributions to mathematics and mechanics that were surprisingly modern in spirit. The second Alexandrian school flourished in the first centuries of the Christian era, after Rome had become the leading power in the Mediterranean; it included Ptolemy (2d cent. A.D.), who presented the geocentric system of the universe that was to dominate astronomical thought for 1400 years, and his contemporary Heron, who contributed to geometry and pneumatics. Galen (2d cent. A.D.) studied at Pergamum and Alexandria and later practiced medicine and made important anatomical studies at Rome. The Romans assimilated the more practical scientific accomplishments of the Greeks but added relatively little of their own. With the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th cent., science ceased to develop in the West.

Scientific Progress in China and India

In the East some accomplishments in science had been made paralleling the early developments in the West. However, although many societies were quick to adopt the fruits of technology, they tended to discourage the development of science on the classical model, which is based on the unbiased interaction of theory and experiment.

In China scientific theories were largely subservient to the main schools of philosophy and theology, particularly those of Confucianism, Taoism, and, later, Buddhism. The agricultural society, which endured until modern times, encouraged the separation of theory and experiment, the former falling to the educated, scholar classes and the latter to the lower, craftsman classes. Astronomy and mathematics were used for practical purposes, such as calendar determination, and there was little interest in theory in these fields. Theories of metallurgy, alchemy, and medicine were all tied to the prevailing religious and philosophical doctrines. Nevertheless, many important practical discoveries were made. Paper was invented in the 2d cent. A.D.; block printing was known in the 7th cent. A.D., with movable clay type by the 11th cent. and cast-metal type in Korea by the beginning of the 15th cent.; gunpowder was invented in the 3d cent. A.D. and firearms were in use by the 13th cent.; and the magnetic compass came into use during the 11th and 12th cent.

In India an alphabetic script was developed, as well as a numeral system based on place value and including a zero; this latter Hindu contribution was adopted by the Arabs and combined with their numeral system. Important Hindu scientists flourished in the 6th and 7th cent. A.D. and also in the 12th cent., making contributions to astronomy and mathematics. Many of these early Indian works showed the influence of Greek science, as in the geocentric systems of astronomy, or of Babylonian science, as in their development of algebraic methods for solving many problems.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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