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7 Epic Moments In Science History

Posted: 10/02/2012 10:38 am

The word science has been around since the days of ancient Rome. It derives from the Latin word scientia, meaning "knowledge" in the widest sense. But the word scientist is much younger--less than two centuries old. Before the mid 19th century, individuals we would now routinely call great scientists, such as Archimedes, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton, were instead known as "natural philosophers." "Scientist" was coined only in 1833, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Cambridge. It immediately caught on the United States, though not until somewhat later in Europe.

For all the supposed objectivity of the scientific method, scientific progress has always been driven by strong personalities. The biographies (and autobiographies) of great scientists often illuminate their motivations and sometimes offer clues as to the sources of their breakthroughs. Who can resist the anecdote of Archimedes, the king's gold crown and the overflowing bath tub? Or Newton's reported comment about gravity and the falling apple? Or Einstein's own description of his teenaged thought experiment about chasing a light ray? Or James Watson's rumbustious account of the decoding of the structure of DNA in The Double Helix--a book at first condemned by Watson's collaborator Francis Crick for its personalizing of scientific research but in due course grudgingly admired by Crick for its truthfulness.

Apart from their love of science, do the 40 or so great scientists selected for my book, The Scientists: An Epic of Discovery [Thames & Hudson, $45.00], share anything in common? Their nationalities, family backgrounds, education and training, personalities, religious beliefs, working methods and the circumstances of their greatest discoveries, differ enormously. But in one respect, at least, they do appear to be alike: All of them worked habitually and continually at science and were prolifically productive. The mathematician Henri Poincaré (a seminal influence on Einstein's theory of special relativity) published 500 papers and 30 books; Einstein himself produced 240 publications; Sigmund Freud had 330. As Darwin observed to his son, late in life: "I have been speculating last night what makes a man a discoverer of undiscovered things, and a most perplexing problem it is.--Many men who are very clever,--much cleverer than the discoverers--never originate anything. As far as I can conjecture, the art consists in habitually searching for causes or meaning of everything which occurs. This implies sharp observation and requires as much knowledge as possible of the subject investigated." Newton, when asked how he had discovered the law of gravity, replied pithily: "By thinking on it continually." All of the great scientists in my book would, one senses, have said amen to that.

Check out these 7 amazing moments in scientific history:

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  • Archimedes

    Archimedes lived during the 3rd century BC. This 17th-century French engraving imagined Archimedes’ appearance two millennia after his death. To the ancient Greek natural philosophers, such as Archimedes, Aristotle, Democritus, Euclid, and Ptolemy, modern science owes much, for example the principles of displacement and flotation, the invention of geometry, the concept of latitude and longitude and the first estimate of the circumference of the Earth, the idea that light travels in straight lines, the perception that matter is made of atoms, and the earliest systematic classification of animals.

  • Copernicus

    In 1543, on his deathbed, Nicolaus Copernicus published <em>De revolutionibus orbium coelestium</em> (On the revolutions of the heavenly spheres), his heliocentric picture of the solar system with the Earth and other planets revolving around the Sun. This challenge to both everyday perception and biblical scripture was greeted with much skepticism by natural philosophers and, in due course, resistance from the Catholic church—but eventually, the grand idea caught on that the Earth was no longer at the centre of the world, as it had been since the time of the Greeks, although Copernicus still adhered to the ancient view that the planetary orbits were circular.

  • Alexander von Humboldt

    Alexander von Humboldt journeyed to South America in 1799-1804: an epic expedition that was direct inspiration for Charles Darwin’s voyage around the world by ship in the 1830s. This famous foldout tableau of the volcano Chimborazo in the Andes comes from Humboldt’s 1807 <em>Essay on the Geography of Plants</em>; in a single page it laid out the foundation for the science of ecology. Characteristic plant communities, changing by altitude, clothe the sides of Chimborazo, while the cutaway gives space for their names. Cotopaxi, an active volcano, steams in the background, and the twin mountains are flanked by columns of scientific data concerning temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, and intensity of the light.

  • Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier

    Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier was the founder of modern chemistry, who swept away alchemy by carrying out quantitative chemical experiments. This portrait by Jacques-Louis David shows Lavoisier and his wife, Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, who worked closely with her husband in the laboratory. It was painted in 1788, a year before the publication of Lavoisier’s <em>Elementary Treatise on Chemistry</em>, illustrated with engravings by Marie-Anne. The French revolution, which broke out in the year of publication, eventually led to Lavoisier’s death at the guillotine. “Only a moment was required to cut off that head,” said the great mathematician Joseph Lagrange, “and perhaps a century will not be sufficient to produce another like it.”

  • Ernest Rutherford

    On the death of Ernest Rutherford in 1937, <em>the New York Times</em> commented: “It is given to few men to achieve immortality, still less to achieve Olympian rank during their own lifetime. Lord Rutherford achieved both.” Rutherford was the father of nuclear physics. Although best known for his discovery of the atomic nucleus, which is the kernel of much of modern physics, he won his Nobel prize in chemistry, not physics, in 1908 (around the time of this photograph) for discovering the transmutation of the elements. High-energy particle physics, which studies the nature of matter and its origins in the Big Bang, and modern nuclear technology, are but a few examples of his legacy. The depth and breadth of Rutherford’s discoveries in experimental physics were the equal of Einstein’s in theoretical physics.

  • Carl Linnaeus

    First published in 1735, <em>Systema naturae</em> by Carl Linnaeus organized the entire natural world according to a system of classes, orders, genera, and species. This page shows the twenty-four classes of plants identified by Linnaeus when describing the sexual system of plants—a source of considerable scandal to his contemporaries, because of Linnaeus’ vivid and poetic comparisons between botanical and human sexuality. The book was published in twelve editions in his lifetime. The tenth edition, published in two volumes in 1758 and 1759, was the first to use a binomial system to name animals, as Linnaeus had earlier done for plants. As such, it is considered the starting point of modern zoological nomenclature.

  • Andreas Vesalius

    In 1543, Andreas Vesalius published his monumental <em>De humani corporis fabrica libri septem</em> (On the fabric of the human body). This comprised seven large folio books (sections) on the skeleton, musculature, veins and arteries, nerves, reproductive and digestive organs of the abdomen, heart and lungs, and the brain and sense organs. The detailed Latin text was accompanied by seventy-three breathtaking, true-to-life illustrations. Anatomy would never be the same again. The artist (possibly artists) from Titian’s studio remains unidentified, but his contribution—under Vesalius’s direction—was immense. Earlier books on anatomy used few pictures and these were mainly diagrammatic representations of the text, aides-mémoire rather than visualizations of what one might see within the body. Vesalius was part of a Renaissance tradition of improving anatomical knowledge and depiction, but his work was a quantum leap forward.