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The Story Of Science

Updated on October 22, 2011

Science, as we know it today, has taken thousands of years to develop. While some theories of these earliest scientists and philosophers were negated in no time, others formed the basis of great future developments

THE ancient Egyptians are known to have contributed to the development of the three implements, now known as simple machines in Physics. They are the wheel, the inclined plane and the lever. Using the machines and, of course, the colossal manpower (of slaves), the Pharos could build the huge pyramids, which have been stable and durable enough to withstand all the harsh atmospheric and terrestrial disturbances for the last 5,000 years or more. The Egyptians have also contributed significantly to the development of mathematics and chemistry. Using crude measuring tools, they have worked so precisely that now when we measure any two sides of a pyramid, there is hardly a difference of an inch. Embalming dead bodies of the royal family and, thus, preserving the mummies is the science known to ancient Egyptians only.

Babylonians, on the other hands, were more interested in the celestial bodies, which they believed could change the destiny of human beings. There emerged a special class - the scribes and the so-called astronomers whose jobs were to scan the sky all night long and thus locate the positions of the heavenly bodies with respect to the position of the polar star. Thus, field of astronomy developed. However, the two ancient civilizations have contributed absolutely nothing to basic sciences such as physics, except perhaps the three simple machines described above.

Magnetism was discovered, as the legend goes, by a Greek shepherd by the name of Magnas who noticed, to his great surprise, that his iron-shot staff stuck firmly to a stone (now known as the magnetic iron-core). Similarly, electricity was discovered by another shepherd (another Greek) who tried to clean his skin-coat by rubbing it with an amber rod and noticed that, after rubbing, the rod acquired the strange property of catching wood-dust. Electricity is derived from the Greek word for amber.

The first quantitative work ever recorded in physics was done by Pythagoras, by the middle of 5BC. He discovered the laws now known as the "Laws of the vibrating strings". It is interesting to note that in 1990, while revising the physics syllabus for the Intermediate classes in Pakistan, this law has been introduced by the syllabi-committee - the fact reveals how backward we are in experimental sciences as compared to other nations of the world.

One of the most important theories ever developed in the history of physics was the ‘Atomic theory', advanced by Democritus. He conceived the idea that all material bodies are composed of tiny particles, which are not visible to human eyes. He called them ‘Atoms', which in Greek means "indivisible". The Democritus' atomic theory, though speculative, proved later by Dalton and others to be the first step in the right direction.

Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher and his pupil, Plato, were both first class philosophers. Mathematics, particularly geometry, was regarded as a special branch of philosophy. Socrates was good in general philosophy, while Plato was an excellent mathematician. On the main entrance to the Academy in Athens, (founded by Plato) there was written in bold letters "Those who do not know geometry should not enter this Academy".

Plato's pupil, Aristotle, was a universal type of scholar, having many interest, except perhaps mathematics. He contributed a great deal to the field of biology, being the inventor of the ‘science of reasoning', called ‘Logic'. In physics, however, he did nothing substantial except the introduction of the name ‘Physics', which means ‘nature' in Greek.

He said that Earth was the centre of the universe while the rest of the heavenly bodies revolved around it. About two thousand years later, Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo showed that Aristotle was wrong. He said that heavy bodies fall faster towards Earth if allowed to fall freely. Again, the Italian scientist, Galileo, proved that Aristotle was not correct.

Aristotle claimed that the moon was itself the source of light, which too was not correct. He also said that women have thirty teeth - two less than men. Again he was wrong. He did not even bother to ask his wife to open her mouth so that to check the validity of the statement. Had he made minor observations like this, he would not have committed the serious blunders he is known for.

Aristotle was born in Stagira, Greece, in 384BC. His father was a physician in the court of Amyntas-II, the king of Macedonia. Naturally, Aristotle was more inclined towards the study of medicine and biology, than the physical sciences. At the early age of 19, he came to Athens and matriculated in the well-known school, the Academy, headed by Plato, with whom he worked for 20 years. Plato was highly impressed by him, describing him as the intellect of the Academy. When Plato passed away, in 347BC, Aristotle left the Academic as well as Athens, perhaps annoyed for being not appointed as head of the institution. He, therefore, joined the court of Hermias, the ruler of a nearby state. Soon after, he married the King's niece, but the union was not a happy one.

Disgusted with his unhappy family life, Aristotle left his wife and came to Macedonia and became a tutor to Alexander, (who later became Alexander, the Great) the only son of the king Phillips. He stayed with Alexander till 334BC, the year, when he (Alexander) decided to go on his Asian expedition.

By 330BC, Alexander added the entire Greece to Macedonian empire. He wanted to take over the fertile Nile valley. As a first step, he proceeded to lay the foundation stone of city on the Nile delta, which he named Alexandria. The city became, in a very short time, the centre of commerce between East and West. Though Alexander suddenly died in 323 BC, the city he founded, Alexandria, grew to a marvellous city, bigger than Rome and more beautiful than Athens. A university, which became an important place of learning, was established there and it contained a grand library which, at that time, contained 700,000 books and manuscripts written by the ancient Greek masters.

One of the graduates of the Alexandrian school was a young mathematician, Archimedes, who happened to be the jack-of-all-trades and master of everything on Earth. He was an engineer, physicist, mathematician, a technician and even an artist. He lived and taught in the Greek town, Syracuse - the capital of the Greek colony of Sicily. He was a marvellous inventor. He has been regarded as one of the three greatest mathematicians in the entire history of the mankind (the other two being Newton (English) and Gauss (German)). Muslim scholars, after recovering his treatises and manuscripts from the twice-burnt Alexandrian library, have translated all his work into Arabic.

One of the greatest contributions which Archimedes made in mathematics was about the discovery of the relationship between the circumference of a circle and its diameter, irrespective of the size of the circle. Archimedes discovered the relationship between a sphere and its circumscribing cylinder, and worked out the areas and volumes of various geometrical bodies such as sphere, cylinder, ellipsoid, etc. In the engineering field, he invented the water lifting pump - known as Archimedes' screw. As a military engineer, he designed and constructed many formidable war-machines that proved very effective in the actual battle- field against the Roman invaders.

In the field of physics, he discovered the principle known as the ‘Archimedes principle', which states that a body, when immersed inside a liquid, loses weight by the same amount as the weight of the liquid displaced. The principle now provides the scientific explanation as how a heavy ship floats on the surface of water at sea while an iron ball sinks inside water. He introduced the concept of what is now known as the specific gravity of a substance.

Around 216BC, Hannibal, son of Hamilcar of Carthage - a commercial city on the north African coast - got fed up with the continued atrocity of the Roman fleet, and planned to teach the Romans a good lesson. He gathered a herd of trained war-elephants and a strong cavalry. He landed in Spain, then crossing the snow-bound Alps, he invaded Italy. He marched towards Rome with extreme caution. Unfortunately, King Hieron of Syracuse made an alliance with General Hannibal, as a consequence of which the Roman War Counsel decided to launch an attack on the Syracuse harbour with their far superior naval force.

The Roman fleet, under the command of General Marcellus, attached the city in 214BC. They moved, from the sea side, scores of giant-size scaffoldings fitted with ladders for soldiers to scale the wall with, and also stone-throwing machines which the Romans used in warfare against the enemy - like the artillery used now-a-days in modern battles.

Inside the wall, Archimedes was quite prepared for them. He did not have the matching fighting force, though he did have the necessary scientific skill and technical superiority to face boldly the formidable enemy. He had already given extensive technical training to his men, posted one on each war-machine, all waiting for the Roman ships to come within an arrow shot from the city walls. As soon as the ships reached the city fortification, Archimedes signalled to his soldiers to attack. Inside the walls, pulleys and gears started rattling. Huge giant-size beams appeared over the city walls, carrying a system of pulleys with strong ropes rolled round them and carrying sharp hooks at the ends. And, from the city towers, at various locations, giant size spherical mirrors appeared, focusing the sun's rays at the Roman ships. As a consequence, they caught fire.

Some of the ships were caught in the sharp hooks controlled by the machines which were stationed inside the walls, and were raised as if they were ordinary toys. The ships were made to spin in the air with the Roman soldiers jumping from all sides into the sea. The huge balls, suspended from the projected beams, swung back and forth, thus destroying the ships and the scaffoldings. Not a single ship could make physical contact with the walls. Before sunset, one-forth of the Roman fleet sunk.

The Roman general was stunned by the destruction of his ships and then he worked out a new strategy. It was, therefore, decided that night-attack, with small oar-boats, be launched so that they can reach just under the city walls and scale them, using light ladders. However, Archimedes had already anticipated such an attack, and had prepared a second regiment of soldiers ready for them with portable war machines which they called ‘Scorpions'. Whoever tried to raise his head above the wall was fastened automatically in self-tightening loop and then raised above in the air. The Roman army failed to make headway.

Marcellus abandoned the idea of direct attack on the city and decided to continue a long siege, so that the garrison might lose all provision and ultimately forced to surrender before the Roman fleet. He was, in fact, counting upon the same war strategy as the Greek did when they attacked Troy back in 1200BC.

On one unfortunate day, the Syracusians were celebrating their new year day inside the city. At night everybody was drunk, except perhaps Archimedes who was busy working on his geometrical figures in his backyard. In the absence of the guards, the Roman army scaled the walls and opened all the main gates. In less than an hour, the city fell to the Roman army. The elite of the city, including members of the Royal family along with the King, were killed.

Archimedes, unaware of the fate of the city and its inhabitants, was busy studying his geometrical figures drawn out in the sand table when couple of soldiers, equipped with spears and daggers, broke into the premises. The soldiers pierced his body with spears. Thus, ended the life of an excellent engineer, a marvellous mathematician, a wonderful physicist and a reputed astronomer.



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      stephanieflood 7 years ago

      Wow. You've made evolutionary connections inside science's own history. There's so much to science that is almost unfathomable. What you have here is a foundation at least. Thank you for the time spent in achieving this!

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