A Little History of Science

A Little History of Science

WILLIAM BYNUM
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt32bh50
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  • Book Info
    A Little History of Science
    Book Description:

    Science is fantastic. It tells us about the infinite reaches of space, the tiniest living organism, the human body, the history of Earth. People have always been doing science because they have always wanted to make sense of the world and harness its power. From ancient Greek philosophers through Einstein and Watson and Crick to the computer-assisted scientists of today, men and women have wondered, examined, experimented, calculated, and sometimes made discoveries so earthshaking that people understood the world-or themselves-in an entirely new way.

    This inviting book tells a great adventure story: the history of science. It takes readers to the stars through the telescope, as the sun replaces the earth at the center of our universe. It delves beneath the surface of the planet, charts the evolution of chemistry's periodic table, introduces the physics that explain electricity, gravity, and the structure of atoms. It recounts the scientific quest that revealed the DNA molecule and opened unimagined new vistas for exploration.

    Emphasizing surprising and personal stories of scientists both famous and unsung,A Little History of Sciencetraces the march of science through the centuries. The book opens a window on the exciting and unpredictable nature of scientific activity and describes the uproar that may ensue when scientific findings challenge established ideas. With delightful illustrations and a warm, accessible style, this is a volume for young and old to treasure together.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18942-1
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. CHAPTER 1 In the Beginning
    (pp. 1-5)

    Science is special. It’s the best way we have of finding out about the world and everything in it – and that includes us.

    People have been asking questions about what they have seen around them for thousands of years. The answers they have come up with have changed a lot. So has science itself. Science is dynamic, building upon the ideas and discoveries which one generation passes on to the next, as well as making huge leaps forward when completely new discoveries are made. What hasn’t changed is the curiosity, imagination and intelligence of those doing science. We might...

  4. CHAPTER 2 Needles and Numbers
    (pp. 6-13)

    Keep on travelling eastwards from Babylon and Egypt and you’ll find lands where ancient civilisations flourished on either side of the rocky Himalayas, in India and China. Some 5,000 years ago people were living there in towns and cities ranged along the Indus and Yellow River valleys. In those days, India and China were both immense territories, even larger than they are today. Both were part of vast overland and overseas trading networks – channelled along the spice routes – and their people had developed writing and science to a high level. The one helped the other: science benefited trade,...

  5. CHAPTER 3 Atoms and the Void
    (pp. 14-18)

    In about 454 BC, the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 485–425 BC) visited Egypt. Just like us, he was astonished by the Pyramids, and by the gigantic statues – sixty feet tall – at Thebes further up the Nile. He could not quite believe just how old everything was. Egypt’s glory had passed and it had already long ago been overrun by the Persians. Herodotus was living in a much younger, more vigorous society that was still on the up, and one that would conquer Egypt a century later under Alexander the Great (356–323 BC).

    By Herodotus’s time, people...

  6. CHAPTER 4 The Father of Medicine: Hippocrates
    (pp. 19-23)

    The next time you have to see the doctor, ask if he or she took the Hippocratic Oath at their graduation ceremony. Not all modern medical schools require their students to recite it, but some do, and this oath, written more than 2,000 years ago, has something to say to us still. We shall see what that is shortly.

    Even though Hippocrates’ name is attached to this famous oath, he probably didn’t write it. In fact, he wrote only a few of the sixty or so treatises (short books on specific topics) that bear his name. We know only a...

  7. CHAPTER 5 ‘The Master of Those Who Know’: Aristotle
    (pp. 24-29)

    ‘All men by nature desire to know,’ said Aristotle. You have probably met someone like this, always keen to learn more. Perhaps you’ve also come across know-it-alls who have lost the curiosity that always remained important to Aristotle. His hopeful view was that people will strive for knowledge about themselves and the world. We know, unfortunately, that this isn’t always the case.

    Aristotle spent his whole life learning and teaching. He was born in 384 BC, in Stagira, Thrace (now Khalkidhiki in Greece). He was the son of a doctor, but from the age of about ten, he was looked...

  8. CHAPTER 6 The Emperor’s Doctor: Galen
    (pp. 30-34)

    Galen (129–c. 210) was very clever and was not afraid to say so. He scribbled constantly, and his writings are full of his own opinions and accomplishments. More of his words survive than those of any other author from ancient times, which proves that people valued Galen’s works very highly. There are twenty fat volumes that you can read, and he actually wrote many more. So we know more about Galen than we do about most other ancient thinkers. It doesn’t hurt that Galen also adored writing about himself.

    Galen was born in Pergamum, now part of Turkey but...

  9. CHAPTER 7 Science in Islam
    (pp. 35-38)

    Galen did not live to see the decline of the Roman Empire, but by AD 307 it had been split in two. The new emperor, Constantine (280–337), moved his seat of power to the east – to Constantinople, now Istanbul in modern Turkey. There he would be nearer to the eastern part of the Empire, lands that we now call the Middle East. The learning and wisdom contained in the Greek and Latin manuscripts, as well as the scholars who were able to study them, began to move eastwards.

    A new religion arose in the Middle East: Islam, which...

  10. CHAPTER 8 Out of the Darkness
    (pp. 39-43)

    We expect scientists to be trying to discover new things, and for science to be constantly changing. But what would science be like if we thought that everything had already been discovered? Being a top scientist might then involve just reading about other people’s discoveries.

    In Europe, this backward-looking view became the norm after the fall of the Roman Empire in AD 476. By then, Christianity had become the official religion of the Empire (Constantine had been the first emperor to convert to Christianity), and only one book mattered: the Bible. St Augustine (354–430), one of the most influential...

  11. CHAPTER 9 Searching for the Philosopher’s Stone
    (pp. 44-49)

    If you could turn your aluminium Coca-Cola can into gold, would you? You probably would, but if everybody could do it, it wouldn’t be quite so amazing, since gold would become common and not worth much. The old Greek myth of King Midas, who was granted his wish that everything he touched would turn to gold, reminds us that he wasn’t being very clever. He couldn’t even eat his breakfast, since his bread became gold as soon as he touched it!

    King Midas was not alone in thinking that gold is special. Humans have always valued it, partly because of...

  12. CHAPTER 10 Uncovering the Human Body
    (pp. 50-55)

    If you want to really understand how something is made, it is often a good idea to take it apart, piece by piece. With some things, like watches and cars, it helps if you also know how to put them back together again. If what you want to understand is a human or an animal body, it has to be dead before you start, but the goal is the same.

    Galen, as we know, dissected – took apart – many animals, because he couldn’t dissect any humans. He assumed that the anatomy of pigs or monkeys was pretty much like...

  13. CHAPTER 11 Where is the Centre of the Universe?
    (pp. 56-61)

    Every morning, the sun rises in the east, and every evening, it sets in the west. We can see it slowly move throughout the day, with our shadows long or short, in front or behind, depending on where the sun is. Try the experiment at midday, and see your shadow tuck up under you. Nothing could be so obvious, and since it happens every day, if you miss it today you can catch the show tomorrow.

    The sun doesn’t go around the earth each day, of course. You can understand how difficult it would be to convince people that what...

  14. CHAPTER 12 Leaning Towers and Telescopes: Galileo
    (pp. 62-67)

    One of the strangest buildings in the world must be the 850-year-old bell tower of the cathedral in the city of Pisa in Italy. You may know it as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It’s fun to take photographs of a friend in front of it pretending to hold the tilting tower from falling. There are also stories about how Galileo used the tower to perform his own experiments – dropping two balls of different weights from the top to see which would land first. In fact, Galileo didn’t use the tower, but he did other experiments that showed him...

  15. CHAPTER 13 Round and Round: Harvey
    (pp. 68-73)

    The words ‘cycle’ and ‘circulation’ are both based on the original Latin word for ‘circle’. Going through a cycle, or circulating, means you just keep moving and eventually come back to where you started from, without necessarily noticing you are back at the beginning. There are not many perfect circles in nature, but there is a lot of circulation. The earth circles around the sun. Water circulates by evaporating from the earth and falling again as rain. Many birds migrate long distances each year, then return to the same area to breed and start their yearly cycle over again. Indeed,...

  16. CHAPTER 14 Knowledge is Power: Bacon and Descartes
    (pp. 74-80)

    In the century between Copernicus and Galileo, science had turned the world upside down. The earth was no longer at the centre of the universe, and new discoveries in anatomy, physiology, chemistry and physics reminded people that the Ancients did not know everything after all. There was a lot out there still to be discovered.

    People also started thinking about science itself. What was the best way to do it? How could we be sure that new discoveries were accurate? And how could we use science to improve our comfort, health and happiness? Two individuals in particular thought deeply about...

  17. CHAPTER 15 The ‘New Chemistry’
    (pp. 81-86)

    If you have a chemistry set then you may already know about litmus paper. These small strips of special paper can tell you whether a solution is acid or alkaline. If you stir some vinegar in water (making it acidic) and dip in the blue paper, it will turn red. If you try it with bleach (which is alkaline), the red paper will turn blue. Next time you use a piece of litmus paper, think of Robert Boyle, for he created the test more than 300 years ago.

    Boyle (1627–91) was born into a large aristocratic family in Ireland....

  18. CHAPTER 16 What Goes Up …: Newton
    (pp. 87-93)

    I doubt if you have ever met anyone as smart as Isaac Newton – I haven’t. You might have met people as unpleasant as he was. He disliked most people, had temper tantrums, and thought that almost everybody was out to get him. He was secretive, vain and would forget to eat his meals. He had lots of other disagreeable characteristics, but hewasclever, and it’s the cleverness that we remember today, even if it’s quite hard to understand what he thought and wrote.

    Isaac Newton (1642–1727) might have been disagreeable no matter what had happened to him,...

  19. CHAPTER 17 Bright Sparks
    (pp. 94-99)

    Have you ever wondered exactly what a flash of lightning is, and why a rumble of thunder follows? Violent displays of thunder and lightning happen high up in the sky, and are pretty dramatic, even if you know what causes them. Just as bolts of lightning always seek earth, by the early eighteenth century scientists had started to puzzle over this and about electricity much closer to home.

    Another puzzle was over what came to be known as magnetism. The ancient Greeks knew that if you rub amber (a yellowish semi-precious stone) very hard, it attracts small nearby objects to...

  20. CHAPTER 18 The Clockwork Universe
    (pp. 100-106)

    The American Revolution (also known as the American War of Independence) in 1776, the French Revolution in 1789, and the Russian Revolution in 1917 each swiftly brought about new forms of government and a new social order. There was also a Newtonian Revolution. Fewer people have heard of the Newtonian Revolution, but it was just as important, and although it took decades rather than years to work its effect, its consequences were profound. The Newtonian Revolution described the world in which we live.

    After he died in 1727, Sir Isaac continued to be a towering figure in the eighteenth century....

  21. CHAPTER 19 Ordering the World
    (pp. 107-112)

    Our planet is home to a bewildering variety of plants and animals. We still don’t know exactly how many insects or sea creatures there are. We rightly worry that the human race is reducing their number. ‘Endangered species’, such as giant pandas and Indian tigers, are in the news almost every day. For us as concerned human beings, the important word in ‘endangered species’ is>endangered, but for scientists, an equally significant word isspecies. How do we know that the giant panda is not the same kind of animal as the grizzly bear, or the wildcat different from the...

  22. CHAPTER 20 Airs and Gases
    (pp. 113-119)

    ‘Air’ is a very old word. The word ‘gas’ is much newer, only a few hundred years old, and the shift from air to gases was crucial. For the ancient Greeks, air was one of the four fundamental elements, just one ‘thing’. But Robert Boyle’s experiments in the seventeenth century had challenged this view, and scientists had come to realise that the air that surrounds us, and that we all breathe, is made up of more than one substance. From then on it was much easier to understand what was happening in many chemical experiments. Lots of experiments produced something...

  23. CHAPTER 21 Tiny Pieces of Matter
    (pp. 120-126)

    Atoms used to have a pretty bad name. Remember the ancient Greeks with their notion of atoms as part of a universe that was random and without purpose? So how is it that for us today, being made up of atoms seems so natural?

    The modern ‘atom’ was the brainchild of a thoroughly respectable Quaker, John Dalton (1766–1844). A weaver’s son, he went to a good school near where he was born, in the English Lake District. He was especially skilled in mathematics and science, and a famous blind mathematician encouraged his scientific ambitions. Dalton settled in nearby Manchester,...

  24. CHAPTER 22 Forces, Fields and Magnetism
    (pp. 127-132)

    Dalton’s atom helped create modern chemistry, but there were other ways of looking at atoms. For a start, they could do much more than just combine to make compounds. Atoms don’t simply enter into chemical reactions. Both Davy and Berzelius had cleverly used the fact that atoms in a solution can be attracted to the positive or negative poles if an electric current is passed through the solution: atoms were part of ‘electricity’, too. In a solution of seawater, why would the sodium migrate to the negative pole, and the chlorine to the positive?

    Such questions were hotly debated in...

  25. CHAPTER 23 Digging Up Dinosaurs
    (pp. 133-138)

    When I was very young, I had problems telling the difference between dinosaurs and dragons. In pictures, they often look alike, with huge teeth, powerful jaws, scaly skin and evil eyes, and they are sometimes shown attacking some other creature around them. Both kinds of creatures are clearly the sort that it is best to avoid.

    There is a significant difference between dinosaurs and dragons, however. Dragons appear in Greek myths, legends about England’s King Arthur, Chinese New Year parades, and in many dramas throughout human history. But even if their power is such that they still feature in stories...

  26. CHAPTER 24 The History of Our Planet
    (pp. 139-145)

    Uncovering the bones of ancient beasts is only part of the story. Walking in the country, you must have noticed that a valley often has a river or stream running down the middle of it. Hills and mountains, too, will surround the valleys. In some parts of the world, say, the Alps of Switzerland, it is striking how the mountains are very high and the valleys are very deep.

    How were the earth’s features formed? Mountains and valleys could not have always been the way they are now, since the landscape is changed every year by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, rivers...

  27. CHAPTER 25 The Greatest Show on Earth
    (pp. 146-153)

    Go for a walk in the countryside and you will find yourself among trees, flowers, mammals, birds and insects that belong in your part of the world. Go to a zoo and you will find exotic plants and animals from far away. Go to a natural history museum and there will be fossils, perhaps giant dinosaur skeletons, that are millions of years old. The person who taught us how all these living and fossil species are actually related was a quiet, modest man named Charles Darwin (1809–82). He changed the way we think about ourselves.

    Carl Linnaeus (Chapter 19)...

  28. CHAPTER 26 Little Boxes of Life
    (pp. 154-160)

    There are things we simply cannot see or hear. Many stars are beyond our gaze, and we can’t see atoms, or even the tiny creatures that teem in puddles of rainwater. We can’t hear sounds that many birds or mice can. But we can still learn about them, asking questions and using instruments that let us see or hear far better than with our eyes and ears alone. Just as telescopes let us see further into space, microscopes help us see further into the tiny building-blocks of living creatures.

    In the seventeenth century, the pioneer of microbiology, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek,...

  29. CHAPTER 27 Coughs, Sneezes and Diseases
    (pp. 161-168)

    If we have a runny nose, a cough or a stomach upset, we often say we havecaughta bug or a virus, by which we mean some kind of germ. The notion of ‘catching’ something is so natural to us that it is hard to realise how amazing it was when someone came up with a theory that diseases can be caused by germs. Centuries before, doctors had explained that the ills people suffered were due to internal changes in the humours. Even more recently, doctors knew they could blame a bad constitution (we might say ‘bad genes’), or...

  30. CHAPTER 28 Engines and Energy
    (pp. 169-174)

    ‘I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have – power.’ The engineer Matthew Boulton (1728–1809) knew what he was talking about. In the 1770s Boulton and other ambitious men, such as the inventor James Watt (1736–1819), were using steam engines in mining and manufacturing. They seemed to have tamed energy, or power. These men drove forward the Industrial Revolution in Britain, the first country to industrialise and to develop the factory system. It was a revolution driven by scientific advances, and relied on huge increases in power to manufacture goods at great speed and transport...

  31. CHAPTER 29 Tabling the Elements
    (pp. 175-181)

    Every time we mix ingredients to bake something, we are using chemical reactions. The fizzing as we descale our kettles is chemistry at work for us. The plastic water bottles we carry, the coloured clothes we wear, are possible because of chemical knowledge gained over hundreds of years.

    Chemistry became modern in the nineteenth century. Let’s recap a little. At the beginning of the century, chemists embraced Dalton’s original idea of the atom, as you read in Chapter 21. Then they made great strides in creating a special language that they would all understand, whatever country they came from. They...

  32. CHAPTER 30 Into the Atom
    (pp. 182-188)

    The chemists liked the atom. It was what entered into chemical reactions. It had definite positions within compounds. It had properties that were roughly defined by its place on the periodic table. Each atom had its tendency to be either negative or positive in its relationships with other atoms, and to have the joining patterns called valence. Chemists also appreciated the difference between a single atom and the grouping of atoms into molecules (collections of atoms bound together). They realised that whereas most were happy to exist as single atoms, some atoms – hydrogen and oxygen, for instance – naturally...

  33. CHAPTER 31 Radioactivity
    (pp. 189-195)

    Have you ever broken a bone, or swallowed something by mistake? If so, the chances are you had an X-ray so a doctor could see inside your body without having to open it up. X-rays are routine today. At the end of the nineteenth century, they were a sensation. X-rays were the first kind of radiation to be harnessed, even before the meaning of radiation was properly understood. Radioactivity and atomic bombs came later.

    In Germany, X-rays are still sometimes called ‘Röntgen rays’, after Wilhelm Röntgen (1845–1923). He was not the first to have seen their power, but he...

  34. CHAPTER 32 The Game-Changer: Einstein
    (pp. 196-202)

    Albert Einstein (1879–1955) is famous for his shock of white hair and his theories about matter, energy, space and time. And the equationE = mc2. His ideas might be frighteningly hard to understand, but they changed the way we think about the universe. He was once asked what his laboratory looked like. By way of answer, he whipped out his fountain pen from his pocket. This was because Einstein was a thinker, not a doer. He worked at a desk or chalkboard rather than the laboratory bench.

    Still, he needed the kind of information that could be gained...

  35. CHAPTER 33 Moving Continents
    (pp. 203-208)

    Earthquakes are deadly and terrifying. Deadly because of the wholesale destruction they cause, terrifying because the earth should not move beneath our feet. And yet it does, all the time, if mostly unseen and unfelt. Like so much of science, understanding the earth’s structure is about measuring the unseen, unfelt part – and convincing others that you’re right. The continents and ocean floorsdomove beneath us.

    What we experience of the earth’s history in our lives is a tiny snapshot, the smallest of moments in a very long process. Geologists have scientific techniques, but they must also use their...

  36. CHAPTER 34 What Do We Inherit?
    (pp. 209-216)

    Who do you look most like – mum or dad? Or perhaps a grandfather or aunt? If you are good at football or play the guitar or flute very well, does someone else in your family have these characteristics too? It has to be someone you are biologically related to and from whom you could have inherited these things, not just a relative by marriage, like a stepmother or stepfather. These relatives can do wonderful things for you, but you cannot inherit any of their genes.

    We know now that things like the colour of our eyes or hair are...

  37. CHAPTER 35 Where Did We Come From?
    (pp. 217-223)

    Today we know that we share 98 per cent of our genome with our closest animal relatives, the chimpanzees. That’s an awful lot of similarity, but there are some crucial differences. While chimps do communicate they don’t talk together as humans do. And we can read and write. Take a step back and we find that humans and chimpanzees, together with the gorillas and orang-utans, make up the family ofHominidae, often known as the ‘great apes’. We humans are less closely related to gorillas and orang-utans, but at some point in the past all four of these groups shared...

  38. CHAPTER 36 Wonder Drugs
    (pp. 224-230)

    There may be five million trillion trillion bacteria on earth. That’s 5 × 10³⁰ or 5 with thirty noughts after it – an astounding number. Bacteria can live almost anywhere on earth: in the soil, the oceans, deep underground on rocks, in Arctic ice, in the boiling water of geysers, on our skin and inside our bodies. Bacteria do all sorts of useful things – without them what would happen to all the rubbish they digest? We benefit from that digesting trick too. The bacteria that live in our guts help us break down the food we eat to release...

  39. CHAPTER 37 Building Blocks
    (pp. 231-236)

    As time went on, scientists tended to specialise in their chosen fields. Still, biologists traditionally did biology, chemists did chemistry and physicists did physics. So what was happening in the 1930s, when first chemists, and then physicists, decided it was time for them to take on the problems of biology? Chemistry was about how substances combine and react. But it was becoming clear that living organisms – the biologists’ subject – were made up of some of the elements of the chemists’ periodic table, such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. Physics was about matter and energy, which by this...

  40. CHAPTER 38 Reading ‘the Book of Life’: The Human Genome Project
    (pp. 237-242)

    Humans have about 22,000 genes (the exact number is history in the making). How do we know this? Because scientists in laboratories all over the world collaborated on the Human Genome Project. This hugely ambitious project counted our genes by using DNA sequencing, and answered a question left hanging when Crick and Watson revealed the structure of DNA. The ‘sequencing’ meant the position, on the chromosomes, of every one of the three billion ‘base pairs’ of molecules that make up our genome. That’s an awful lot of molecules of adenine and thymine, cytosine and guanine arranged in their double helix...

  41. CHAPTER 39 The Big Bang
    (pp. 243-250)

    If a film of the history of the universe had been made, what would happen if you ran it backwards? At about five billion years ago our planet would disappear, for this is when it probably formed, from the debris of our solar system. Keep going back to the beginning and what happened then? The Big Bang: an explosion so powerful that its temperature and force are still being felt some 13.8 billion years later.

    At least this is what scientists from the 1940s began to suggest with increasing confidence. The universe had begun from a point, an unimaginably hot,...

  42. CHAPTER 40 Science in Our Digital Age
    (pp. 251-256)

    The next time you switch on your computer, you probably won’t ‘compute’. You might look up something, email your friends, or check the latest football score. But computers were originally machines that could only compute – calculate – things faster or more accurately than our brains can.

    We think of computers as cutting-edge technology, but the idea of the computer is very old. In the nineteenth century, a British mathematician, Charles Babbage (1792–1871), devised a calculating machine that could be ‘programmed’ to do tricks. For instance, he could set it up to count by single numbers to 1,000,000, and...

  43. Index
    (pp. 257-264)