Guest essay: Science: A special way of knowing

ScienceThrillers.com welcomes teacher and writer A.G. Moore, a principal of Rhythm Prism Publishing (“Unique Books for Hungry Minds”). Moore shares an essay on the origins of scientific thought. Please check out her nonfiction books for ages 8-13 (below) and enter to win one of 2 sets!

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Science: A Special Way of Knowing
Guest post by A.G. Moore

People have been staring into the night sky for thousands of years. Some accept what they see, close their eyes and go to sleep. Some wonder at the mystery of the night. They question how the stars came to be.

It was in such a moment that science, and religion, were born. A yearning grew to explain what was observed. Religious beliefs arose, and multiplied. However, religion was not sufficient for some.

In the eleventh century, an Islamic polymath named Alhazen laid down the basic principles of what would come to be known as the scientific method. It was a system that demanded objectivity and proof. Alhazen wrote that a scientist should “…make himself an enemy of all he reads, and … attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency. 

Interestingly, as Alhazen advocated for evidence-based inquiry, he became a critic of belief in religious orthodoxy. Years after his death, many of Alhazen’s writings were translated into Latin. His principles of proof influenced centuries of European scientists. Some of Alhazen’s most significant research was in the field of optics. This work laid the foundation for the invention of the telescope, hundreds of years later.

As with so many advances in science, the telescope was devised in the midst of a flurry of activity. Several inventors offered designs, but in 1608, Hans Lippershey of the Netherlands was officially credited with submitting the first. Soon a scientist in Italy, Galileo Galilei, heard of this invention, and improved upon it.

With the Lippershey/Galileo rudimentary telescope, night-gazers could behold the heavens and see what early observers had never dreamed. Galileo’s observation of the skies led him to a startling conclusion: the earth was not the center of the universe. This suggestion put him in direct conflict with religious authorities of the time. He was imprisoned and threatened with death. Galileo denied the proof of his telescope and bowed to belief. He withdrew his dangerous views, and lived.

However, Galileo’s concession to religion did not end the quest for understanding. Science was restless. Questions, though silenced, would not go away. In time, the rational approach to knowledge gained adherents. One scientist after another claimed to explain a mystery of nature. Boldly, confidently, these investigators entered the twentieth century. Then, through the actions of one obscure physicist, upheaval struck at the heart of certainty.

Using the tools of proof, creativity and insight, Albert Einstein proposed, in 1905, that the rules of the universe, accepted since Newton, were not valid. Shaken, many scientists rejected Einstein’s new Theory of Relativity. They wanted more proof than his equations offered. That proof came in 1919, with the direct observation of a solar eclipse. Scientists saw in this spectacular display of nature that light behaved as Einstein had predicted and not as Newton’s laws dictated.

Since the 1919 eclipse, scientists, and ordinary people, have gazed into the night sky with a perplexed wonder, not unlike that of their earliest ancestors. How did the universe begin? Will it expand forever, or will it collapse upon itself? Will the earth one day be swallowed up by a black hole?

Science remains restless. As the construction of ever more powerful telescopes allows astronomers to view farther into the night sky, questions abound. Religion, however, remains essentially confident. It does not require proof, but merely belief, a willingness to take a leap of faith.

Science is a sterner taskmaster. It will not be settled, unless its answers are supported by proof, by using the objective principles laid down by Alhazen.

Somewhere, maybe today, maybe tomorrow, a scientist will come along, perhaps another Alhazen or an Einstein, who will answer the questions that puzzle us. Perhaps that future scientist will read these very words and be inspired. Wouldn’t that be something?

If you liked this blog, check out A.G. Moore’s books for students: Jonas Salk, Marie Curie, Marie Curie Radium Polonium with Study GuideFlorence Nightingale and What is Radioactivity? Available from Rhythm Prism on Amazon, iBook and Nook.

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