Larry Moran at Sandwalk recently drew attention to a co-operation between New Scientist and the London Science Museum in which they presented Ten Scientific Objects that changed the World and invited the general public to vote on which one they think is the most important. Larry very correctly pointed out that none of the objects were actually scientific in the strict sense but were actually at best science based or aided technology. Spurred on by this list I present my own list of what I considered to be the ten most important achievements in the history of science. My list would appear to favour the mathematical sciences, which might have something to do with my being a historian of such but I think it reflects the fact that as ‘sciences’ the mathematical disciplines have been around longer than the others.
1) The concept of mathematical proof traditionally attributed to Thales but this is probably more mythical than factual. The concept was developed in the Greek area of influence sometime in the fifth or sixth century BCE.
2) Axiomatic system as presented in the Elements of Euclid approx. 400 BCE.
3) The invention of formal logic and argumentations theory in general by Aristotle in the fourth century BCE
4) Ptolemaeus’ Syntaxis Mathematiké (Almagest) approx. 150 CE which stands as representative for the whole development of mathematical astronomy by the Greeks.
5) The Hindu-Arabic decimal place value number system about 600 CE. To quote Laplace,
“It is India that gave us the ingenious method of expressing all numbers by means of ten symbols, each symbol receiving a value of position as well as an absolute value; a profound and important idea which appears so simple to us now that we ignore its true merit. But its very simplicity and the great ease which it has lent to computations put our arithmetic in the first rank of useful inventions; and we shall appreciate the grandeur of the achievement the more when we remember that it escaped the genius of Archimedes and Apollonius, two of the greatest men produced by antiquity.”
6) Kepler’s Epitome Copernicanae 1617-1621 which stands as representative for the introduction of heliocentric astronomy. It was Kepler rather than Copernicus who formed the concept of the universe that we have today.
7) Newton’s Principia, 1687 which stands as representative for the foundation of the modern physical sciences by Galileo, Descartes, Huygens etc.
8 ) The works of John Ray and Carl Linné in laying the foundations of the modern life sciences in the 18th century.
9) Lavoisier’s Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, 1789 the foundation stone of modern chemistry.
10) Darwin’s The Origin of Species 1859, requires no comments!
One might ask why nothing more recent than Darwin? Why no Einstein, DNA, computer etc.? I would answer that although these are great scientific achievements they were all carried out within an already existing framework that had been established by those milestones mention above.
A second objection might be that my list is totally Euro-centric. This is indeed the case however although I have a deep respect for the scientific achievements of the Chinese, Indian and Islamic cultures I don’t think that they contributed any of the fundamental building blocks that constitute the foundations of modern science with the obvious exception of the decimal number system that I have included. Of course there many other things before 1900 that I might have justifiably included but I restricted myself to ten.
If you disagree with my choices and you almost certainly will make your own alternative suggestions in the comments