A Long Long Time Ago…Part 2

As noted recently, rather too many years ago I published a thing called ‘THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF SCIENCE: REVISED, UPDATED AND GENERALLY REFURBISHED’ in The Mentor, an Australian fanzine. Against my better judgement, I am putting it on the web, in its original instalments; perhaps it will not seem too idiotic when read only one bit at a time…



Part II

Roman Science: Historically, Roman science has been overshadowed by the Greek. However, they developed over many years a strong and rather more experimental approach to the subject. The Romans were probably most active in the field of investigation involving the Human Response to Stress (HRS). Their experiments were conducted in vast laboratories before many observers, often using Christians as the stressees. It did not take long to determine that human beings, even under the greatest stress, could not outrun an active lioness. However, for some reason the Romans insisted on repeated trials of this before they were convinced – so inventing one of the cornerstones of modern experimental science, reproducibility.

In line with their practical bent, the Romans embedded many scientific principles (and slaves) in the brickwork of many major civil engineering efforts, often in the most uncivil of places. Hither and thither they built aqueducts, viaducts and taxdeducts. A further example of this is Hadrian’s wall in Britain, built to keep the Picts in Scotland – much to the annoyance of the Scottish. The Picts, being a non-scientific people, did not discover for centuries how it might be circumvented.

The very uppermost members of Roman society adhered to scientific principles. Indeed, the emperors themselves were often guided by such considerations. Julius Caesar himself expounded upon the importance of close observation (“Vedi, vidi, vici,“), and in geometry invented his famous ‘Section’. And, of course, his adopted son Brutus invented aftershave.

A fact often overlooked historically is that the emperor Nero was an invertebrate inveterate tinkerer, incessantly fiddling with his apparatus. Indeed, so preoccupied was he that he gained notoriety.

Not to mention Ptolemy.

Regarding cosmology, there is no evidence to support the recent assertion that the phrase ‘All roads lead to Rome,’ indicates that the Roman scholars were aware of the curvature of spacetime. Astronomy, in truth, was rather weak in Ancient Rome, as were (for some probably not connected reason) magnetohydrodynamics and neurochemistry.

On the other hand, the Romans thought a great deal about war. They were very good at war. Very good. Very, very good. In their hands, war became a science, fitting in, presumably, between physics and biology (using as it does physics to kill biology). They developed many mechanisms to kill things with. Catapults and firebombs and many complex tactics, among them the Caligula turn, a move rediscovered much, much later by Immelmann.

Of course, in the end the Roman Empire declined and fell, a process recorded for posterity by an unusually intelligent gibbon.

The Chinese: Living as they did in China, the Chinese were (fortunately for them) a long way away from the Romans. Blessed with a great history of continuity and historicalness, the Chinese had and have a long tradition of scientific endeavour. Most notable, perhaps, was their early discovery of gunpowder. (The evidence for this is rather more concrete than for the theory that the people of Atlantis discovered unconstrained nuclear fusion, though this would explain the fact that there are no people of Atlantis, nor an Atlantis itself. However, being built on the assumption that there was at some stage a people and place of Atlantis, the theory must be deemed shaky. Indeed, unscientific.) The gunpowder (not made from guns, despite the name) was often used in rockets. Once, in a spirit of scientific inquiry, these rockets were attached to a chair, to which a somewhat unfortunate and unwilling individual (‘One Who’ or ‘Wan Hu‘ as he is remembered) was also attached. There was, however, an undesirable asymmetry to the forces of the different rockets, resulting in the inadvertent invention of the decorative “pinwheel”.

Another prominent Chinese invention was paper. Sadly, they did not follow it to its logical conclusion — the telephone book — and so missed out on most of the kudos. (Though they did have Judo.)

Meanwhile, Back in the West: Meanwhile, back in the west the Dark Ages (DA) had descended. We need to remember it was only Dark in Europe (DIE), a strange astronomical situation indeed. There was plenty of light in the Arabic world, and they were able to invent algebra (named after Al Jabr, a book), algorithms (named after al-Khwārizmī, a man) and nitric acid (named in honour of one of their greatest enemies, the knight El Cid).

Back in Europe, it was very hard to do science in the dark, it being a pursuit requiring precision, but it was very easy to kill people. This was the feudal system, whereby when two rich and powerful men had a feud, they sent peasants in waves again each other’s castles (hence the term ‘surf’). Very many peasants died (this was the feudal system also), and then the rich and powerful men made up and forgave each other. This was also, therefore, the age of chivalry.

There were a few shining lights during the dark ages, but these are thought to have been accidental rediscoveries of gunpowder (see The Chinese). The light was therefore very bright and very brief.

So dark were these ages, the DA, that the sphericity of the Earth became doubtful. Apparently they could not see far enough.

Learning in the west was kept alive by the Church. Monks copied the works of the ancients, translating the Arabic copies of the Latin copies of the Greek originals into Latin copies which were then translated into English. There is therefore reason to suspect that Plato was actually the great comedic writer of his generation, and The Republic is in truth a rather ribald narrative poem. Generally the Church took Aristotle as the authority, which was rather unusual as he had been a pagan (note that the authority is different to The Authority). The other authority was Ptolemy, whose Almagest was a rather weighty tome, extremely thick and therefore of great assistance in reaching the books on the next shelf up (usually these books were the modern equivalents of The Republic). However, we are not mentioning Ptolemy.

The monks would sit in their cubicles and all mourn the burning of the great Library of Alexandria (ironically, by Christians, whose yearning for learning had not precluded burning), which had been full of ancient brilliance and wisdom. All would mourn except the apprentice monks (the ones who did the actual copying). They were actually secretly delighted.

And then one day they turned around and looked out the refectory window and saw that things were Renaissancing all over the place.


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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

One response to “A Long Long Time Ago…Part 2”

  1. marc190573 says :

    Better than Universaelis!

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