World-renowned wheelchair driver and astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking, recently held the first of this year’s BBC Reith Lectures. This prompted the following tweet from Roger Highfield, science writer and director of external affairs at the Science Museum Group:
If Hawking could time travel, he would like to meet Galileo – ‘founder of modern science’ and ‘a bit of a rebel’ #Reith
Philip Ball, science writer, responded:
Though certainly not, as Hawking claimed, “the first to challenge Aristotle”…
To which I added:
Also not the founder of modern science.
Tom Levenson, another science writer, contributed:
Probably kicked his dog and stiffed his waiter too.
Roger Highfield reacted to this exchange thus:
This moderately amusing, or not depending on you point of view, exchange on Twitter prompted Ángel Lamuño, Philosophy & Theology Follower of Bernard J. F. Lonergan SJ (self description), to pose the following question to me:
Who is (are) the founder(s) of modern science?
This whole rather trivial exchange contains several worrying aspects for historians of science, starting with Hawking’s original utterance. This is by no means the first time that Hawking has made such statements in public and in fact I quote one such in my take down of the founder of modern science and similar claims about Galileo – Extracting the stopper – that I wrote more than five years ago and which I’m not going to repeat here. The real problem is here that whatever Hawking’s merits as an astro-physicist he is not a historian of science and this is reflected in the naivety of his history of science comments that are almost invariably false. The problem is that Hawking because of his physical disability has become the most famous scientist in the world instantly recognised and admired whenever he appears in public. Whenever he makes a comment about the history of science then the majority of his audience, who don’t know better, immediately believe him because it’s ‘Stephen Hawking’! People believe Hawking because of who he is and not because his facts are correct, they aren’t. The irony of this situation is that what we have here is knowledge by authority, exactly the non-scientific epistemology that the scholastics supposedly practiced and which Galileo is said to have swept away, making him in Hawking’s words ‘the founder of modern science’.
Equally worrying is Ángel Lamuño’s question, [if Galileo isn’t the founder of modern science] “who is (are) the founder(s) of modern science?” This question is, in my opinion, based on a widespread misconception as to how science has evolved (developed, if you don’t like the word evolved). The misconception is supported in a vast number of texts, many of them written by highly respected historians of science but I think, in the meantime, rejected by a substantial part of the history of science community.
This misconception, or rather set of misconceptions, is that somehow major changes in the history of science are caused by one driving force in mainstream scientific thought and/or brought about by one heroic individual.
The traditional story that I grew up with was that the scientific revolution came about because science became quantified or mathematized when Neo-Platonism replaced Aristotelian scholasticism as the dominant philosophy in Europe. This is, however, not the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus of the third century CE but a Pythagorean Neo-Platonism. This theory was mainly propagated by philosophers. Mathematic historians however challenged this theory accepting that the scientific revolution was a mathematization of science but that this was brought about by an Archimedean renaissance beginning in the fourteenth century. Others have noted that the period also saw both a Euclidean and a Ptolemaic renaissance leading to increases in mathematical activity.
A different popular version of the story is that the scientific revolution was driven by the astronomical revolution brought about singlehandedly by Copernicus publishing his De revolutionibus in 1543. This is somewhat undermined by two facts. Firstly Copernicus’ work is only part of a general reform of astronomy carried out by a fairly large number of astronomers beginning with the first Viennese School of Mathematics in the fifteenth century. Secondly the so-called scientific revolution consists of far more than just astronomy.
There are theories that the astronomical revolution was driven by the renaissance in mathematical cartography sparked by the rediscovery of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia in 1406, alternatively by an attempt to put astrology on a solid empirical footing. At least one Arabic author has argued, with more than a little justification, that the astronomical revolution owes much more to the preceding Islamic astronomy than is usual credited. Another group of historians see the roots of the astronomical revolution in a shift in basic philosophy but not in a Neo-Platonic renaissance but in a Stoic one in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Another theory sees the scientific revolution being the rise in empirical experimental science, which has its roots in alchemy. An alternative explanation for this rise lies in the development of modern gunpowder based warfare and empirical studies of gunnery. Some see the rise of modern warfare as the driving force behind mathematical cartography, itself the driving force behind astronomical reform.
The above are some, but by no means all, of the theories that have been put forward to explain the emergence of modern science in the early modern period. So which one is the correct one? The answer is, all of them! The emergence of modern science was not caused by one single thing but by a whole range of activities, discoveries, renaissances as well as economic and socio-political developments. As historians we have a strong tendency to oversimplify, to want to find the ‘one’ cause for a given historical development, whereas in fact that development is almost inevitably the result of the interaction of a complex web of causes and it is often very difficult to weight the respective contributions of the individual causes. The mono-causal explanation only occurs if the researcher views the development from one standpoint whilst actively or passively ignoring all other possible standpoints. The same is true of the attribution of the titles ‘father of’ or ‘founder of’ to individuals. If you follow the link above to my earlier post about Galileo you will see how I show that he was only one of several, and sometimes many, making positive contributions to the fields in which he was active in the early seventeenth century and to raise him up on a pedestal is to deny due credit to the others and thus to falsify history. One can do the same with any of the other so-called ‘heroes’ of science, as I did fairly recently with exaggerated claims, contained in a book’s subtitle, for Johannes Kepler.
To repeat my central mantra as a historian of science, the evolution of science is driven by multiple complexly intertwined causes and is realised by the collective efforts of, often large, groups of researches and not by exceptional individuals. One day I hope that people will stop making the sort of statements that Stephen Hawking made, and which sparked off this post, but if I’m honest I’m not holding my breath whilst I wait.