Out of the Darkness

A Little History Of Science: Out of the Darkness

We expect scientists to be trying to discover new things, and for science to be constantly changing. But what would science be like if we thought that everything had already been discovered? Being a top scientist might then involve just reading about other people’s discoveries.

In Europe, this backward-looking view became the norm after the fall of the Roman Empire in ad 476. By then, Christianity had become the official religion of the Empire (Constantine had been the first emperor to convert to Christianity), and only one book mattered: the Bible. St Augustine (354–430), one of the most influential early Christian thinkers, had put it this way: ‘The truth is rather in what God reveals than in what groping men surmise’.

There was no room for those scientists who were ‘groping’ for knowledge; the ancients had already discovered everything worth knowing in science and medicine. Besides, it was far more important to focus on getting to Heaven and avoiding Hell. Being a ‘scientist’ might mean just studying Aristotle and Galen. And for 500 years, from about ad 500 to 1,000, even that was difficult, since very few Greek and Latin texts from the classical world were avail- able. Nor did very many people know how to read.

The Germanic tribes who sacked Rome in 455 did bring some useful things with them, however. Wearing trousers instead of togas was one (though women had to wait a while longer). So were new grain crops such as barley and rye, and eating butter instead of olive oil. There were technological innovations in that ‘dark’ half-millennium, too: it saw new ways of growing crops and of ploughing the land. Building churches and cathedrals encouraged craftsmen and architects to experiment with new styles, and find better ways of spreading the heavy weight of stone and timber. This meant they could build ever-bigger and grander cathedrals, and some of these early buildings still take your breath away. They are reminders that what is sometimes called the ‘Dark Ages’ was not without its light.

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With the coming of the second millennium of the Christian era, however, the pace of discovery picked up. St Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–74) was the greatest medieval theologian. He admired Aristotle immensely, and he meshed Christian thought with Aristotelian science and philosophy. Aristotle, together with Galen, Ptolemy and Euclid, shaped the medieval mind. Their writings needed to be translated, edited and commented upon. Originally much of this activity took place in monasteries, but gradually it moved to the universities, which were first introduced in this period.

The Greeks had had schools: Aristotle studied at his teacher Plato’s Academy, and established his own school in turn. The House of Wisdom in Baghdad was also a place where people came together to study and learn. But the new universities of Europe were different, and most of them have survived to this day. Many were established by the Church, but community pride and rich supporters helped some towns and cities start their own university.

The Pope authorised the foundation of several universities in southern Italy. The University of Bologna (established around 1180) was the first to open its doors, but, within a century or so, there were universities at Padua, Montpellier, Paris, Cologne, Oxford and Cambridge. The name ‘university’ comes from the Latin word meaning ‘whole’, and these institutions were supposed to cover the whole of human knowledge. They usually had four schools, or ‘faculties’: Theology, of course (Aquinas called theology ‘the queen of the sciences’), Law, Medicine and Arts. The medical faculties initially relied mostly on Galen and Avicenna. Medical students also studied astrology, because of the widespread belief in the power of the stars to affect humans, for better or worse.

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Mathematics and astronomy – which we would think of as very scientific – were generally taught in the arts faculty. Aristotle’s vast works were studied in all the faculties. Many of the ‘scientists’ of the Middle Ages were either doctors or clergymen, and most of them worked at the new universities.

The faculties of medicine gave their graduates degrees – Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Bachelor of Medicine (MB) – and this in turn separated these physicians from the surgeons, apothecaries (pharmacists) and other medical practitioners who learned their trades in other ways. Their university education didn’t necessarily make doctors more interested in finding out new things (they preferred to rely on Galen, Avicenna and Hippocrates). But from around 1300, anatomy teachers began to dissect bodies to show the internal organs to their students, and autopsies were sometimes carried out on royalty, or when the death was suspicious (or both). None of this necessarily made doctors more able to treat diseases, especially those that swept through communities.

What we now call the Black Death, a form of plague, entered Europe for the first time in the 1340s. It probably came from Asia, along trade routes, and killed about one third of the people of Europe in the three years it took to make its rounds. As if that were not enough, it returned ten years later, and then with depressing regularity for the next 400 years. Some communities established special hospitals for plague sufferers (hospitals, like universities, are a medieval gift to us), and Boards of Health were set up in some places. The plague also led to the use of quarantine in cases of disease thought to be contagious. ‘Quarantine’ comes from the number 40 (in Venetian, quaranta), which was the number of days that the sick or suspected person was placed in isolation. If the individual recovered in that time, or showed no signs of the disease, he or she could be released. The playwright William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in a plague year in England (1564), and his career was interrupted several times, when plague epidemics forced the theatres to close down. Shakespeare has Mercutio, in Romeo and Juliet, say ‘A plague on both your houses!’, to condemn the two warring families. His audience would have understood what he meant. Most doctors thought that plague was a new disease, or at least one that Galen had not written about, and so they had to cope without his advice: remedies included blood-letting and drugs that would make the patient vomit or sweat, popular cures for other diseases at the time. Galen didn’t know everything, after all.

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Neither, it seemed, did Aristotle. His ideas about why something moves through the air were widely discussed by Roger Bacon (c. 1214–94) at the University of Oxford, by Jean Buridan (c. 1295–c. 1358) at the University of Paris, and several others. It was called the ‘impetus problem’ and needed to be solved. Take the example of a bow and arrow. The arrow flies because we pull back the bow’s string and quickly release it, pushing the arrow through the air. We have applied a force and given it momentum (a concept that we’ll talk more about later). Bacon and Buridan called this ‘impetus’, and they realised that Aristotle did not have a correct explanation for the fact that the further we pull back the bow string, the further the arrow will fly. Aristotle said that an apple will fall to the earth because that is its ‘natural’ resting place. The arrow will eventually come to earth, too, and yet Aristotle had said it moved only because there was a force behind it. So, if there was a force when the arrow left the string, why did the force seem to wear out?

These and similar problems made some people think that Aristotle hadn’t got everything correct. Nicolas Oresme (c. 1320–82), a churchman working in Paris, Rouen and elsewhere in France, wondered again about day and night. Rather than the sun racing around the earth every twenty-four hours, perhaps, he thought, the earth itself rotates on its axis over the course of a day. Oresme didn’t challenge Aristotle’s belief that the earth was at the centre of the universe, or that the sun and planets revolved around the earth. But perhaps that was a very slow journey (maybe it took the sun a year to make it around!), while the earth, at the centre of the universe, was spinning like a top.

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These ideas were new, but 700 years ago people didn’t necessarily think that new ideas were always good. Instead, they liked systems that were neat, tidy and complete. This is one reason why so many scholars wrote what we now call ‘encyclopaedias’: big works that took the works of Aristotle and the other ancient masters, and put them together – synthesising them – into gigantic wholes. ‘A place for everything, and everything in its place’: that could be the motto for this period. But trying to find that place for everything led some to realise that there were still puzzles to be solved.