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The History of Science Portal

The history of science covers the development of science from ancient times to the present. It encompasses all three major branches of science: natural, social, and formal.

The earliest roots of science can be traced to Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia in around 3000 to 1200 BCE. Their contributions to mathematics, astronomy, and medicine entered and shaped Greek natural philosophy of classical antiquity, whereby formal attempts were made to provide explanations of events in the physical world based on natural causes. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, knowledge of Greek conceptions of the world deteriorated in Latin-speaking Western Europe during the early centuries (400 to 1000 CE) of the Middle Ages, but continued to thrive in the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire. Aided by translations of Greek texts, the Hellenistic worldview was preserved and absorbed into the Arabic-speaking Muslim world during the Islamic Golden Age. The recovery and assimilation of Greek works and Islamic inquiries into Western Europe from the 10th to 13th century revived the learning of natural philosophy in the West.

Natural philosophy was transformed during the Scientific Revolution in 16th- to 17th-century Europe, as new ideas and discoveries departed from previous Greek conceptions and traditions. The New Science that emerged was more mechanistic in its worldview, more integrated with mathematics, and more reliable and open as its knowledge was based on a newly defined scientific method. More "revolutions" in subsequent centuries soon followed. The chemical revolution of the 18th century, for instance, introduced new quantitative methods and measurements for chemistry. In the 19th century, new perspectives regarding the conservation of energy, age of the Earth, and evolution came into focus. And in the 20th century, new discoveries in genetics and physics laid the foundations for new subdisciplines such as molecular biology and particle physics. Moreover, industrial and military concerns as well as the increasing complexity of new research endeavors soon ushered in the era of "big science," particularly after the Second World War. (Full article...)

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The tree of life as depicted by Ernst Haeckel in The Evolution of Man (1879) illustrates the 19th-century view of evolution as a progressive process leading towards man.
The tree of life as depicted by Ernst Haeckel in The Evolution of Man (1879) illustrates the 19th-century view of evolution as a progressive process leading towards man.

Evolutionary thought, the recognition that species change over time and the perceived understanding of how such processes work, has roots in antiquity—in the ideas of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Church Fathers as well as in medieval Islamic science. With the beginnings of modern biological taxonomy in the late 17th century, two opposed ideas influenced Western biological thinking: essentialism, the belief that every species has essential characteristics that are unalterable, a concept which had developed from medieval Aristotelian metaphysics, and that fit well with natural theology; and the development of the new anti-Aristotelian approach to modern science: as the Enlightenment progressed, evolutionary cosmology and the mechanical philosophy spread from the physical sciences to natural history. Naturalists began to focus on the variability of species; the emergence of palaeontology with the concept of extinction further undermined static views of nature. In the early 19th century prior to Darwinism, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829) proposed his theory of the transmutation of species, the first fully formed theory of evolution.

In 1858 Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace published a new evolutionary theory, explained in detail in Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859). Darwin's theory, originally called descent with modification is known contemporarily as Darwinism or Darwinian theory. Unlike Lamarck, Darwin proposed common descent and a branching tree of life, meaning that two very different species could share a common ancestor. Darwin based his theory on the idea of natural selection: it synthesized a broad range of evidence from animal husbandry, biogeography, geology, morphology, and embryology. Debate over Darwin's work led to the rapid acceptance of the general concept of evolution, but the specific mechanism he proposed, natural selection, was not widely accepted until it was revived by developments in biology that occurred during the 1920s through the 1940s. Before that time most biologists regarded other factors as responsible for evolution. Alternatives to natural selection suggested during "the eclipse of Darwinism" (c. 1880 to 1920) included inheritance of acquired characteristics (neo-Lamarckism), an innate drive for change (orthogenesis), and sudden large mutations (saltationism). Mendelian genetics, a series of 19th-century experiments with pea plant variations rediscovered in 1900, was integrated with natural selection by Ronald Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane, and Sewall Wright during the 1910s to 1930s, and resulted in the founding of the new discipline of population genetics. During the 1930s and 1940s population genetics became integrated with other biological fields, resulting in a widely applicable theory of evolution that encompassed much of biology—the modern synthesis. (Full article...)
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Albert Edelfelt - Louis Pasteur - 1885.jpg

This 1885 portrait of Louis Pasteur, by Albert Edelfelt, is a classic depiction of the pure scientist; the painting was emulated in print as well, and it adorns the cover of the first critical biography of the great chemist. Within his lifetime, Pasteur became an heroic figure within French culture, and historians' attempts to dispel some of the "Pasteurian myths" were initially met with strong resistance.

Did you know

...that the word scientist was coined in 1833 by philosopher and historian of science William Whewell?

...that biogeography has its roots in investigations of the story of Noah's Ark?

...that the idea of the "Scientific Revolution" dates only to 1939, with the work of Alexandre Koyré?

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Seaborg in 1964
Seaborg in 1964

Glenn Theodore Seaborg (/ˈsbɔːrɡ/; April 19, 1912 – February 25, 1999) was an American chemist whose involvement in the synthesis, discovery and investigation of ten transuranium elements earned him a share of the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. His work in this area also led to his development of the actinide concept and the arrangement of the actinide series in the periodic table of the elements.

Seaborg spent most of his career as an educator and research scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, serving as a professor, and, between 1958 and 1961, as the university's second chancellor. He advised ten US Presidents—from Harry S. Truman to Bill Clinton—on nuclear policy and was Chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission from 1961 to 1971, where he pushed for commercial nuclear energy and the peaceful applications of nuclear science. Throughout his career, Seaborg worked for arms control. He was a signatory to the Franck Report and contributed to the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. He was a well-known advocate of science education and federal funding for pure research. Toward the end of the Eisenhower administration, he was the principal author of the Seaborg Report on academic science, and, as a member of President Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education, he was a key contributor to its 1983 report "A Nation at Risk". (Full article...)
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