IT FALLS TO THE LOT OF VERY FEW TO BE COUNTED AMONG THAT ELITE GROUP WHO HAVE SUCCEEDED IN PERFECTING SCIENTIFIC TRADITION BY RECASTING ITS VERY MEANING. EACH FOLLOWS THEIR OWN ROAD WHEN SETTING OUT ON THIS ADVENTURE, BUT ALL ULTIMATELY LEAD TO THE NEW IDEA THAT IS SLOWLY MATURING AMONG THE OLD, AND EACH FORGES THE MOST APPROPRIATE TOOLS IN ORDER TO ADVANCE THAT IDEA. WHILE THIS CERTAINLY INVOLVES A SEARCH THROUGH THE PAST TO REVEAL THE MANY POTENTIALITIES LYING THERE, IT ALSO [INVOLVES] PROFOUND THOUGHT PROCESSES NEEDED TO IDENTIFY NEW POSSIBILITIES, AND TO BUILD THE TOOLS TO REALIZE THEM. A SCIENTIFIC TRADITION CAN ONLY BE ACCOMPLISHED THROUGH THE WORK OF RESEARCHERS WHO GAIN STRENGTH FROM THEIR ILLUSTRIOUS FOREBEARS (p xiii).
Ibn al-Haytham and Analytical Mathematics
The scientists presented here are excellent examples of this elite few. Each built upon the groundwork laid by their progenitors, and their pursuit of the truth in the face of persecution laid the groundwork for modern science. They spent their lives untangling legend from fact and revealing scientific facts. Aside from making huge strides in science and expanding our understanding of the universe, these great minds taught us the value of observation, experience, and experiment. They showed us that we must discover and uncover the truth through systematic experimentation and taught us to never stop seeking the truth and never stop questioning everything. These innovative thinkers also taught us that art and science are not separate and disparate entities, but are both parts of the human experience. Darwin once said, “If I had my life to live over again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.” The doctor and dancer, Mae Jemison, put it nicely in her 2002 TED talk when she said, “The difference between science and the arts is not that they are different sides of the same coin … or even different parts of the same continuum, but rather, they are manifestations of the same thing. The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity.” Art and music require science and math, and science requires art and imagination. In fact, science and art have grown and developed collaboratively for centuries. There was a time when religion was the sole source of the ‘truth’. Science has come to replace religion as that source of ‘truth’. It is now time to draw from both art and science, and for sciences to admit their truths are not the only truths. As the staunch defender of science, Karl Popper suggested in Conjectures and Refutations, we need to “give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is to grope for truth even though it is beyond our reach” (p 39). The more we think we understand the universe, the more mysterious it becomes. Science often stretches our imagination, where bizarre concepts like dark matter and black holes bring in to question our intuition about reality. Da Vinci or Galileo could not have made their scientific leaps without stretching their imaginations and forming mental pictures. Newton could not have expressed his new and outlandish theories without metaphors. Metaphors conceptualize science and give us mental images making ideas easier to grasp. Magnetic fields, for instance, can be thought of as little whirlpools in space, or the expanding universe as an inflating balloon. Though obvious simplifications, these metaphors help elucidate scientific concepts. In his book, A Sense of the Mysterious, the physicist and novelist, Alan Lightman, wrote, “Metaphor in science serves not just as a pedagogical device, but also as an aid to scientific discovery. In doing science, even though words and equations are used with the intention of having precise meaning, it is almost impossible not to reason by physical analogy, not to form mental pictures, not to imagine balls bouncing and pendulums swinging. Metaphor is part of the process of science” (p 50). Metaphors can be powerful conveyors of scientific messages, and art can make these metaphors tangible. It’s nearly impossible, for instance, to understand Einstein’s spacetime with only metaphor or mental image: we need a physical image. To comprehend incomprehensible ideas, we need art, not only because it helps make surreal science concrete, but also because art can enhance the experience of science. Similarly, science can enhance the experience of art. Einstein once said, “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.” Arts and sciences are connected through the thin membrane of imagination, and both are exercises in human creativity and ingenuity. Jonah Lehre put it well in his book, Proust Was a Neuroschientist, when he wrote, “We now know enough to know that we will never know everything. This is why we need art: it teaches us how to live with mystery. Only the artist can explore the ineffable without offering us an answer, for sometimes there is no answer” (p 196).
Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham (1 July 965 – 6 March 1040)
Ibn al-Haytham (Latinized as Alhazen) was an Arabic (modern day Iraq) philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer who made significant contributions to science. Alhazen was born during an inventive era known as the Islamic Golden Age. During this period, the Muslim government supported (financially and otherwise) scholars of various faiths and cultures from Spain to China. Building upon knowledge from ancient Greek and Syriac civilizations, discoveries and creations during the Islamic Golden Age led to numerous advances in science, technology and medicine that had lasting impacts on our world. Little is known about Alhazen’s early life, but he was one of the first scientists to study the characteristics of light, vision and optics and made significant contributions to astronomy, number theory, geometry and natural philosophy. Also, when he was old enough to claim he could engineer a way to regulate the Nile River he was invited to Cairo, Egypt by ‘The Mad Caliph’ to do just that. Interestingly, he proposed to do this at the site of the current Aswan Dam, which was built in 1902. However, after realizing the impracticality of such a hydraulic feat, and fearing the Caliph’s anger, Alhazen feigned insanity and was kept in protective custody (i.e. under house arrest) for ten years. During this time, he studied the process of sight, the structure of the eye, and image formation in the eye. He named several parts of the eye, like the lens, the cornea and the retina. Alhazen also wrote his most famous and influential book, Kitab al-Manazir (Book of Optics), during his time in Egypt. The Book of Optics outlined the correct model of vision (i.e. that sight is the passive reception by the eyes of light reflected from objects), as well as complete formulations of the laws of reflection and refraction, which is why Alhazen is called the ‘Father of Modern Optics’. He concluded that vision only took place when a light ray was emitted or reflected from a luminous source (an object) before it entered the eye. Prior to this discovery, there were several interesting theories about vision floating around: 1) the emission theory, which believed that our eyes emitted beams of light that illuminated objects and that’s how we were able to see things, and 2) the intromission theory, which thought that when we saw an object it was because a physical representation of the object was actually physically entering the eye. Though these theories may sound outlandish now, these were the prevailing theories of vision at the time. Which leads us to another important contribution Alhazen made to science. Just as, if not more, important than presenting an accurate description of vision, was the way Alhazen went about figuring it out. To formulate the correct model of vision, Alhazen had to first decide he did not simply accept the prevailing theories of the time, and had to systematically critique and disprove these ideas. He did this by posing hypotheses, conducting meticulous and carefully designed experiments, and recording detailed descriptions of the outcomes. This procedural investigative process was the progenitors of the modern scientific method. Thus, by carrying out tests with lenses, mirrors, refraction and reflection, Alhazen was able to demonstrate by reason, research and experimentation that light was an essential and independent part of the visual process. He also contributed work on the psychology of visual perception and optical illusions. For instance, Alhazen explained the ‘Moon illusion’, where he described why the Moon appeared smaller when it was higher in the sky and larger when it was near the horizon. He described the phenomenon as a perceived, rather than real, change in size. Alhazen also discussed theories on the motion of bodies and of attraction between masses (i.e. gravity) centuries before Isaac Newton was even born . He also argued that Ptolemaic models of astronomy (e.g. movements of celestial bodies) needed to be understood and proved using physical observations, rather than just postulating abstract hypotheses. By holding the Earth centered theory of the Solar System accountable to the laws of physics, Alhazen contributed to the successful acceptance of the Ptolemaic (geocentric) theory among western Christians. Ultimately, and importantly, Alhazen believed it was crucial to conduct experiments and record observations to test ideas rather than just accept what was thought to be true. He was a pioneering scientific thinker whose methodology later influenced the investigative processes of European scholars, especially Renaissance scientists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei.
Leonardo da Vinci (15 April 1452 – 2 May 1519)
Leonardo Da Vinci was an Italian artist, architect, engineer, cartographer, inventor, writer, mathematician, geologist, and botanist who has been described as the archetypal Renaissance Man. He was one of the most diversely talented, imaginative and inventive people who ever lived. Little is known about da Vinci’s youth, aside from the fact that he was born out of wedlock; received an informal and basic education in reading, writing and math; and gained an appreciation for nature and an unquenchable curiosity at a young age. Around the age of 14 da Vinci was apprenticed to a notable sculptor and painter in Florence, Italy where he gained a large range of skills, including drafting, chemistry, metal working, plaster casting, leather working, mechanics, carpentry, drawing, painting, and sculpting. By the age of 22, da Vinci became a master artist. Aside from being one of the best painters of all time (creator of the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper), da Vinci was an ardent student of all things scientific. Around the age of 30, da Vinci went to work for the Duke of Milan (Italy) as an engineer, where he reached new heights in his scientific and artistic achievements. While working for the Duke, he kept busy painting and sculpting, but also studied nature, mechanics, and geometry and designed canals, submarines, weapons, churches, fortresses and more. In his spare time, he outlined a theory of plate tectonics; postulated on the formation of fossils; took outstanding notes on the sun, moon, and stars; and studied the mysteries of aerodynamics and hydrodynamics. Having permission to dissect human corpses, da Vinci also made important discoveries in anatomy. He collaborated with doctors and made hundreds of meticulous drawings detailing the human skeleton, muscles, brain, and digestive and reproductive systems. Many of his drawings were the first in human record and brought new understanding of the human body. He studied the effect of age and emotion on human physiology, and compared human and animal anatomy after dissecting and drawing many animals, including cows, birds, monkeys, bears, horses and frogs. Da Vinci was also an accomplished engineer, and invented (on paper) the bicycle, an armored vehicle, concentrated solar power, and the helicopter. Keep in mind that the first steam-powered automobile didn’t come into being until 1769, the first bicycle wasn’t created until 1817 (300 years after da Vinci’s death), and we won’t even mention how ahead of his time the invention of a helicopter or solar power was. He also created plans for a device that measured humidity and several machines that could harness the power of water, as well as an airplane based on bat physiology and the principles of aeronautics and physics. Unfortunately, these futuristic inventions could not feasibly be built during da Vinci’s time. And, though he was one of the best painters of the Renaissance, he left only a handful of completed paintings. Da Vinci was well known for not finishing what he started, perhaps because his abundant interests in universal truths, testing scientific laws, and writing empirically about his observations preoccupied him. Also, none of his scientific findings were published, likely a result of the fact that he wrote all of his journals in mirror-image, where everything is written from right to left and backwards, so it can only be read when reflected in a mirror. Historians argue about whether da Vinci used mirror writing for expediency (he was left handed), to make sure no one read over his shoulder, or as a joke, but, when you are one of the smartest and most remarkable individuals to ever live, you can write however you want! Although, finishing a painting, publishing, or actually building a 65-foot flying bat wasn’t necessarily the point. The bigger picture was the idea that science and art we complimentary, and not distinct disciplines. As a Renaissance humanist, da Vinci didn’t see a divide between science and art and believed that ideas from one realm should inform the other. Further, da Vinci was a humanist, and believed in the unique individualism and genius of humans. Da Vinci helped modernize the scientific approach, which, until his time, had been rather unscientific and ‘medieval’. Rather than turning to the Bible for information, which is pretty much what everyone one did back then, he sought the truth via a more scientific approach. Da Vinci posed questions then methodically observed and recorded phenomena related to these questions, as Alhazen had done centuries before. This continued to lay the groundwork of the modern scientific method, where close observation, repeated testing, and systematic description was used to explain the world around us that had previously been explained as ‘God’s work’. Da Vinci essentially started the Scientific Revolution and revolutionized the way scientists have done research ever since.
Nicolaus Copernicus (19 February 1473 – 24 May 1543)
Nicolaus Copernicus was a Polish physicist, mathematician, and astronomer who played a major role in the Scientific Revolution during the Renaissance. His father died when he was ten, and Copernicus was taken under the wing of his uncle, who had ties with many leading intellectuals, including a royal humanist in Kraków, Poland. Eventually Copernicus went to study at the University of Kraków during the heyday of the Kraków mathematical-astronomical school. Though he never got a degree, his four years spent at Kraków gave Copernicus a strong grounding in math and astronomy, as well as a good understanding of philosophy and the natural sciences. This combination made him conversant in humanistic culture and led him to believe that everyone, including peasants and women, should be taught to speak and write with eloquence and clarity. Humanists valued critical thinking (rationalism) and evidence (empiricism) over established doctrine and faith; and looked to science instead of religious dogma in order to understand the world. That isn’t to say that Copernicus was secular; just the opposite in fact. After leaving Kraków, Copernicus returned to live with his uncle, the Prince-Bishop of Warmia (Poland), where it was hoped he would join the Warmia canonry (e.g. the priesthood). Though never ordained a priest, Copernicus did eventually assume a position as a sinecure (e.g. an office with little or no responsibility) with the Church. Copernicus also went to Bologna, Italy to further his ecclesiastic career, where, his uncle hoped, he would become a canonical lawyer. But, Copernicus devoted his studies more to the humanities, especially astronomy and astrology, and less to canon law (i.e. church/religious rules). Copernicus spent much of his time observing the cosmos and gathering historical information about ancient astronomy. During this time, he began to seriously doubt the accuracy of the Ptolemaic system (i.e. geocentrism), which placed the Earth at the center of all celestial bodies, and said everything, including the Sun, revolved around the Earth. Copernicus did eventually receive a doctorate in canon law and he moved back to Poland where he resided in the Bishop’s castle. Thus, though Copernicus was a good Catholic, his introduction to humanism was important because it planted seeds of doubt in religious dogma and made him seek confirmation for his ideas about the cosmos through observation. And, with astronomical knowledge and doubt building in his mind, observe he did, all the while maintaining strong ties to the Church. In fact, Copernicus often conducted astronomical observations from church towers. All of this eventually led to Copernicus’s most famous theory: heliocentrism. The heliocentric theory boldly claimed that the earth wasn’t the center of the Solar System, as everyone had believed, but that the Sun was at the center. This is where Copernicus’s religious ties become interesting. Really, as far back as Plato and Pythagoras, scientists had been suggesting a moving Earth, but the Church always ardently denied such ‘myths’. However, the heliocentric model totally explained the apparent (and deceptive) movement of the Sun and stars. Daily movements weren’t due to everything revolving around the Earth, but because the earth was rotating on it’s axis and revolving around the Sun. The Church denied the heliocentric theory not because it was wrong, but because it undermined the prevailing understanding of the Bible and questioned the Christian worldview. In spite of this, Copernicus’s buddies, a Bishop and a Cardinal, told him to publish his studies. Though his character was certainly attacked, Copernicus was never accused of heresy outright. This is likely related to his uncle’s standing in the Church, as well as Copernicus’s own close ties to the Church, and because a well-known theologian put a nice disclaimer in the introduction of his book, De Revolutionibus, stating that the heliocentric theory was useful mathematically but not necessarily true conceptually. Though the Church let him off the hook, and allowed his controversial De Revolutionibus to be published, Copernicus’s heliocentric model threatened the Church’s framework of cosmology and theology, and began the loosening of the Church’s tight-hold on society. Thus, the bold idea that the Earth and other planets revolved around the Sun watered the Scientific Revolution seed that had been planted by da Vinci. The Scientific Revolution was taking root and widening the cracks in the unifying culture of Christianity. Copernicus risked a lot to prove what he knew to be true: a dedicated scientist through and through, and left us with these lasting words of wisdom, “To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”
Galileo Galilei (15 February 1564 – 8 January 1642)
Galileo Galileo was an Italian physicist, mathematician, and astronomer who played a major role in the Scientific Revolution during the Renaissance. He was an accomplished musician and learned an appreciation for the periodic/musical measure of time from an early age. Galileo’s father instilled in him a healthy skepticism for authority, the value of experimentation, and an appreciation of the enlightenment that can come from the combination of experiments and mathematics. Being a pious Catholic, Galileo wanted to become a priest. Instead, at his father’s urging, he attended the University of Pisa to pursue a medical degree. However, Galileo accidentally attended a geometry class and became more interested in mathematics and natural philosophy. Though a doctor would make more money, his father reluctantly agreed to let Galileo pursue his real passions. This eventually led to Galileo becoming chair of the math department in Pisa, Italy, and a lifetime of teaching geometry, mechanics, and astronomy. Lucky for us he had a supportive father, because this change in career led to important advances in science and numerous inventions, such as the thermoscope (the forerunner of the modern thermometer). Galileo made huge strides in physics and formulated the Law of Inertia (precursors to Isaac Newton’s theories) and conducted several experiments with pendulums (which eventually led to the invention of the clock). He also vastly improved the telescope, which lent itself to one of Galileo’s biggest accomplishments: proving Copernicus’s heliocentric model. About a century earlier, Copernicus had suggested the Earth moved around the Sun, rather than the other way around. Even though this was a blow to the Church, they let Copernicus off the hook because they assumed the theory would never take hold and they didn’t feel Copernicus posed a threat. Also, most educated people firmly believed that all heavenly bodies revolved around the Earth (goecentrism) and refused to accept otherwise. Galileo was not so easily let off the hook by the Church though, since he was particularly adept at ignoring established authorities and, given his firm belief in the scientific methods, was willing to change his views in accordance with observation. And, in accordance with his own observations of the apparent rising and setting of the Sun, tides, and various other planetary and celestial observations, Galileo came to agree with Copernican ideas. Galileo believed so fervently that he eventually submitted writings on heliocentrism to the Roman Inquistion and went to Rome, Italy to defend them. Controversy surrounding the ideas of Copernicus had been stewing for a while by this time, and the Church, frightened by the thought of loosing their grip on society, unanimously declared heliocentrism to be foolish, absurd, and heretical. They ordered Galileo to abandon his Copernican ideas and banned Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus, as well as any other heliocentric works of ‘mathematical fiction’. The Church eventually told the stubborn Galileo he could publish Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which outlined and advocated for the heliocentric model) as long as he included arguments against heliocentrism. Galileo was eventually forced by the Church to deny the heliocentric model altogether, but Galileo’s rather implausible denial of heliocentrism led the Church to take more serious actions. Under the threat of hanging, the Church revoked the publishing of and completely banned Dialogue and put Galileo on house arrest for the rest of his life. The ‘all-powerful-all-mighty’ Church was flexing their muscles and baring their teeth to frighten science. In the end though, religion began to lose the battle – the ground beneath the monolithic Church was crumbling, and corruption in the Church allowed science to step up as another way to explain the world. Although he was forced to deny the heliocentric model (or be killed), Galileo’s work was a major blow to the Church’s totalitarian power over European minds, and marked a huge step towards the separation of science from philosophy and religion; a major development in human thought. Though locked up for the rest of his life, Galileo’s defiance led to an appreciation of the empirical and rational, of common sense and concrete reality that anyone could weigh or measure themselves, as opposed to being directly given the ‘truth’ by the Church. “Measure what can be measured, and make measureable what cannot be measured … all truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them,” said Galileo. Was this a good thing? The search for truth being conducted through tests and experimentation versus spiritual enlightenment? That’s a rhetorical question we will always ask, and a mental conundrum to deal with for the rest of eternity. But what most certainly is a good thing, and something we should thoroughly appreciate is that the audacious Galileo literally risked his life to further science and to prove what he believed to be true. To quote Galileo himself, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”
Isaac Newton (25 December 1642 – 20 March 1726)
Isaac Newton was an English physicists and mathematician who is recognized as one of the most influential scientists of all time and a prime mover in the Scientific Revolution. Newton, born the year of Galileo’s death, was a small, premature infant born three months after his father’s death. He had a tumultuous childhood and after his mother remarried she left him, at the age of three, to live with his grandmother. This left a deep and lasting emotional scar on Newton that many speculate was a source of insecurity and led to anxious and irrational obsessions about his publications, and a generally reclusive, paranoid, and quirky nature. When he was 12, his second father died and Newton went to live with his mother and attend The King’s School, Grantham, where he was taught Latin, but not math, and introduced to chemistry by a local apothecary. At the age of 17, his mother took Newton out of school in order to turn him into a prosperous farmer. Eventually, his mother was persuaded to let him go back to school due to his hatred of farming, and possibly due to the fact that Newton had threatened to burn his mother and her house when he was younger. By the age of 19, Newton was enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge. He paid his way through the first four years of college as a servant, waiter and maid, and was later awarded a scholarship to obtain his Master’s degree. Cambridge, like most European schools at the time, was steeped in old philosophies, such as goecentrism, and viewed nature qualitatively rather than quantitatively. Newton, on the other hand, was more interested in modern philosophy and advanced science. He built his own laboratory (the first at Cambridge) and hid out in there while he performed strange experiments in the name of science and discovery, like poking a needle into his eye socket and moving it around. Thus, during an 18-month hiatus from school (due to the Great Plague) Newton took it upon himself to pursue his own studies and set the foundations for his theories on light and color, which built upon theories established by Alhazen centuries earlier, and which eventually led to his publication of Optiks. During this brief time, he also began the invention of calculus (being fed up with conventional math) and gained insight into the laws of planetary motion, which would eventually lead to his publication of Principia. Principia has been called the single most influential book on physics. In it, Newton quantitatively established the basic laws of motion: a stationary object stays stationary unless an external force is applied to it, in which case the object moves in the direction it is pushed and will continue in a straight line unless some other force acts to slow or deflect it; and for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. Principia also introduced the Law of Universal Gravitation, which states that every object attracts every other object with a force that increases in proportion to size and decreases in proportion to distance. He proved that this law of attraction operated everywhere (i.e. was universal) including celestial bodies, and created an elegantly compact equation to calculate force. Newton mathematically explained many theories that had been proposed before, but that could not be proven, by people like Copernicus and Galileo. His laws made sense of every motion in the universe, such as the elliptical orbits of celestial bodies and the attractive force that started them moving in the first place (gravity), the movements of the tides, the trajectory of cannonballs and other projectiles, the orbits of comets, and the precession of the equinoxes. Finally, thanks to Newton, all known phenomena of the celestial and terrestrial worlds were mechanistically explained with one unified set of physical (and universal) laws. Newton brought to the scientific table the solutions to the cosmological problems confronting Copernican theories of planetary motion. Newton’s work was the final confirmation of the heliocentric model. The Church did not like it, since the Earth was no longer at the center, and the same laws applied to the Earth and all heavenly bodies, and people had to confront the idea that we live on a random planet in a vast galaxy. Newton constructed new and astounding theories by building upon the work of his predecessors and completely revolutionized physics by establishing new systems by which to understand and describe the universe. Newton put more than just a damper on the method of obtaining truth through religion, he forged the final separation of science and religion, and solidified the mechanistic worldview, which believed everything was governed by the same unbreakable laws and would be calculated with mathematical precision. He may have been peculiar and idiosyncratic, but Newton was one of the greatest minds of the Scientific Revolution. Though Voltaire called him the “greatest man who ever lived”, Newton humbly claimed, “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
Charles Darwin (12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882)
Charles Darwin was an English naturalist and geologist who forever changed the way we see ourselves, everything around us, and the relationship between all living things. He was the fifth of six children born to a wealthy family and a long line of scientists: his father was a doctor and his grandfather a botanist. Darwin’s father was a freethinker, and his family attended a Unitarian chapel, where the notions of original sin, permanent damnation, a vengeful God and predetermined spiritual destiny were rejected, and where there was no official text (e.g. no bible). Basically, Unitarianism is for those who enjoy the community and spirituality of religion, and who believe in the moral teachings of Jesus, but who don’t want to be taught about the natural history of the world from the bible. This gave Darwin the leeway to explore other possible origins of humans and the world around him. At the age of 16, Darwin apprenticed as a doctor with his father for a while before attending medical school at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland). Darwin found medical school lectures dull and the sight of blood made him queasy. His father, annoyed with Darwin’s neglect of his medical studies and expecting Darwin would become a priest instead, sent him to Christ’s College (Cambridge) two years later. Darwin also did not excel at this because he was more interested in natural history, and preferred riding and shooting to studying. He joined the beetle collecting craze in the late 1820s, and befriended several naturalists and botanists while in Cambridge. After graduating from Christ’s College, Darwin’s mentor, a professor of botany, recommended him for a position aboard the HMS Beagle. Thus, at the age of 22, Darwin took off on a five-year journey to sail around the world, an opportunity of a lifetime for a budding young naturalist. The experience on the HMS Beagle hugely affected Darwin’s view of natural history and planted the seed that budded into his revolutionary theory of the origins of life. During the course of the trip Darwin observed principles of botany, geology and zoology through hands-on research and experimentation, and he collected a wide array of natural specimens, including birds, plants and fossils. He took copious and meticulous notes about his observations and speculations and after returning to England, Darwin began to write about his findings. One of his most significant findings related to the finches on the Galapagos Islands, where he noted that lots of finches had different talents to take advantage of different resources on each island. Slight changes in beak size and structure, Darwin believed, had developed in each finch subspecies in order to reduce competition for the same resources and to increase the likelihood of survival. This observation, along with many more from around the world, and along with five years worth of natural history collections (especially fossils), led Darwin to the conclusion that populations (vegetable and animal) descend from earlier, more primitive forms, and evolve over the course of generations through a process called natural selection: the theory of evolution. Darwin’s theory, which was published in his famous book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, was a bold and radical idea that propelled the separation of religion and science. The theory of evolution claimed that all organisms competed for resources, and the ones with innate advantages would prosper and pass that advantage on to offspring. As this continued, the species would continue to improve and become better adapted for survival in their environment. Darwin’s theory of evolution brought man himself within the realm of natural science. He showed that humans are not outside of science looking in, but that we are part of it; that humans evolved not out of spiritual transfiguration, but out of biological survival. Thus, Adam and Eve were considered to be as true as Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel. Though Darwin’s ideas were liberating, they were also somewhat diminishing. In proving that man evolved from animals, mankind lost some if its special status in creation, and the universe no longer provided assurance of indefinite success for our species. This is partly why On the Origin of Species wasn’t actually published until 1859. Since, for a long time Darwin kept his theory of evolution to himself because he knew it would aggravate the Church and cause a storm even among some naturalists. By suggesting that humans evolved from lesser primates without divine intervention or the help of a masterful Creator, Darwin showed that man was a highly successful animal with an uncertain destiny, not God’s noble creation with a divine destiny or a higher purpose. Much as his progenitors (Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton) had done, Darwin proved the universe was a machine devoid of goals or purpose. This scientific liberation from theological dogma was a good thing for the advancement of science, but it also caused a sense of alienation for humans. Of course, that didn’t stop everyone from believing in divine creation. Though modern DNA studies support Darwin’s theory of evolution, the religious view that all nature is born of God (e.g. Creationism) still thrives today. And that’s okay, in fact, Darwin himself once said, “The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an agnostic.”
Sigmund Freud (6 May 1856 – 23 September 1939)
Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist and is known as the father of psychoanalysis. He was the oldest of eight children, born into a poor and struggling family. Freud was a caul birth, meaning a piece of membrane was covering the newborn’s head and face. This rare type of birth (occurring in less than 1 in 80,000 births) is harmless and was considered a good omen for Freud’s future. When he was nine Freud attended a prominent high school, Leopoldstädter Kommunal-Realgymnasium, where he was an outstanding, outgoing, and brilliant student. He loved literature and was proficient in German, French, Italian, Spanish, English, Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. Many biographers suggest Freud’s understanding of human psychology was derived from William Shakespeare’s plays, which he began reading at a young age and continued to read throughout his life. After graduating with honors at the age of 17, he entered the University of Vienna, where he planned to study law. Instead, he studied philosophy, physiology and zoology (under a Darwinist), and graduated with a medical degree (MD). At the age of 26, Freud began his medical career at the Vienna General Hospital, where he worked in various departments, including the psychiatric clinic and in a local asylum. He eventually quit working at the hospital and began a private practice specializing in nervous disorders. This is where he began experimenting with a method introduced to him by a colleague: where encouraging a hysterical patient to talk uninhibitedly about the earliest occurrences of their symptoms caused the symptoms to subside. Freud believed this worked because neuroses had their origins in traumatic experiences in a patient’s past, experiences that had been hidden from the patient’s consciousness. Much like an archaeologist digs for remnants of the distant past to reveal truths about earlier cultures, a psychoanalyst digs into a patient’s mind to reveal truths about past experiences. By recalling an experience that was buried in the unconscious mind, patient’s were able to intellectually and emotional confront it and empower themselves to release it. This method became known as depth psychology, what today is more commonly called psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is both a description of the human mind and a therapy for nervous and mental disorders. Considering himself more of a scientist than a doctor, he tried to empirically understand the journey of human knowledge and experience. He developed a model of the human mind that placed the conscious mind (everything we are aware of) at the tip of the iceberg, and the unconscious mind (the repository of primitive wishes and impulses kept at bay) at all the rest of the iceberg that we don’t see. Freud believed that dreams are ‘the royal road to the unconscious’, since much of our repressed material comes through to awareness in dreams. Of course, when our unconscious tries to communicate with our conscious it can come through in a rather distorted manner, which is why Freud believed there was a difference between the actual dream and the real meaning of the dream. Freud delivered impressive evidence of the wonders of the human mind and inspired artists, poets and painters alike, to exploit the power of the unconscious mind and dreams and to let words and images have free play. Further, since everyone dreams, and since a dream is a little work of art, there is essentially an artist in everyone! He wrote all about this in his book The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud was also largely influenced by Darwin’s work that outlined humankind as a progressive element of the animal kingdom, with basic biological and animalistic drives. Freud believed that the human psyche and unconscious forces that determined our behavior and conscious awareness were inherently biological and simply an innate part of the human species. On the one hand, Freud brought human consciousness under the light of rational investigation. He opened the mind’s character and internal dynamics, he revealed the mechanisms behind things like repression, resistance, and projection, and was able to unveil deep seeded psychological issues and truly help treat people’s neuroses. On the other hand, Freud continued Darwin’s journey toward expunging humans from their privileged cosmic status. As Darwin had shown that humans were the result of slow biological evolution, Freud showed that people’s actions were the result of animalistic urges. Not only were our bodies simply biological entities, among many, that evolved over time amidst many other similarly evolving animals, but our minds and psyche were motivated by powerful biological instincts. This suggested that the proud human virtues of moral consciousness and our religious feelings were no more than reaction formations and part of the delusion of the civilized ‘self’ concept. As man was unmasked as a creature of base instinct, and God was exposed as an infantile projection, our sense of personal freedom and superior place in the universe seemed more and more spurious. Freud said himself, “Religion is a system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality, such as we find nowhere else but in a state of blissful hallucinatory confusion. Religion’s eleventh commandment is “Thou shalt not question”.”
Nikola Tesla (10 July 1856 – 7 January 1943)
Nikola Tesla was a Serbian American inventor and engineer who helped shape the modern world. Tesla, born in modern-day Croatia, was the fourth of five children. He was born during a severe lightning storm, which the midwife thought was a bad omen, but Tesla’s mother saw as a good sign. His father was an Orthodox priest and writer and his mother crafted her own tools and appliances in her spare time. Tesla credited his mother’s genetics for his ability to recall images or objects after only a few minutes of exposure (eidetic or photographic memory). He spoke eight languages, could remember entire books and recite them at will, and could visualize complex devices in his head and build them without writing anything down. Though his father pushed Tesla to join the priesthood, Tesla’s interests were in the sciences. He studied at the Realschule Kalrstadt in Germany, the Polytechnic Institute in Austria, and the University of Prague. Eventually he moved to Budapest and worked for the Central Telephone Exchange. After futilely attempting to interest people in his idea for the induction motor, Tesla left Europe and moved to America in 1884 with nothing more than the clothes on his back. It was here, at the age of 28, that he began working for Thomas Edison. However, they parted ways after only a couple months due to conflicting business and scientific ideas and very different personalities: Edison was a power figure and Tesla was a somewhat meek and vulnerable fellow. Edison is typically credited for inventing the light bulb, but it was actually Tesla. After parting ways with Edison, Tesla received funding to start the Tesla Electric Light Company in 1885. When that flopped he receive more funding to start the Tesla Electric Company in 1887. It was at this time Tesla invented something that would change the world forever: the alternating current (AC) electrical system. In a time when most of the world was lit by candlelight, Tesla invented a system that now powers every home on the planet. However, the AC system was not adopted overnight. For several years where was a war of currents: on the AC side was Tesla, backed by George Westinghouse and on the DC (direct current) side was Thomas Edison. Eventually the AC side won, and Edison actually ended up pursuing AC development himself. In 1895 Tesla built the first AC hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls, which was used to power the city of Buffalo, New York. In addition to the AC system, Tesla discovered, designed, and developed numerous inventions. Most of these, owing to his somewhat meek and modest nature, were credited to and patented by other inventors. During World War I, when German U-boats frequently attacked the US, and eighteen years before Robert Watson-Watt was credited with the invention, Tesla pitched the idea of RADAR to the US Navy. He developed the idea for smartphone technology in 1901. Though Wilhelm Rontgen was credited with the discovery of X-rays, Tesla actually beat him to the punch. He also refused to conduct medical experiments because he thought X-rays could be dangerous. Tesla was experimenting with cryogenic engineering nearly 50 years before it was invented; was the first person to record radio waves from space; and he invented the remote control, neon lighting, the modern electric motor, and wireless communication. It was almost as if Tesla were from the future; inventing, discovering, and uncovering so many modern technologies that we take for granted today. Today Tesla would be rich and famous for all he did, but unfortunately for him, Tesla lived in a time when inventions and science needed to be practical, profitable, and immediate. Thus, he remained a fairly unnoticed character, a genius, but obscure nonetheless. Tesla was a scientist through and through though, and he really put himself out there for the sake of science. For instance, he invented a steam-powered mechanical oscillator that oscillated at such a frequency it shook entire buildings. This invention, Tesla mused, could vibrate the earth’s crust to such an extent that it could practically destroy civilization. Consequently, realizing the folly of such an invention, and after testing it in his own apartment, Tesla used a sledgehammer to ‘terminate’ the experiment just as police were arriving. Around 1900 Tesla became obsessed with the idea of wireless transmission of energy, and set out to build a global, wireless communication center for sharing information and providing free electricity across the globe. This project was well funded, including such investors as J.P. Morgan. Unfortunately, after building a massive transmission tower on Long Island, New York (called Wardenclyffe), Tesla’s investors began to doubt the feasibility of the project. Further, his rival, Gugliemo Marconi (who was financially supported by Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison) was making bigger and bolder advances with his own radio technologies. Tesla ended up having to abandon his project, the Wardenclyffe staff was laid off in 1906, the site was foreclosed in 1915, Tesla declared bankruptcy in 1917 and the tower was torn down and sold for scrap metal. Some would say that it was unfortunate and ironic that he ended up practically penniless and relatively anonymous. But Tesla himself once said, “The scientific man does not aim at an immediate result. He does not expect that his advanced ideas will be readily taken up. His work is like that of the planter – for the future. His duty is to lay the foundation for those who are to come, and point the way.”
Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955)
Albert Einstein was a German-born theoretical physicist who revolutionized the philosophy of science and developed a theory that remains to this day one of the two pillars of modern physics. Einstein was born and raised in Germany, where he didn’t learn to speak until he was three and was thought to be a slow and terrible student throughout his youth. His family moved to Italy when he was as a teenager and Einstein was expelled from school at the age of 16 for bad behavior. Eventually he gave up his German citizenship to avoid the military and enrolled in a college in Switzerland intended to churn out high school science teachers. He was a bright but not outstanding student and, rather than teach, which is what he wanted to do, Einstein ended up working in a Swiss patent office. Lucky for us, this somewhat boring job gave him a lot of time to think and develop his most famous theory, the theory of relativity, and the famous equation, E=mc2. In his profound yet simple equation, E stands for energy, m for mass, and c2 is the speed of light squared. The equation says that mass and energy have equivalence: energy is liberated matter; matter is energy waiting to happen. And, since the value of the speed of light times itself (c2) is an unimaginably huge number, the equation suggests there is an unimaginably huge amount of energy bound up in all material things. This equation helped explain how radiation worked, how stars could burn for billions of years without burning out, and solved some of the deepest mysteries of the universe. This equation was also part of the theory of relativity. The theory of relativity is actually two theories: special relativity and general relativity. Special relativity reconciled Newton’s laws of motion with laws of electrodynamics. It also showed that 1) the speed of light is always constant and light is made up of packets of energy called photons, 2) it is impossible to determine if you are moving without looking at another object, and 3) that space and time are two sides of the same coin – spacetime. Imagine, for example, that you are sitting in the exact middle of a train moving at almost the speed of light, and you release a light pulse in two directions: one toward the front of the train and one toward the back. Which reaches the edge of the train first? Turns out, the answer is it’s relative, because, though the speed of light is constant, one’s position in space (i.e. where you’re standing) can change your perception. To you, the light reaches both edges at the exact same time because you’re sitting in the middle of the moving train. But according to your friend who is watching the train from alongside the tracks, the light pulse moving toward the back of the train reaches the edge first. This is because from their perspective on the sidelines, the moving train catches up with the light pulse moving toward the back of the train. This seems contradictory, but according to special relativity, both you and your friend are right because space and time are interwoven. General relativity generalized special relativity and redefined the laws of gravity. According to general relativity, the observed gravitational attraction between masses results from the warping of space and time (spacetime) by those masses. The premise is that 1) light (and everything for that matter) travels along the shortest path between two points in spacetime, 2) if that shortest path is curved, then the path of light is curved, 3) large objects bend space, the way putting a baseball on a taut cotton sheet would cause the sheet to bend, and 4) gravity is the result of this curved (bent) spacetime. The larger the object, the more spacetime bends, and the stronger the gravity, like the difference in the ‘warping’ of the taut sheet by a baseball versus a bowling ball. Though Newton’s laws of gravitation worked well in everyday life and for weak gravitational forces, for very strong gravitational fields (like the Earth and the Sun), Newton’s laws were inadequate, and that’s where general relativity took over. For instance, the Earth doesn’t orbit the Sun because the sun is pulling on it (as Newton posited), but the Earth is just following the shortest path in spacetime, which is being warped by the huge mass of the Sun. This looks like gravity, but it’s actually more a matter of geometry. General relativity provided the foundation for our understating of black holes, where gravitational attraction is so strong that not even light can escape. Without the theory of general relativity, we wouldn’t have been able to explore outer space and we wouldn’t have global positioning system (GPS) satellites, and then how would you find your favorite restaurant? The theory of relativity completely changed the way we think about space, time and matter, and revolutionized the possibilities for science and technology … not bad for someone who was expelled from school and couldn’t get the job he wanted. Of course, Einstein himself once said, “Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.”
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