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Monday, June 19, 2017

The History of Science

Science and St Peter | Podcast | History Extra

"I volunteered to teach it because I thought I wanted to learn more about it. Which is sort of typical for an academic - that's the way you learn things...

Past scientists were not reached, reaching for the same goals that we were reaching, that we are reaching for, only not getting as close as we've come. But that they really had no idea of the kind of thing that can be learned about the world and the way to learn it. And I began to see the history of the science not as the accumulation of facts and theories about this and that but as the learning of a way of interacting with nature that leads to reliable knowledge. It surprised me how far the great natural scientists of the past were from anything like our present conception of science...

Copernicus did not base his theory about the earth going around the sun on his own observations or observations made by his contemporaries in Europe. He based it on the earlier work of the Greeks in particular Claudius Ptolemy who lived about one hundred and fifty AD and he saw that the things that were ugly about Ptolemy's theory could be rectified and made understandable and not artificial by just changing the point of view from a stationary earth to a stationary sun with the earth going around it... Copernicus made no significant observations of his own. He was relying completely on what Ptolemy had already done...

The Golden Age of Islamic Science was really pretty much over by eleven hundred... had Islamic Science simply run out of steam or was it somehow suppressed by changes in Islam? I don't know the answer but it's a similar question to the question about Greek science: did Greek science around the year four hundred or five hundred AD simply run out of steam or was it suppressed by the adoption of Christianity?...

[On Huygens's time] A large body of thought felt that science was a branch of mathematics and that its truths could be determined by purely mathematical reasoning. This goes way back to Plato who thought that it in order to do astronomy it wasn't necessary to look at the sky - pure reason was all you needed...

One of the reasons why the writing of science is legitimately different from say art history or even political history - we can't say with confidence that the Impressionists were right to abandon the photographic realism of the Romantic period or that the Norman conquest was a good thing. That kind of judgement is silly when you talk about the history of art or political history. On the other hand we can certainly say Newton was right and Descartes was wrong about that what keeps the planets going around the sun...

There is a definite sense of discovering right and wrong in science that doesn't exist so much in other areas and I think that's another point that science is not just an expression of a cultural mileu as some historians have argued and some sociologists of science have argued. Science is the discovery of truths that are out there to be discovered... I once was crass enough to say that the study of the history of science is the best antidote to the philosophy of science"
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