England and the practice of science

 England was from the seventeenth century in the vanguard of the rise of science.    William  Gilbert’s   work on   magnetism  was  followed  by William Harvey tracing the circulation of the blood,  Halley’s work  on comets and Robert Hooke’s polymathic span from microscopy to a  nascent theory  of  gravitation.   Above all  stood the  formidable  figure  of Newton,  neurotic, splenetic and marvellous, a man who demonstrated the composition  of light and developed the powerful mathematical  tool  of the  differential  calculus,  besides formulating the  laws  of  motion which  form  the basis  of all mechanical science and  the   theory  of gravitation,  which was the most complete explanation of  the  physical universe until Einstein.

Newton  probably  had more influence on the mental world than any  man  before him.  Even  today  his importance is  vast.    Quantum   mechanics   and  Einstein’s  physics  may  have superseded the  Newtonian  as  the  most advanced explanation of the physical world,  but Newton still rules as the  practical  means of understanding the world above  the  subatomic. More generally,   Newton  provided an intellectual engine which allowed men  to make sense of the universe and to see order and  predictability where  before  there had been an order seemingly kept from  chaos,  and often  not  that,  by  the  capricious will  of  a  god  or  gods.  The psychological as well as the scientific  impact of Newton was great.

To these early scientific  pioneers may be added  the likes of   Joseph Priestly  (the  practical  discoverer of oxygen),    John   Dalton  who proposed the first modern atomic theory), Michael Faraday (who laid the foundations  of the science of electromagnetism),  J.J.  Thompson  (who discovered  the first atomic particle,  the electron),  James  Chadwick (the  discover  of  the  neutron)   and  Francis  Crick  (who   jointly discovered  the  structure of DNA with his pupil,  the  American  James Watson).      

Then  there is Charles Darwin,  the man with a strong claim to  be  then individual  who  has most shaped  the way we view  the  world,  because natural  selection  provides  a  universal  means  of  explication  for  dynamic systems.  We can as readily visualise pebbles on a beach  being selected  for  their utility in their environment (from qualities  such as crystal structure, size, shape)  as  we can a horse. As with Newton, Darwin profoundly affected the way men look at the world.

Of all the important scientific fields established since 1600,   I can think  of  only two in which an Englishman did not play a substantial role in their discovery and early development. . Those  exceptions are Pasteur’s proof of germ theory and Mendel’s discovery  of  genes.   The list below  gives  an idea of the scope  of  English scientific discoveries. 

Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Gravitation, laws of motion, theory of light.

Robert Hooke (1625-1703). Wrote Micrographia, the first book describing observations made through a microscope. Was the first person to use the word “cell” to identify microscopic structures. Formulated  Hooke’s Law — a law of elasticity for solid bodies.

Henry Cavendish (1731-1810).  Discovered the  composition of water  and measured the  gravitational attraction between two bodies.

Joseph Priestly, (1733-1804). Discovered Oxygen.

Humphrey Davy (1778-1829). Discovered  the elements  potassium, sodium, strontium, calcium, magnesium and barium nitrous oxide.

Michael  Faraday (1791-1867).   Widely regarded as the   greatest  ever experimental  scientist.  Conceived  the idea of   lines  of  force  in magnetism, discovered electromagnetic induction, developed the  laws of electrolysis.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Created modern evolutionary theory.

John  Prescott Joule (1818-1889). Calculated the mechanical  equivalent of heat.

John Dalton, (1766-1844). Created modern atomic theory.

Sir  J  J Thomson (1856-1940).  Discovered the electron  and  made  the first  attempt  to represent atoms in terms of  positive  and  negative energy.

Sir James Chadwick 1891-1974.  Discovered the neutron.

Francis Crick (1916- ). Joint discoverer of the structure of DNA.

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One Response to England and the practice of science

  1. Pingback: Is 2012 Real ? Find out the truth! - carnegie institution of washington, surface gravity

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