Founders of science?

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.



Filed under Myths of Science

31 responses to “Founders of science?

  1. moroes

    It’s a great and informative post and while I agree with everything said, I don’t think that joking vis a vis of someone’s physical infirmity really helps in popularising these ideas. Other than that I always enjoy your posts.

    • I’m not joking. Stephen Hawking is more famous for him physical infirmity than for his work in science, something that has enormous impact on how people value his statements. This should not be the case but unfortunately it is.

      • guthrie

        He did become famous many years ago for writing a book for a more general audience about physics. I don’t think he had any fame before that, outside his specific professional circle. Once the book became a bestseller though, new opportunities beckoned.
        So perhaps now you can say he is famous for being wheelchair bound, simply as a result of the changing culture. BUt originally he became famous for actually doing something a bit more useful.

        (I read the book at school, can’t recall much. Someone I know said recently they read it a few years ago and found it made a lot of things make a lot of sense, which inclines me to believe that Hawking did actually do a decent job of writing a popular book about his specialist subject. Still doesn’t excuse him saying silly things about history of science though)

  2. Another effect of the “founders” myth is more subtle; the implicit assumption that all thinking everywhere suddenly changes as soon a correct characterization is published. In the real world there are always competing and contradictory explanations which resolve themselves sometimes over a very long time — sometimes centuries.

  3. I’m in general sympathy with your point against ascribing important discoveries to individuals, but how you come down on the issue depends on your perspective. Specifically, your conclusions depend critically on whether you are an ornithologist or a bird. David Wooton makes the important point in his recent book that assigning credit to individuals is an defining feature of how science came to operate as it developed over the 16th and 17th Centuries. It may be lousy history to give credit to individuals for innovations, but getting credit for them is a fundamental motivator of research, perhaps even a sine qua non. “Priority” is a structural feature of science in practice; and scientists will lie, cheat, and steal to get their paper out first. Having recognized priority is like holding a patent. States issues patents for the furtherance of trade, not because law courts always give them to the right parties; and scientists recognize and reward priority because it makes the wheels turn, not because they care, at least in their day job, about how the process of discovery actually works.

    You can make the claim, and Wooton does, that the Scientific Revolution was part of an even more general change in how people thought about credit and authorship. One sign of this was how the characteristic sin of writers changed from claiming that something you wrote was actually the work of some revered ancient to claiming the work of others as your own. Plagiarism, even the word, is a modern invention like gunpowder or printing. Speaking of printing: before Gutenberg, it was extraordinarily difficult to make claims of novelty because you never knew if your idea was new. Maybe Aristotle figured it all out long ago but the local scriptorium didn’t have that manuscript. It’s seldom admitted in potted accounts of the scientific method, but we technical writers know that the literature search is the true first step in research.

    • laura

      There’s a similar interesting point in one of his older books, Bad Medicine. Wootton remarks at one point that the first printed “complete works” of Galen translated from the Greek didn’t appear in Latin in Europe until 1531, six years after the first Greek version appeared, and only 12 years before De Fabrica makes its appearance. Once anatomists could be sure that had seen all Galen had to offer, translated without “corruptions” from the Islamic commentators, they seem to have immediately started criticizing it. You could make a similar argument about translations of Ptolemy: once the first translations directly from the Greek via safe Byzantine Christians appear, astronomers in the West shift relatively quickly from trying to “restore” Ptolemaic astronomy to trying to improve it.

    • I have no problem whatsoever giving individuals credit for their specific achievements in the history of science. I’m quite happy to credit Galileo with being the first to devise and carry out an empirical experiment to prove the laws of fall. He wasn’t the first to hypothesise them, that credit goes to others, but he was the first to prove them. I’m also equally happy to credit Riccioli with being the first to empirically confirm Galileo’s proof. However making one important contribution amongst many to the emergence of modern science in the Early Modern Period doesn’t make him, or anybody else for that matter, ‘the founder of modern science’.

  4. Baerista

    “David Wooton makes the important point in his recent book that assigning credit to individuals is an defining feature of how science came to operate as it developed over the 16th and 17th Centuries.”

    If this is what Wooton says, he is patently wrong. Medieval writers habitually wrote about great men of science and their achievements. In astronomy, names such as Hipparchus, Ptolemy, Thabit ibn Qurra, al-Battani, and Azarquiel were household words and were naturally associated with specific discoveries such as precession.Of course medieval writers had a sense of the history of their fields and a sense of innovation. They had access to libraries which collected the wisdom of the time. They thought of themselves as “moderns” and used terms such as “Ars nova” to refer to the completely new style of music that emerged at the start of the fourteenth century. The adage that moderns can see farther because they stand on the shoulders of giants goes back to the twelfth century.

    “Plagiarism, even the word, is a modern invention like gunpowder or printing”

    Gunpowder is a medieval invention, so is printing.

    • Wooton is of course aware of the famous names of the past. His claim is that the way credit was assigned changed dramatically during the Scientific Revolution, not that there weren’t culture heroes and famous philosophers before. His discussion takes off from a contrast of how Polydore Virgil discusses the originators of inventions and discoveries in his best seller of 1499 De inventoribus rerum with the emerging practice of the later Renaissance and the Baroque that led to the current system. I don’t think the contrast is as clear as Wooton makes it out. As it happens, I read Virgil’s book the year before I read Wooton—there’s a bilingual version put out in the i Tatti series—and I initially had something of the same reaction to Wooton’s ideas as you have. On reflection, I think he has a point, though I’d want to qualify his thesis by noting how the Greeks and their humanistic descendants were just as determined to identify the father of x as any pop historian of science—they were addicted to the eponym. If there were Ionians, there had to be an Ion. The notion of collective discovery was utterly alien to them. Good luck selling the idea that there was no single Homer to the Athenians or the Alexandrians. Still, Wooton is right that naming practices changed when it became normal to expect learned men to discover things instead of teaching received wisdom from approved texts.

      • Baerista

        My objections pertain to more than just to “cultures heroes and famous philosophers”. It is a fact that medieval scholars/scientists made discoveries and innovations, took credit for them, and were awarded such credit by others. Arno Borst identified this phenomenon already for Hermann of Reichenau in the eleventh century. The history of astronomy in thirteenth and fourteenth century in Paris is particularly rich in innovations and individuals associated with them. For scientific “auteurs” with a keen sense of their originality you’d have to look no further than to Johannes de Muris and Nicole Oresme. There are too many historians of the early modern period out there who believe they can get a handle on medieval thought or culture by reading a famous incunabulum such as The Nuremberg Chronicle or “De inventoribus rerum”. This cannot replace an actual engagement with medieval scientific sources, the vast majority of which remain unprinted. Given the wealth of material available, especially from the mathematical sciences, the argument from Polydore Virgil is a lazy one and medievalists are justifiably impatient with it.

      • But its also that when you read the Greek and Latin technical literature of poliorcetics, say, you find all kinds of things like “this is a mountain gastraphetes of Zopyron” (where Zopyron is an engineer who is otherwise unknown to the culture of the learned and leasured). The idea that a particular group of foreigners invented some artifact which you now use is even older … the Babylonians were happy to talk about Kimmerian bows in the sixth century BCE. And there were periods in ancient history where inventions were fashionable.

      • Jeb

        I think you may find Greg Woolf’s, Tales of the Barbarians Ethnography and Empire in the Rman West, useful in developing that thought in a wider context.

      • On the whole I tend to side with Baerista in this discussion but there is one sense in which Wooton is right. Even as late as the sixteenth century one finds scholars ‘borrowing’ liberally from the work of others without acknowledgement or credit. This changes in the seventeenth century with people becoming more sharply aware of their intellectually property and more aggressive in their tendency to accuse others of plagiarism, a word first coined in the seventeenth century.

      • Obviously I’m doing a disastrous job of making my main point, which was that the whole business of attribution, of deciding who was the father of what, looks very different from the perspective of somebody trying to come up with a history or ethnography or sociology or even science of science (the ornithologists) and the scientists themselves and their ideologists (the birds). For the former, which usually includes me, albeit in an thoroughly amateur role, it seems pretty obvious that sciences don’t really have founders and fathers; but for the latter, attribution is integral to how what they do is done and, crucially, will continue to be done. It isn’t just that the potted, Whig history found in science textbooks is convenient for teaching so that it’s valuable even if it is plain wrong as an explanation of how things happened. Feynman pretty much made that argument in so many words, but it’s only part of the story. Maintaining the notion that particular individuals or groups can and should be given credit (fame, grants, Nobel prizes, etc.) is a working part of the machine, which is why the scientists get so upset when you propose to mess with it. It’s sacred.

        On the much narrower question of whether Wooton underestimates the continuity between late Medieval scholarly practice and what took place in the 17th Century, I cheerfully bow to my betters, though I urge you to judge Wooton by his own words and not my version of what he had to say. Still, though have my own misgivings about his story, Wooton didn’t strike me as a man unfamiliar with the archives. He may well be wrong in important ways—I think he is—but I doubt if he can be waved off all that easily. I’m keenly interested in what Thony has to say about the book.

  5. You leave out the profound effect that philosophical movements have in nurturing uniquely creative geniuses. For example, the Brethren of the Common Life and Nicholas of Cusa.

  6. Speaking of accuracy, Stephen is not an astrophysicist, he is a cosmologist. (or a theoretical physicist specializing in the area of gravitation and cosmology, if you like). It’s true that Stephen is not always the most accurate of historians, but to label him as a famous wheelchair driver first, and a famous physicist second is quite offensive to some of us. Please bear in mind that Stephen’s work on singularities in gravitation makes him a huge name amongst physicists, irrespective of media hype..

    • If I had been writing about Stephen Hawking the theoretical physicist I wouldn’t have mention the wheel chair at all, because it is basically irrelevant. However I was writing about Stephen Hawking the public media figure and here his ALS, his wheelchair, his speech computer etc are very much centre stage. Hawking is the most well-known physicist, no I’ll correct that, scientist in the world and that is not because of his work on singularities in gravitation but because he is a very obviously very handicapped person. I suspect that if Hawking weren’t handicapped in the way he is that he wouldn’t be holding the Reith Lectures at all.

      Hawking’s breakthrough paper on singularities was co-authored by Roger Penrose, a truly brilliant mathematician, but if you were to go out on any high street in Europe or North America and ask passersby who is Stephen Hawking or who is Roger Penrose then about ten in twenty would answer Hawking, isn’t he that brilliant scientist in a wheelchair, whereas I think you would be very, very lucky indeed in you found one who responded to the name Penrose.

      It is exactly this image, created by the media, that makes Hawking such a dangerous hazard for historians of science when he starts spouting rubbish about their discipline and this is what I was trying to make clear in my blog post. I even state it quite clearly in the first substantive paragraph after the introductory Twitter exchange.

      I’m sorry if you or anybody else finds the statement of a very obvious social truth of our times insulting but as long as it’s true I shall go on saying it.

    • Well, to be a curmudgeon, he’s not really a cosmologist, at least not in the traditional sense. Both Hawking and I go to lots of conferences (I go only to cosmology conferences), but I’ve never seen him. He’s more a theoretical physicist specializing in gravitation. Some of this is applicable to cosmology, but that doesn’t mean that he is a cosmologist, any more than the fact that some of this is applicable to black holes makes him an astrophysicist (since many black holes form via astrophysical processes such as the collapse of stars).

      He’s certainly done important work, but even in his relatively narrow field (compared to the rest of physics, let alone the rest of science or all of human endeavour) he’s one of a couple of dozen key players. He certainly uses his handicap to his advantage, but I don’t think anyone can fault him for that, especially since if he didn’t play it up at all, other people would.

      Einstein was also very much a public figure, and some compare the two, but they were actually quite different. Einstein didn’t really affect any sort of image, though he did use his fame to his advantage. Also, he was head and shoulders above his colleagues, and above all scientists who ever lived. Maybe Newton was comparable. (Nevertheless, the popstar adulation which Einstein experienced was much more intense than in the case of Hawking.)

  7. That said, the theme of a famous scientist spreading historical inaccuracy is indeed a worrying problem. I often wonder just how many standard historical canards have been fueled by the pronouncements of a prominent scientist unfamiliar with the facts.
    To pick one of Stephen’s worst examples, in A Brief History of Time, he single-handedly resurrected a long-disproved canard, the hypothesis that Eddington somehow fudged the 1919 eclipse results. This particular accusation has been refuted on various occasions by various professional astronomers who reviewed the original data, but Stephen misreported a lecture on the subject in his famous book, breathing new life into an untrue allegation just when it had finally almost been killed off…

    • I frequently meet Hawking at conferences, but haven’t met Phillip yet- possibly because the only conferences I can afford to attend these days are in Cambridge!
      I certainly wouldn’t compare Stephen with Einstein, the difference being that Einstein made so many seminal contributions in a bewildering variety of different fields, as Phillip knows (Btw, I think Thorny C is wrong to assert in his Galileo post that he could extend his thesis to other icons of science, including Einstein. For those who study the history of 20th century physics, it’s very hard to overstate Einstein’s influence and thus Thorny C has arrived at a conclusion before embarking on this huge field of study).
      Re Hawking and fame, I think one has to be careful in attributing all of his fame to his infirmity – we will probably never know how much is due to his infirmity, how much due to prominence in a field fascinating to the public, how much due to media hype for British stars (Remember Nigel Kennedy, the ‘best violinist in the world’?) and how much due to his own embrace of publicity (remember the BT ad?). Most other physicists at that level consciously avoid publicity (I know my Dad did, as does Roger Penrose), while Stephen revels in it, a journalist’s dream.
      One thing I have noticed recently is how highly Hawking’s work in the period 1960-1980 is rated by colleagues in his own field – it’s interesting how physicists such as Bekenstein, Novikov, Penrose and Kip Thorne all cite him heavily in their books and articles for the public. So for all the hype, perhaps we can be grateful that Stephen is a bone fide brilliant scientist and not like a world-famous pop singer who can’t in fact sing!

      • “I frequently meet Hawking at conferences, but haven’t met Phillip yet- possibly because the only conferences I can afford to attend these days are in Cambridge!”

        I usually go to a couple a year. I used to go to four to six per year, but actually I find that there aren’t that many that interest me anymore. Maybe to some extent the internet has eradicate the conference for the purpose of getting early information. This is good, since it leaves more time for learning about fields in which one does not work and for meeting people.

        So, be sure to say hi if we’re ever at the same conference! The next one on my list is the Moriond cosmology meeting. It’s actually not that expensive considering that the conference has a block booking at the hotel (there isn’t any cheaper place to stay anyway—and this is good since everyone lives and eats in the same place) which includes full room and board.

      • Hi Phillip, that’s very tempting, though college finances are so tight these days that I generally only go to conferences if I’m a speaker. After the recent Einstein conference in Berlin, I thought I’d spend a few weeks catching up on the history of BH physics – and have been very struck by the acknowledgement of Hawking’s contributions by cosmologists such as Zeldovitch , Bekenstein, Novikov and Guth. So it’s not all hype, although I certainly agree that his accomplishmentspertains to one field, rather than many

      • Certainly not all hype, but Hawking is one of many—Penrose, Bekenstein, Gibbons, Hartle etc. OK, he might have done a bit more than some, but the difference between his fame and that of others less famous is much greater than the difference in scientific accomplishments. This is, as my history teacher liked to say, just an observation, not a judgement. At least, like Einstein to some extent, he enjoys the attention.

      • lucy m

        Hawking’s early work was good and his breakthrough idea was brilliant. He is better in the early 70’s than the vast majority of physicists in play in 2016. But there has been a collapse of the calibre and accomplishment in the physicist community since the 70’s. There has been absolutely no fundamental progress at the frontier since the 70’s and then some.
        Hawking’s theoretical contributions likewise are not obviously a lower standard than the other contributions by physicists in the same period. But again, there has is an unfolding train-crash …. a catastrophic collapse…of theoretical standards in the scientifific context. Which is not Hawking’s doing of course. But nor has he been a reformer, or stood apart from the fray. He’s not distinguished himself. No one has.

    • lucy m

      Hawking says very little in context of history. The few assertions he does make strongly confirm: He regards History outside his general remit; has no design or agenda in that direction. Putting the thoughts he shared to their strong form, he’d use his allocated temporal-miles to visit the founding fathers of science. That may be a common misconception but it is very common at his location. Likewise Galileo as resolved identity.
      The coverage of popular history misconceptions at the level of the most senior leading physicists of today is little different that the general population
      Hawking operates a reasonable working assumption the elites in physics have clean information across the board and mechanisms in play to guarantee it. It’s unlikely the substance of his personal thoughts would be affected very much were Galileo replaced by someone else and/or the ‘founder’ conception abstracted up a lot of levels. He’d maybe talk to a historian of science in place of a founder; doesn’t even need a time machine for that. But the point is it’s not his field and he clearly has not designs on that changing.
      People that listen to Steven Hawking amongs the public are by and large, hugely better informed about science than the population average. This is the popular science book consumer belt. Overwhelming they already think Galileo is the founder of a Science that was founded by someone/s
      The serious problem is (a) others with a high profile also considered a genius big gun, also for reasons heavily decoupled from scientific contributions, but whom do have designs on history, actively asserting historical nonsense and being believed. They are actually adding layers of misconception and confusion.

  8. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #27 | Whewell's Ghost

  9. According to Carlo Rovelli, Anaximander was “The First Scientist”:

  10. It fits the “solitary genius” myth for attention to concentrate on a single figure. So Hawking contributing even a bit more to his field than others, combined with his compelling “overcoming adversity” story, I think fully explains his being uniquely lauded.

  11. I think you have remarked some very interesting details , thankyou for the post.

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