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The Result Of Science

When we watch the space shuttle ascend on its horrendous plume of fire, it's natural to think that the rocket is being propelled by the fuel in its gigantic tanks. But in a much more fundamental and important sense, what's really lifting that vessel into space is the collective effort of every man and woman who ever confronted nature and wondered how it worked. Every astonishing image captured from the edge of the cosmos, every disease subdued by a new treatment, every scientific innovation that enhances the quality of life - each is the culmination of thousands of years of human determination to comprehend the world in which we live.

That is, it's the result of science, although not as it is too often portrayed. Thanks to caricatures from movies and television, we often think of science as if it were some discrete entity remote from ordinary human life, like the United Nations or the National Football League. But science is not a thing that involves some arcane endeavor conducted by nerds with beakers, white coats, and bewildering instruments. It's not something that developed recently, and it's by no means limited to scientists.

It is a way of systematically describing - and often also explaining - how and why events happen. It is such a distinctively human trait that every toddler, in a sense, recapitulates the history of the entire race's quest for understanding. He or she observes patterns in the environment, frames a hypothesis ("If I do A, then maybe B will occur"), and revises the hypothesis based on experiments. Watch any two-year-old figuring out how to place a stick in order to move a rock, and you're looking at the origins of the scientific method. Later in life, we often use the same patterns of reasoning and inference to make decisions in our everyday affairs. The more scientific the process, the more rational our decisions.

There is also another, more specific sense in which "science" is used: the scientific method. The modern meaning of that term is only a few hundred years old, and refers to certain broadly accepted rules for asserting a claim about nature. Science has been defined in different ways in different times. Nowadays, it typically involves forming an idea of the way something works and then making careful measurements, experiments, or observations to test the hypothesis. If the evidence keeps agreeing, the hypothesis grows more believable. If even one observation contradicts it, however, the entire hypothesis is falsified, and the search begins again.

Gradual refinements of hypotheses lead to the development of a theory. That term can be confusing because it means something quite different in science from what it suggests in ordinary conversation. In everyday life, we use a phrase such as "oh, it's just a theory" to signify something that is unproved, fanciful, or speculative. In science, it has almost the opposite definition.

A theory is a hypothesis or set of hypotheses that has stood the test of time and (so far, at least) has not been contradicted by evidence. Thus the theory of gravitation and the theory of evolution are not mere conjectures. They are descriptions of nature that have become extremely trustworthy because year after year they continue to explain the way the world works.

Similarly, the word "law" - as in Newton's second law of motion or Boyle's law of gases or Mendel's laws of heredity or the law of conservation of energy - refers to relationships among things or properties (such as the volume of a gas and its pressure) that continue to fit the evidence.

The important word there is continue. For all its dazzling success in explaining nature, science is the most rigorously self-skeptical of human institutions. No claim made by science is regarded as irrevocably or ultimately true. Even the most authoritative and durable ideas can be overturned at any time if there is evidence to the contrary. In fact, some people define science exactly that way: as a set of potentially falsifiable propositions - that is, assertions that in principle can be proved wrong by evidence - as opposed to other kinds of ideas that cannot be tested.

Points at which some aspect of nature became substantially more understandable are the kind of knowledge which only rarely arrives in the form of unanticipated individual discoveries of the dramatic "Eureka!" variety. In general, science is a continuous, ongoing process in which each generation of researchers gradually improves upon previous insights. In fact, that is how perhaps 99.9 percent of scientific progress is made. Even Isaac Newton, certainly one of the greatest scientists who ever lived and a man with a truly capacious ego, wrote that "if I have seen farther [than others], it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

He might have added: "...and on the shoulders of ordinary folks as well, including more than a few shorties." Hundreds of thousands of men and women have labored to make science what it is today. And if their names are not well known, they nonetheless helped make that unending journey possible.

In retrospect, it may appear that humanity progressed inevitably from discovery to discovery in an unbroken sequence of revelations leading to ever greater enlightenment. Neither science nor any other aspect of human life actually works that way. For every breakthrough insight, a dozen wrong, or only partially right, ideas were being considered with equal intensity at the same time. And the sudden emergence of a single set of concepts or one uncommonly brilliant thinker does not typify an age or a culture any more than Michael Jordan typifies all basketball players.

Tools, techniques, and instruments helped to propel the scientific process forward. Some of these technologies, such as gunpowder and the steam engine, radically changed the nature of everyday life. Such potent technological change has an ancient pedigree. About two million years ago, Homo habilis, a distant ancestor of Homo sapiens, developed wood and stone tools. The regularity of these artifacts is evidence that Stone Age man knew that similar techniques produce consistently similar results over time. Another such ancient technology is the use and mastery of fire, which began around one million years ago and grew more sophisticated over time.

Until recently, human beings were hunter-gatherers. But around 8000 B.C., as the menacing glaciers of the last ice age were receding, humans began to develop a talent for planting and raising crops and corralling wild animals, both of which were gradually bred into domesticated strains. This effort, which took place independently in several parts of the world in succeeding centuries, must have entailed a certain amount of trial-and-error experimentation. However it proceeded, the success of this agricultural revolution as it spread across the Earth impacted the future of all human cultures.

By 6000 B.C., inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent had succeeded in breeding more productive kinds of wild barley and wheat. People in what is now Mexico were in the process of domesticating teosinte, the wild forebear of modern maize. Groups in the Middle East, and in present-day Peru, central Africa, and eastern China, were raising animals.

While agriculture was beginning, people were also creating permanent habitations, which became the precursors of cities. As stable population centers emerged, it became more efficient to share resources - and easier to compare knowledge. What would become the first rudimentary sciences flourished in those settings, such as Babylon in Mesopotamia.

Numbering systems gradually came into widespread use in Mesopotamia, encouraged by the development of trade and the accumulation of various kinds of inventories. Indeed, many scholars believe that numerical records predate written language in most cultures. At first, quantities were represented by bits of stuff used as tokens. An agreement involving the sale of 62 farm animals, for example, would be formalized by placing 62 tokens inside a clay or other container. Then when the livestock were delivered, the new owner could check the number against the quantity of tokens. It soon became easier to represent these quantities with symbols, called cuneiform, written or engraved on clay tablets.

From such rudimentary beginnings, mathematics rapidly became more complex. By about 2400 B.C., Sumerians in Mesopotamia had developed a numbering system based on the position of these symbols. That method, called positional notation, made counting and mathematics considerably easier. Instead of having a different and unique symbol for each number, as high as anyone would want to count, they would add a second symbol once they reached 10 and then 60. This Mesopotamian numbering system, and later versions that developed from it and spread through the region, used a base of 60. (Our base-10, or decimal, system works in a similar way. After each multiple of 10, we begin renumbering 1, 2, 3, and so forth.) However, none of the great Mesopotamian cultures - the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Chaldeans - developed the concept of zero or a cipher to represent it.

The vestiges of the ancient base-60 system are still everywhere in our daily lives. We have 60 minutes to the hour, 60 seconds to the minute, and 360 degrees to the circle thanks to this 4,000-year-old Middle Eastern practice. As early as 1800 B.C. - more than a thousand years before the first Greek philosophers - Mesopotamian thinkers had developed a sophisticated geometry and could solve the equivalent of equations with powers of two. Moreover, they compiled tables of what are now termed Pythagorean triples, numbers that could represent the length of the sides of a right triangle. A general theorem stating the relationship of those lengths - known as the Pythagorean theorem after the sage Pythagoras - would not arrive until the time of the Greeks.

Numerical patterns, of course, were largely a creation of the human mind. But there was another, far more fundamental source of regularity in life: the daily course of the sun and nightly rotation of the moon and stars. Because the position of the sun and the orderly progression of the seasons affect human life directly, they were the subject of early and careful record-keeping. For this reason, astronomy was the first highly organized science. By about 3000 B.C., if not earlier, the Egyptians had developed a surprisingly accurate 365-day calendar. Their year began with the annual flooding of the Nile, an event of paramount importance for agriculture.

The zodiac was formulated and systematically described around 1600 B.C. by the Chaldeans. By 750 B.C., the Babylonians were recording solar and lunar eclipses. In the same period, the Chinese were already keeping detailed and sophisticated astronomical records that, in the 19th and 20th centuries, would prove useful in confirming the cycles of comets.

Astronomy not only occupied a great deal of intellectual effort but also frequently called for a stupendous amount of physical labor in erecting what some experts believe were the first observatories. For example, around 2500 B.C., the inhabitants of what is now England began building a circle of stone columns on the open Salisbury Plain. The 14-foot-long upright megaliths at Stonehenge, weighing nearly 30 tons each, were transported as far as 20 miles to their destination.

It is still unclear whether Stonehenge served an astronomical purpose - in the modern sense - or not. Our present distinction between the exact science of astronomy and the fanciful pseudoscience called astrology did not exist, and would not for thousands of years. Careful celestial observations were made, though often with the intent of finding some presumed portent of good or ill in the heavens.

However, around the sixth century B.C., a new kind of thinking arose in the burgeoning city-states of Greece that would fundamentally alter the course of human development. The era of classical Greek science was about to begin, as humanity at last dared to ask not just how the world worked, but why.

Curt Suplee. Milestones of Science: The History of Humankind's Greatest Ideas (reading line) . National Geographic. 2000.


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