Origin of Science

I am a scientist, not unlike many other scientists who DO science in our desks or out in the field. We often think about solving our research problem. So much so that we rarely think about how did science originate. And by rare, I mean almost never. I urge you to ask yourself, did you think about how science came about in the last month? How about the last year?

The origin of science has a great story. And that story starts the way all great stories do, with “once upon a time”. Once upon a time, when humans acquired the ability to think and to imagine collectively, since then they have tried to understand the nature. They have tried to explain the natural phenomena. It was a continuous process, which eventually led us to our current understanding of science. Can you guess what’s the first step of the process? The answer is Story telling.

Humans didn’t have computers or internet until the last century. Thousands of years ago, the main source of entertainment to our ancestors was sitting around the fire, looking at the stars, and listening to stories. Obviously, the best stories were those that had a powerful hero or those that were connected to nature, stories that claimed to explain storms, earthquakes, mountains, and birth-life-and-death. Popular stories were retold, by one to others, from one generation to the next. Stories change when we retell them. Heroes of those stories were eventually made god and the stories themselves turned into legends. If you watched the first five minutes of “Lord of the Rings”, you have heard Cate Blanchett narrating, “History became legend, legend became myth”.

Some stories remain stories, but some of the great stories became the first religions; not very different than what we have today, but less organized; let’s call them prehistoric religions. Many we forgot. Some recent stories survived, we call them myth or mythology. These stories always attempted to solve the riddle presented by nature. Nature was indeed extremely mysterious to them. Try to think from their perspective. Something bizarre is going on all the time. For example, suddenly the whole sky gets lit and someone roars loudly; sometimes there is water coming down from the sky; trees or crops were coming up from the ground; the sun plays hide and seek in a routinely manner, but sometimes inexplicably, it gets devoured. Fascinating and weird!

They couldn’t write it down, couldn’t document anything. They didn’t have the instrument to measure anything and compare notes with others. They only told stories, there was no other alternative. They told stories with the explanations that came to them most easily. The only seemingly acceptable solution was – someone is doing it. Some entity, who is so powerful and so secretive, someone who is only revealed in his or her works. Every phenomena had a God behind it. Take any myth you want, I will show you a god or goddess for fertility and thunder. In Greek, Demeter and Zeus; In Egyptian, Amun or Isis and Seth; In Roman, Venus and Jupiter, In Hinduism, Aditi and Indra, respectively.

The story of science gets divided from here. Some held these stories more aggressively and became full-fledged religion. But in ancient Greece, some thought these stories are nonsense. They sought a better way. They argued that everything deserves a new way of explanation. It is by shattering those stories, philosophy was born.

According to Aristotle, Thales was the first philosopher, around 2600 years ago. But one man was more important to philosophy than anyone else, Socrates. Before him, the new way of thinking was haphazard. He gave it the base on which we still stand. Which is why often Socrates is called the first philosopher. The other thinkers before him are called Sophists. He tolerated enormous pain because of his ideas. But the fire he stared, still burns. That’s the main reason Socrates is still revered.

Philosophy and religion—both wanted to explain nature. But the difference is while religion emphasized into organization, creating strict rules for people to maintain, grasping old stories and took them as never changing scripts, philosophy emphasized into finding loopholes. Religion was more popular among common people. Philosophy was a tool only available to a few. But philosophy became really powerful too. Because, the flag of philosophy was carried by some of the finest minds of their time–Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and more. Religion focused on belief, Philosophy focused on the love for wisdom. It is no surprise that the word philosophy literally means love for wisdom. In addition, it is easy to understand that Science found its way in ancient Greece.

It is that love that made some as skeptics, and voila, let there be science. In a way, science is a modified version of philosophy that is more rigorously skeptic. Science borrowed the idea of developing hypothesis from philosophy, but focused on testing that hypothesis. The modern principles of science were established in a place that seems unlikely now – ancient Iraq. The five principles that ensures the success of science (credit: Cosmos, A Space-Time Odyssey) are….
(1) Question authority.
(2) Think for yourself. Question yourself. Do not believe anything just because you want to.
(3) Test ideas by the evidence gained from observation and experiment. If a favorite idea fails a well-designed test, it is wrong.
(4) Follow the evidence wherever it leads. If you have no evidence, reserve judgment.
(5) Remember: you could be wrong.

Science is that process–a process that leads to an answer, in the most skeptic way.

Famous astronomer and science educator Dr. Carl Sagan said it beautifully–“Science is much more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which ones best match the facts. It urges on us a fine balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything — new ideas and established wisdom.”

I see science as a search for truth, a practice of skepticism, a promise to not declare anything without knowing, and a journey to make us more and more able to reduce error in our knowledge.

I hope this origin story helped.

P.S. I wish to write a book about science–its history and nature. This passage is a draft preface for that book.


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