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History of Science

 
 
Reply Mon 9 Feb, 2004 03:26 pm
Bubonic Plague Helpful to Physics/Math?

Well, here's a thread that might easily arouse no interest, but, since I'm interested, I'll give it a try. I don't see much in the history section about the history of science or mathematics, which is a great interest of mine.

Here's a question or issue. I think it's possible that if not for the bubonic plague, science and mathematics might have advanced much more slowly. The turning point in the history of science and mathematics was Newton. In his 20s, he pretty much invented physics by himself, he invented caculus, and pretty much invented infinite series. But he did most of this during the years 1665-1666 when Trinity College was closed for the plague. He went home to Woolsthorpe, the family farm, and devoted himself entirely to scientific investigations. This, I believe, is also when he claims to have been stimulated to discover the nature of gravity because of a falling apple. So, if there had been no plague and he had stayed at school, would the development of science and math have been a century or two behind, or would he have gotten the work done anyway? I think the chance of anyone else coming up with the same body of work at that time is somewhere between slim and none.

I'm not really looking for a specific answer, but just any discussion in the same area.
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Type: Discussion • Score: 1 • Views: 2,048 • Replies: 16
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dlowan
 
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Reply Mon 9 Feb, 2004 03:32 pm
Interesting! be back later...
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Asherman
 
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Reply Mon 9 Feb, 2004 04:30 pm
The Plague is one of the watershed events in Western Civilization. It was the final straw in bringing down the feudal system that had frozen Europe into near intellectual stasis for a thousand years. The depopulation of large parts of Europe released vast amounts of wealth on one hand, and a grave uncertainty of the future on the other. Labor began to have value beyond mere duty to one's lords, both secular and divine. The rennaisance was a time not only of creative innovation, it was a time when invention was encouraged by need to deal with drastically altered circumstance.

The Plague first appeared in Italy, and then over time spread across most of Europe. The religious foundations of society, which were already being tested about the time The Plague appeared, shook under the strain. The invention of movable type and the first substitutions of local languages for Latin, sparked a rise in literacy. Ideas that had previously been suppressed by religious dogma could be expressed and communicated much more easily. People increasingly looked at the world as a place that might be known and understood apart from the religious model. These were tumultuous years when orthodoxy struggled to contain and defeat ideas that challenged the medieval notions of natural law. These were the wars of Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Princes consolidated their positions as national monarchs by being able to afford the new gunpowder weapons, and by riding the chaos of religious revolt to ever greater heights of power.

The Plague and the events spawned by it lasted a very long time. For hundreds of years there were sporatic outbreaks of the Plague, one of the last major outbreaks being in 17th century England. Over on the Continent, what we think of as modern science was already well underway. Newton was only one of many significant mathematicians working at the time. The idea that the Earth was not the center of the Universe had found an audience despite the Church's attempt to suppress it. The idea of cateloging and categorizing things that were directly observed was born. As great as Newton was, he was neither alone nor ignorant of scientific and mathematical thinking of the time.

So, to your "question" ... Yes, I believe that The Plague was a significant event that ultimately resulted in the rise of the Scientific Method. Newton was a very bright boy, a creative mind that was an ornament to his time. He was not, however, the only person responsible for the advance of science during the 17th century. Who can say with certainty what would have happened if Newton had died of something or other in childhood? My guess is that the trends already in place would have led some other equally endowed person to the same insights into the natural order.
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Setanta
 
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Reply Mon 9 Feb, 2004 04:39 pm
Additionally, the depopulation and the concommitant value of individual labor lead to the rebirth of the ideals of primitive democratic equaltiy which had been a part of our ancestors' (those of us of European descent) tribal values. Before the fourteenth century, the "masterless man" was an outlaw who hid in forest or fen, and in desparation preyed upon those weaker than himself. Immediately after the devastating first appearance of the plague (which is now believed to have been a pandemic of both pneumonic and bubonic plauges), the Jaquerie rose in France, although in a sufficiently inchoate manner that it simply turned into an ugly slaughter of peasants. In England, in 1381, the peasants rose against enforced servitude. A clerk (cleric, meant the same thing in those days) by the name of John Ball articulated the basic greivance with a clever phrase which could both be understood by the illiterate peasant, and repeated by them: "When Adam dolve, and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" Like all such spontaneous risings, they looked for leadership, and the man on horseback on this occasion was Wat Tyler. However, Tyler was more than a little naive, so that when an offer was made to negotiate with Richard II, the then boy king (14 years of age at the time, i believe), Tyler and his closest associates agreed to a meeting, and the King's advisors bagged him and all of the other "ringleaders" in an hours work. Change was nevertheless not to be denied, as Wycliffe's vernacular bible spread to peasants previously ignorant of that text, and a sellers' market in labor assured even the unskilled a chance at employment as a "free man" if they could escape their manor house moving fast enough and far enough.
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Brandon9000
 
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Reply Mon 9 Feb, 2004 07:44 pm
Two fascinating responses. However, Asherman, I must suggest that you are underestimating Newton. He was, as you say, certainly not ignorant of the mathematics of the time, having learned all of it as his first step. But the first paper that he submitted to the new Royal society may have been the first scientific paper in the modern sense, consisting mostly of numbered diagrams, experimental description, and deductions, as opposed to the vague, verbal arguments, often invoking the diety, that preceeded it. An example would be Robert Hooke's "Micrographia," which contained such imprecise and poorly reasoned conclusions on the nature of light as, "That all kinds of fiery burning bodies have their parts in motion will, I think be very easily granted me." Not only was Newton's paper a scientific paper in the modern sense, and entirely correct in all conclusions, but he immediately realized that telescopes often show colored fringes around the periphery of the image because to focus all wavelengths together, the lenses would have to be ground in the shape of parabolas, rather than sections of spheres, and, so, set about designing a telescope without lenses, and promptly invented the reflecting telescope. Concerning mechanics, consider the preceeding work of Galileo and Kepler. Galileo had recorded the acceleration of balls rolling down inclined planes and falling from heights, but declined to interpret his results. Kepler had come up with his laws of planetary motion over many years by studying experimental data, but had no theoretical basis for them. Newton explained and derived both results from a general, mathematical theory. Because he could then set himself problems for which no really adequate mathematics existed, he invented calculus. Concerning infinite series, Descartes had concluded that Man would never be able to contemplate any mathematics of the infinite, since he, himself was finite, whereas Newton worked out the properties of infinite series as little more than a personal warm-up exercise. Newton was the first person to realize or prove that gravitation was an inverse square law force. Also, Newton's "Principia" is widely considered to be the foremost scientific paper in history. I believe that an investigation of the state of mathematics and particularly science as he found it, and as he had changed it before he was 30, will demonstrate that he was a personal turning point in the history of Man's comprehension of the universe.
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Asherman
 
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Reply Mon 9 Feb, 2004 07:52 pm
I don't believe that I undervalue Newton, but was concerned that you over value him.
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Brandon9000
 
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Reply Mon 9 Feb, 2004 07:55 pm
Asherman wrote:
I don't believe that I undervalue Newton, but was concerned that you over value him.

Well, it's not often that I find anyone even interested in discussing these things, and I'm grateful to find people willing to play with these ideas.
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joefromchicago
 
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Reply Tue 10 Feb, 2004 07:33 pm
Well, it's certainly wrong to suggest that no one would have come up with calculus if Newton hadn't: Leibniz came up with calculus at about the same time as Newton.

That doesn't mean that Newton wasn't a pivotal figure in the history of science. Certainly the Principia was a monumental achievement. But even Newton realized that he was building on the work of previous scientists, stating: "if I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." The work of those scientists in optics, physics, and other fields was available to all; Newton was simply the first to put it all together.

As for the ramifications of the plague, it's an interesting notion. Others, when faced with some type of enforced isolation, often do their best work. Sir Walter Raleigh wrote his "History of the World" while imprisoned in the Tower of London. Hugo Grotius wrote his influential treatise on Dutch law while imprisoned by his political enemies. French historians Fernand Braudel and Marc Bloch both wrote some of their most enduring works while in POW camps.

But to say that the plague was somehow responsible for Newton's discoveries is an example of reductionist thinking. It is similar to the "nail theory" of history ("for want of a nail . . . the kingdom was lost"), where big events are traced back to their tiniest origins. This type of linear approach to historical causation is, to say the least, simplistic, and ignores too much that also occurred.

Had there been no plague, we can speculate on the possibility of a Newtonian revolution; but then, we can make the same speculation about anything in Newton's life. For instance, if he had been a happily married bourgeois gentleman, instead of a life-long unmarried virgin, would he have written the Principia? And if his virginal life liberated him from mundane concerns and thus gave him the freedom to make his scientific discoveries, could we not, with equal justification, say that a girl who dumped him when he was a teenager led directly to the theory of gravity?
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Joe Nation
 
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Reply Tue 10 Feb, 2004 07:49 pm
I would add only that due to the plagues of Europe, the paper makers suddenly had an ample supply of the one ingredient for making quality paper that had previously been in short supply ---- rags.

Knowledge Web---
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Walter Hinteler
 
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Reply Wed 11 Feb, 2004 02:28 am
Newton really was one of the greatest scientists in history - how would we call him, if he hadn't just reshuffled ideas that he had had in Cambridge, when he moved to London?
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Brandon9000
 
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Reply Wed 11 Feb, 2004 01:48 pm
joefromchicago wrote:
But to say that the plague was somehow responsible for Newton's discoveries is an example of reductionist thinking.

Great post. Of course, Newton himself was responsible for his discoveries, but the absence of the year or two of enforced isolation might well have impacted his career. To be really frank, though, I just dreamt up the concept because I wanted to start a history of science thread.
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Walter Hinteler
 
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Reply Wed 11 Feb, 2004 02:07 pm
Richard Hooker wrote an online article about the "The Scientific Revolution" (part of 'The European Enlightenment'), which be of some interest regarding other sciences at that time - e.g. "The most exciting of the new sciences, however, was electricity. In 1672, Otto von Guericke, was the first human to knowingly generate electricity using a machine".

The website is to be found HERE
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Brandon9000
 
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Reply Wed 11 Feb, 2004 03:14 pm
I hadn't known that or heard of Otto von Guericke. Here's what I found on the Web:

"In 1660, Otto von Guericke invented a machine that produced static electricity, this was the first electric generator. Otto von Guericke's generator was described as large sulfur ball mounted on a pole inside a glass globe. The sulfur ball was rotated by a hand crank. The rotating ball rubbed against a pad generating static electricity sparks, however, Otto von Guericke had no idea what the sparks were. His device was used for early experiments with electricity."

I hadn't known there was much preceding the discovery of Leyden jars in the 18th century. And, of course, another milestone was the work of Michael Faraday, who discovered the rules of electromagnetism, and invented the modern electric generator and motor.

After that, generalizing slightly from electricity to electromagnetic waves, I'd put James Clerk Maxwell, who worked out the theory of electromagnetism, and next Marconi and DeForest who harnessed Maxwell's waves for the purpose of radio communication.
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Walter Hinteler
 
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Reply Wed 11 Feb, 2004 03:26 pm
To be a little bit more precise:

In 1650 Guericke invented the air pump, which he used to create a partial vacuum. His studies revealed that light travels through a vacuum but sound does not. In 1654, in a famous series of experiments that were performed before Emperor Ferdinand III at Regensburg, Guericke placed two copper bowls (Magdeburg hemispheres) together to form a hollow sphere about 35.5 cm (14 inches) in diameter. After hehad removed the air from the sphere, horses were unable to pull the bowls apart, even though they were held together only by the air around them. Thus the tremendous force that air pressure exerts was first demonstrated.

In 1663 he invented the first electric generator, which produced static electricity by applying friction against a revolving ball of sulfur. In 1672 he discovered that the electricity thus produced could cause the surface of the sulfur ball to glow; hence he became the first man to view electroluminescence. Guericke also studied astronomy andpredicted that comets would return regularly from outer space.
(from Britannica)

Certainly because Guerike was German, we were taught that in physic classes at school.
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Brandon9000
 
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Reply Tue 24 Feb, 2004 11:04 am
Most Unappreciated Scientist Award

I have become aware that the British physicist Oliver Heaviside, who never attended college, was responsible for casting Maxwell's equations in the form in which we know them today, and for making many other important contributions to science and technology. He was generally not very recognized for his contributions, and died an impoverished, and possibly mad, hermit. Among his main contributions were:

1. Converted Maxwell's equations to modern form so that they could be understood and used. Greatly simplified Maxwell's 20 equations in 20 variables, replacing them by two equations in two variables using vector calculus, at a time when vectors were not yet even completely accepted.
2. Determined principles for transmission lines and coined the terms inductance, capacitance, and impedance.
3. Developed the modern standard method of using phasor analysis for electricity and electromagnetism.
4. Predicted the existence of the ionosphere.
5. Credited with discovering how to solve differential equations by the use of Fourier and LaPlace transforms.

One honor he did attain was to be granted membership in The Royal Society, but generally, he does not have name recognition commensurate with his achievements.
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Brandon9000
 
  1  
Reply Tue 23 Mar, 2004 10:15 am
Great Moments in Science
Great Moments in Science

"I deduced that the forces which keep the planets in their orbs must be reciprocally as the squares of their distances from the centres about which they revolve, and thereby compared the force requisite to keep the moon in her orb with the force of gravity at the surface of the earth and found them to answer pretty nearly."

- Sir Isaac Newton
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Thok
 
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Reply Sat 3 Apr, 2004 01:55 am
A german website: www.sciencetunnel.de
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