Posts Tagged ‘History of Science’

We Think, Therefore Not Straight

May 13, 2017

In the history of science, and even mathematics, crazy theories which prove correct, and theories long considered correct, which prove crazily idiotic, are legions. To wit:

(I) Anaximander and other Greeks, more than 25 centuries ago, viewed evolution, and selection, natural or artificial, to be a given, amply demonstrated experimentally. Later Christian Jihadists burned all books and intellectuals, to erase the theory of evolution, from the collective psyche. Actually the Christian fanatics erased science, and even the will to knowledge, outside of a few crazed fascist intellectual books. (Paradoxically, some intelligent scholars, hiding from the prying eyes of the Jihadists, in the depth of monasteries, succeeded to save around 150 works of antiquity… Another ten survived through Persia and the Arab occupiers… Many works were saved as a single copy, for example Lucrecius’ De Natura Rerum, the single solitary surviving Roman work summarizing Greek science as a poem; it was found deep in a Frankish monastery by the Popes’ secretary, in the late Middle Ages; many copies were immediately made…)

(II) Theorems of Non-Euclidean geometry both hyperbolic and elliptic were known before Aristotle. However, a century later, Euclid erased the very notion of Non-Euclidean geometry, in the name of simplemindedness. If not self-glorification.

(III) Aristotle, a very valuable scientist in biology, rolled out a completely idiotic theory of force and motion. Neglecting friction, he considered that, to maintain a motion, one needed a constantly applied force. As Aristotle was pro-monarchy, and monarchs and other plutocrats were the force behind Christian theocracy, Aristotle was saved, reproduced and celebrated. Thus this erroneous physics held sway until Buridan (circa 1350 CE). Curiously, Aristotle was aware of the necessity of the experimental method in biology: he sent his students to make a catalog of living species. Fossils of dinosaurs caused great perplexity, which would last until Cuvier (see below). A meteor which landed in Northern Greece and was visited for centuries demonstrated there were space rocks zooming in the heavens. 

(IV)  The Atomic Theory and its constantly moving atoms was viewed as proven 2,000 years ago. Because what is now called “Brownian Motion” was claimed to have been observed repeatedly in peculiar lighting conditions. It’s now considered they didn’t interpret correctly what they saw. It’s not because we see it, that we really understand it.

The earliest stages of the Universe, according to, and before the Big Bang, are what set up the initial conditions that everything we see today has evolved from. Image credit: E. Siegel, with images derived from ESA/Planck and the DoE/NASA/ NSF interagency task force on CMB research.
We see it, we interpret it, but that does not mean we got it right.

(V) Archimedes accomplished at least one infinitesimal calculus computation, using the correct, ultra-modern method. That was lost, until resurrected by Fermat, 19 centuries later.

(VI) Aristarchus rolled out the heliocentric theory. The ensuing debate is now lost (see Christian fanatics above).

(VII) Ptolemy and Al. came out with a crazy theory of the Solar System, and discreetly cheated to impose it. (Count Tycho discovered the cheating 15 centuries later.) The natural theory was the heliocentric theory, be it only because the Sun was known to be pretty far, and it made no sense it would go that fast around, being obviously much bigger.

(VIII) Buridan introduced “impetus”, inertia, and the notion that, without force applied, an object would go either straight or keep on going around (planet, satellites). Buridan, head of the university, adviser to four French kings, could afford to contradict Aristotle. Buridan discovered much physics later attributed to Newton, born three centuries after. Not only did Buridan anticipate General Relativity, but his treatment of the Cretan Paradox was new, and modern. More than a century after Buridan’s death, the fanatical Catholic Church condemned his entire works, under the penalty of death. However, Buridan’s work stayed a mandatory part of the curriculum in Poland/Ukraine, where Copernicus went to school. Abbot Copernicus, having been taught Buridan’s heliocentric theory as a teenager, regurgitated it carefully on his deathbed. In 1600, the Vatican burned alive Giordano Bruno, an astronomer, after torturing him seven years, for suggesting the possibility of exoplanets and little green men.  

(IX) Laplace, before 1800, suggested a theory of the Solar System and galaxy formation by the flattening, under conservation of angular momentum, of vast dust clouds. This theory was considered completely false later. Instead astronomers prefer to think a passing star had torn material away from the Sun, and the debris created the Solar System.

(IX) The Cretan paradox was refurbished and digitalized by a number of mathematicians, in the 20 C, including Kurt Goedel, and made very clear and rigorous. This demonstrated the incompleteness of standard arithmetic containing logic. Shattering the illusions of Hilbert and most mathematicians.

(X) After 1950, Robinson and Al., using Model Theory, built non-standard arithmetic, by uncovering an axiom implicit in Archimedes (see above). This enabled to make Leibniz’s long derided “infinitesimal calculus” with real, number-like infinitesimals, rigorous. 250 years after Bishop Berkeley had made fun of it.

(XI) In the same 1950s, new evidence surfaced that, after all, Laplace was right, and galaxies and solar systems formed from collapse of gas clouds. 

(XII) Huygens, paid by France’s Louis XIV, suggested the wave theory of light. He was disproven by Newton’s particle theory of light, before being proven right by Young, an MD, around 1800, thanks to the latter’s discovery of the 2-slit experiment. A century later, Einstein scrambled the whole thing with (what I view as) poorly considered statements, in the photoelectric paper which earned him the Nobel Prize. Those indigestible ideas led straight to the Multiverse madness, in my opinion.

(XIII) Last, not least: biology research professors Lamarck and Cuvier suggested antinomic theories of evolution, circa 1800. One believed in intelligent evolution, the other in catastrophic evolution. They really didn’t like each other, although they worked in the same prestigious institution. Cuvier, member of the French Academy was really abusive to Lamarck after his death (so was Napoleon, face to face; Lamarck was hated by Christian fanatics, because he replaced the intelligence of God by intelligent animal evolution). Both Cuvier and Lamarck were made fun of later, and rolled out as bad scientists doing bad science (never mind that they had also made colossal, uncontroversial discoveries!) However, not only Lamarck and Cuvier have now been demonstrated to be more important biologists than Darwin, but, surprisingly enough, their antinomic theories of evolution have also turned out to be correct! (How correct is a matter of research!)

The evolution of science is the evolution of thinking. Nothing straightforward about it!

It goes without saying that the same twists and turns apply in all the fields of knowledge and wisdom civilizations ever had to consider.

Patrice Ayme’