Who is this man with the wild white hair? Could he be an aging rock star? He’s not a famous musician, but he’s just as famous as many celebrities. His name is Albert Einstein, and he’s arguably the most important scientist of the 20th century. Einstein really shook up science with his discoveries in the early 1900s. That may sound like a long time ago, but in terms of the history of science, it’s as though it was only yesterday.
Evolution of Science
People have probably wondered about the natural world for as long as there have been people. So it’s no surprise that science has roots that go back thousands of years. Some of the earliest contributions to science were made by Greek philosophers more than two thousand years ago. It wasn’t until many centuries later, however, that the scientific method and experimentation were introduced. The dawn of modern science occurred even more recently. It is generally traced back to the scientific revolution, which took place in Europe starting in the 1500s.
In the Beginning
A Greek philosopher named Thales, who lived around 600 BCE, has been called the “father of science” for his ideas about the natural world. He proposed that natural events such as lightning and earthquakes have natural causes. Up until then, people understood such events to be the acts of gods or other supernatural forces.
Q: Why was Thales’ idea about natural causes such an important contribution to science?
A: Natural causes can be investigated and understood, whereas gods or other supernatural causes are “above nature” and not suitable for investigation.
Just a few hundred years after Thales, the Greek philosopher Aristotle made a very important contribution to science. You can see what Aristotle looked like in the Figure below. Prior to Aristotle, other philosophers believed that they could find the truth about the natural world by inward reflection—in other words, just by thinking about it. Aristotle, in contrast, thought that truth about the natural world could come only from observations of nature and inductive reasoning. He argued that knowledge of nature must be based on evidence and logic. This idea is called empiricism, and it is the basis of science today.
Aristotle introduced the idea of empiricism around 350 BCE. It is a hallmark of modern science.
Introducing the Scientific Method
In the first 1000 years CE, Europe went through a period called the Dark Ages. Science and learning in general were all but abandoned. However, in other parts of the world science flourished. During this period, some of the most important contributions to science were made by Persian scholars. For example, during the 700s CE, a Persian scientist named Geber introduced the scientific method and experimentation in chemistry. His ideas and methods were later adopted by European chemists. Today, Geber is known as the “father of chemistry.”
Modern Western Science Emerges
Starting in the mid-1500s, a scientific revolution occurred in Europe. This was the beginning of modern Western science. Many scientific advances were made during a period of just a couple of hundred years. The revolution in science began when Copernicus made the first convincing arguments that the sun—not Earth—is the center of what we now call the solar system. (You can see both models of the solar system in the Figure below.) This was a drastic shift in thinking about Earth’s place in the cosmos. Around 1600, the Italian scientist Galileo greatly improved the telescope, which had just been invented, and made many important discoveries in the field of astronomy. Some of Galileo’s observations provided additional evidence for Copernicus’ sun-centered solar system.
The model on the left shows what people believed about the solar system before Copernicus introduced the model on the right.
Q: Copernicus’ ideas about the solar system were so influential that the scientific revolution is sometimes called the “Copernican revolution.” Why do you think Copernicus’ ideas led to a revolution in science?
A: Copernicus’ ideas about the solar system are considered to be the starting point of modern astronomy. They changed how all future scientists interpreted observations in astronomy. They also led to a flurry of new scientific investigation. Other contributions to science that occurred during the scientific revolution include:
- Kepler’s laws of planetary motion
- Newton’s law of universal gravitation
- Newton’s three laws of motion
Einstein Rocks Science
Another major shift in science occurred with the work of Albert Einstein (the “rock star” scientist pictured in the opening image). In 1916, Einstein published his general theory of relativity. This theory relates matter and energy. It also explains gravity as a property of space and time (rather than a property of matter as Newton thought). Einstein’s theory has been supported by all evidence and observations to date, whereas Newton’s law of gravity does not apply to all cases. Einstein’s theory is still the accepted explanation for gravity today.
Q: How might Einstein’s theory have influenced the course of science?
A: Einstein’s theory suggested new areas of investigation. Many predictions based on the theory were later found to be true. For example, black holes in the universe were predicted by Einstein’s theory and later confirmed by scientific evidence.
- Science has roots that go back thousands of years to Greek philosophers including Thales and Aristotle.
- The scientific method was introduced in the 700s by a Persian scientist named Geber.
- Modern science began with the scientific revolution in Europe the 1500s and 1600s. The scientific revolution was launched by Copernicus’ new ideas about the solar system.
- In the early 1900s, Einstein rocked science with his theory of gravity, which explained the concept in an entirely new way.
- Why is Thales called the “father of science”?
- What is empiricism? Who “invented” this important idea?
- Describe Geber’s role in the history of science.
- Relate Copernicus’ ideas about the solar system to the scientific revolution.
- How did Einstein rock science?
Watch this video about the scientific revolution, and then answer the questions below.
- How did Newton prove his ideas about gravity?
- Why did Galileo get into trouble?
- Why were the late 1600s and the 1700s called the Age of Enlightenment?