Thursday, 21 November 2013

Historical Accidents

I had read Poul Anderson's condensed account, in Is There Life On Other Worlds? (New York, 1963), of the origin of science but had not retained many of its details. Summarizing the account for the previous post helped to focus those details and they were surprising. Anderson suggests that:

if the Greeks had not had slaves, then they might have had science;
if Western Europeans had not had dogmatic Christianity, then we might not have had science.

There is an obvious link between possessing slaves and not wanting machines, therefore not addressing the engineering problems that can generate pure research, but there is no obvious connection between reasoning about doctrinal disagreements and reasoning about the physical world - except, of course, for the process of reason itself. This abstract process would not have been applied beyond theology without the simultaneous development of practical technology and of a new economic class investing in that technology. It was accidental that these divergent social forces developed simultaneously.

Those are the most noticeable historical accidents but there are others. Thus:

if the Roman Empire had not left a technological legacy or if the Germanic tribes had not valued work and trade and therefore had been unable to build on that legacy, then we might not have had science;

different experiments with the cathode-ray tube of the 1870's could have led to radar in 1900, thus accelerating progress in electronics, chemistry and nuclear physics;

a particle theory of light proposed in the seventeenth century might have led to quantum mechanics;

radioactivity was discovered accidentally;

"human" sciences might have become more precise if the physical sciences had not;

Newton and his immediate successors might have developed relativity if not for the structure of Indo-European languages.

We may add that "Arabic" numerals and the indispensible mathematical zero came to Europe via the Arabs from India. How did Roman engineers design aqueducts with their numerals? They managed somehow but science needed a better mathematics than theirs.

As often happens when summarizing Anderson, this list of historical accidents has turned out to be much longer than I expected when I started to write it.

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