Science: An Elementary Teacher’s Guide/History and methods of Western science

Introduction: History and methods of Western Science


Imagine a group of vikings sailing the oceans when out of no where day turns to night and the sun vanishes. Imagine the fear of not understanding where the sun went. They start to pray, yell, dance or other perform other rituals to make the sun come back; and it does. They cheer as the sun appears believing that what ever ritual they did or god they invoked was the cause of the sun's return. Of course now we know that the cause of the sun's disappearance was caused by a solar eclipse. The ancients saw nature's phenomenoms as mysterious and explained their occurrence as acts of the gods.

Science In Early Cultures


The history of science in early cultures refers to the study of protoscience in ancient history, prior to the development of science in the Middle Ages. In prehistoric times, advice and knowledge was passed from generation to generation in an oral tradition. The development of writing enabled knowledge to be stored and communicated across generations with much greater fidelity. Combined with the development of agriculture, which allowed for a surplus of food, it became possible for early civilizations to develop and more time to be devoted to tasks other than survival, such as the search for knowledge for knowledge's sake.

Ancient Near East

Mesopotamia From their beginnings in Iraq around 3500 BC, the Mesopotamian peoples began to attempt to record some observations of the world with extremely thorough numerical data. But their observations and measurements were seemingly taken for purposes other than for scientific laws. A concrete instance of Pythagoras' law was recorded as early as the 18th century BC—the Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet Plimpton 322 records a number of Pythagorean triplets (3,4,5) (5,12,13) ..., dated 1900 BC, possibly millennia before Pythagoras, but an abstract formulation of the Pythagorean theorem was not.

A giant Hubble mosaic of the Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant

Astronomy is a science that lends itself to the recording and study of observations: the vigorous notings of the motions of the stars, planets, and the moon are left on thousands of clay tablets created by scribes. Even today, astronomical periods identified by Mesopotamian scientists are still widely used in Western calendars: the solar year, the lunar month, the seven-day week. Using these data they developed arithmetical methods to compute the changing length of daylight in the course of the year and to predict the appearances and disappearances of the Moon and planets and eclipses of the Sun and Moon. Only a few astronomers' names are known, such as that of Kidinnu, a Chaldean astronomer and mathematician who was contemporary with the Greek astronomers. Kiddinu's value for the solar year is in use for today's calendars. Astronomy and astrology were considered to be the same thing, as evidenced by the practice of this science in Babylonia by priests.

Egypt In ancient Egypt significant advances included astronomy, mathematics and medicine. Their geometry was a necessary outgrowth of surveying to preserve the layout and ownership of farmland, which was flooded annually by the Nile river. The 3-4-5 right triangle and other rules of thumb served to represent rectilinear structures including their post and lintel architecture. Egypt was also a center of alchemical research for much of the western world. Egyptian hieroglyphs, a phonetic writing system, have served as the basis for the Egyptian Phoenician alphabet from which the later Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Cyrillic alphabets were derived. The city of Alexandria retained preeminence with its library, which was damaged by fire when it fell under Roman rule, being completely destroyed before 642. With it a huge amount of antique literature and knowledge was lost.

Plates vi & vii of the Edwin Smith Papyrus at the Rare Book Room

The Edwin Smith papyrus is one of the first medical documents still extant, and perhaps the earliest document that attempts to describe and analyse the brain: it might be seen as the very beginnings of modern neuroscience. However, while Egyptian medicine had some effective practices, it was not without its ineffective and sometimes harmful practices. Medical historians believe that ancient Egyptian pharmacology, for example, was largely ineffective. Nevertheless, it applies the following components: examination, diagnosis, treatment and prognosis, to the treatment of disease, which display strong parallels to the basic empirical method of science and according to G. E. R. Lloyd played a significant role in the development of this methodology. The Ebers papyrus (c. 1550 BC) also contains evidence of traditional empiricism.

Persia Great attention was given to mathematics and astronomy during the Sassanid period (226 to 652 AD). The Academy of Gundishapur is a prominent example in this regard. Astronomical tables such as the Shahryar Tables—date to this period, and Sassanid observatories were later imitated by Muslim astronomers and astrologers of the Islamic period. In the mid-Sassanid era, an influx of knowledge came to Persia from the West in the form of views and traditions of Greece which, following the spread of Christianity, accompanied Syriac (the official language of Christians[citation needed] as well as the Iranian Nestorians). The Christian schools in Iran have produced great scientists such as Nersi, Farhad, and Marabai. Also, a book was left by Paulus Persa, head of the Iranian Department of Logic and Philosophy of Aristotle, written in Syriac and dictated to Sassanid King Anushiravan.

A fortunate incident for pre-Islamic Iranian science during the Sassanid period was the arrival of eight great scholars from the Hellenistic civilization, who sought refuge in Persia from persecution by the Roman Emperor Justinian. These men were the followers of the Neoplatonic school. King Anushiravan had many discussions with these men and especially with the man named Priscianus. A summary of these discussions was compiled in a book entitled Solution to the Problems of Khosrow, the King of Persia, which is now in the Saint Germain Library in Paris. These discussions touched on several subjects, such as philosophy, physiology, metabolisms, and natural science as astronomy. After the establishment of Umayyad and Abbasid states, many Iranian scholars were sent to the capitals of these Islamic dynasties.

Science In the Middle Ages


European science in the Middle Ages comprised the study of nature, mathematics and natural philosophy in medieval Europe. Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the decline in knowledge of Greek, Christian Western Europe was cut off from an important source of ancient learning.

Science In the Modern Times




Tectonic plate hypothesis



Newtonian Physics: For objects governed by classical mechanics, if the present state is known, it is possible to predict how it will move in the future (determinism), and how it has moved in the past (reversibility).

Theory of Relativity





Theory of Evolution

Modern science: What's changing?

When Gregor Mendel began his investigations of plant genetics in the 1800s, he worked alone — a middle-aged European monk counting peas in the abbey garden. One hundred and fifty years later, modern plant genetics laboratories, like Chelsea Specht's below, look a lot more diverse and employ the latest DNA sequencing techniques. When J.J. Thomson discovered a new particle of matter — the electron — at the turn of the century, his lab equipment mainly consisted of vacuum tubes, magnets, and some simple wiring. One hundred years later, scientists searching for new particles like the Higgs boson use a supercollider — a 17-mile-long machine that costs several billion dollars and will produce data to be analyzed by the most powerful supercomputer in the world. Science has come a long way in the last 150 years! We now have more powerful data analysis techniques, more sophisticated equipment for making observations and running experiments, and a much greater breadth and depth of scientific knowledge. And as the attitudes of the broader society have progressed, science has benefited from the expanding diversity of perspectives offered by its participants. But what about the process of science itself? Has this fundamental aspect of the scientific enterprise changed over time?

Science will always look for explanations for what goes on in the natural world and test those explanations against evidence from the natural world — but exactly how this gets done may evolve. The scientific enterprise is not static. Science is deeply interwoven with society, and as it has changed, so too has science. Here are just a few examples of how modern scientific practices have been transformed by increasing knowledge, changing societal concerns, and advances in communication and technology.

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