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European Discoveries and Science

In her book Shores of Knowledge, historian Joyce Appleby (1929-2016), former president of the American Historical Association, described Europe's voyages to the New World as having unintended consequences. The voyages were made in hope of accumulating wealth and perhaps secondarily to save the souls of heathen peoples. An unintended consequence was the additional interest in worldly and scientific matters to what had been already developed in Europe.

According to Appleby, the awareness of new peoples and cultures, new animals and plants, stimulated curiosities among Europeans. Appleby wrote of "isolation and religious disapproval [having] curtailed curiosity for over a millennium." She wrote of the curiosity of children having been dulled by explanations such as "God willed it so." And she wrote of the influential bishop, Augustine of Hippo (354-430), having denied any value in probing into the nature of things.

A lot of work at measuring things (science) had been done by the time of Columbus's first voyage. There had been Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) who had studied many fields of natural science and had written on subjects ranging from geography to botany. At the time of Columbus's first Atlantic crossing there was Copernicus as a student at Krakow University learning from his teachers the math and astronomy that would contribute to his theory (published in 1543) that the Sun rather than the Earth was at the center of the universe.

With voyages to the New World, Europeans became more aware of other peoples and what for them was new plant life and animals. Objects brought back to Europe from the New World began filling cabinets and display cases: butterflies, leaves, and animal fossils. Nature was instructing curious Europeans, and comparisons between Old World and New World specimens would stimulate investigations. Awe of mysteries was beginning a retreat, and a new inquisitiveness about matters knowable was on the rise. A new era of science was about to begin. In England in the late 1500s until 1626, Francis Bacon was teaching and writing, earning the accolade father of empiricism. His combination of skepticism and observation would develop beyond his lifetime and be called the scientific methodology.

Mechanical inventions had made sailing the oceans possible, and messing with the mechanics of material objects would contribute more to science. A spectacles maker in the Netherlands, experimenting with several lenses in a tube, discovers that nearby objects appear greatly enlarged. The modern microscope was born. and around the year 1608, in Holland, the telescope was invented – a tube with a convex lens at one end and a concave lens on the other. A scientist named Galilei Galileo, from Pisa Italy, heard about the invention, and in 1609 he made his own telescope, with a magnifying power of eight. In 1610, with his telescope he discovered the moons of Jupiter, and soon afterward he found spots on the sun and the hills and valleys on the surface of the moon. Galileo was to remain a man of religious faith, a Christian and a member of the Roman Catholic Church, but his ability to see where others could not got him into trouble with the Church, which put its ideology ahead of empirical discovery.

Some credit can be given to Muslim work in optics. The geometry they developed to interpret the behavior of light rays was the foundation upon which Galileo mathematized uniform and uniformly accelerated motion.

Galileo had demonstrable evidence that Copernicus had been correct. In 1616 the Church included Copernicus on its index of forbidden writing. And in 1616 the Inquisition accused Galileo of having violated the ruling by the Church and ordered that he refrain from "teaching or discussing" Copernicanism in any way. Galileo recanted his beliefs. His sentence of imprisonment was changed to banishment. He was ordered to recite once a week for three years the seven Penitential Psalms, and he remained confined to his estate just outside Florence, where he lived until his death in 1642.

In England in the early 1600s, William Harvey was taking advantage of improved visuals concerning the human body, provided by cutting up dead bodies. In 1628 his empirical endeavour resulted in his publishing a treatise on the circulation blood – rejected by the many physicians who had not been looking but thought they knew otherwise. Harvey's scientific mindset also made him an opponent of accusations of witchcraft.

Another Englishman, Robert Boyle (1627-91), with careful observation and experimentation elevated chemistry above the alchemy popular in his time.

Examining materiality became still more intense in the 1670s when a Dutchman using a microscope discovered micro-organisms. Humanity learned of an on-going war of survival between people and living things that couldn't be seen by the naked eye but were not spiritual. Many were to combine their knowledge of micro-organisms with their fear of the devil, but putting the devil aside and being aware of micro-organisms spreading disease inspired greater material cleanliness. Hospital floors had been covered with sawdust to soak up blood and other matter, and doctors had not been washing their hands and passing diseases from patient to patient. Twenty-five to thirty percent of British women giving birth had been dying. Typhus, a disease spread by lice bites, was killing many. So too were the diseases known as measles, smallpox and respiratory tuberculosis. (People had not been living long enough for a higher percentage of deaths from cancer and heart degeneration that would come with older age in the 20th and 21st centuries.) An awareness of these diseases would help the war against them.

Another Englishman who was among those who immersed himself in the world of observation and measurement was Isaac Newton (1642-1727). He was influenced by the development of mechanical devices in Europe. Halfway through his undergraduate years he adopted a mechanistic view of the workings of nature, against the rival notion of divine magic. Newton adopted the belief that matter was made up of tiny particles – an atomic theory similar to that of Democritus of ancient Greece. He saw light as a continuous ray that moved with speed. He pondered the question why the moon does not fly out of orbit. He found a mathematical formula that kept in balance two forces: a gravitational pull of the moon toward the earth and inertia, which would have the moon moving in a straight line. Newton concluded that the force of gravity between two bodies was relative to the differences in mass of those bodies reduced by the square of the distance between those two bodies. Newton would be known as having discovered gravity. Newton's theory about the universe included an explanation about objects moving with inertia and objects striking each other with equal force. To a few interested in physics the secrets of the universe appeared to have been unlocked. A contemporary poet, Alexander Pope, wrote:

Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night: God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light

Into the 1700s a new age was on its way, to be called the Age of Enlightenment. The belief in empiricism and reason was accompanied by a confidence in humanity's ability to reason, to rise above the old dogmas and make the world new. It was a view of humanity moving into modernity, but like everything humanity did it would be a move that included imperfections.

PLEASE CONTINUE: the Enlightenment

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Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.