Who’s Your Daddy?

Galileo was the first “true” or modern scientist. It’s common wisdom. He was the first person to confirm his ideas through verifiable, physical observation and experimentation. I hear this all the time, even from “modern” scientists. I suppose that means, the still alive ones. Modern scientists tend to get caught up in what they know.

Maybe that’s why they forgot Erastothenes, who lived almost 2,000 years before Galileo was born. Erastothenes was a mathematician and a poet. A librarian, too. And an athlete. If he were modern, I’m certain he’d wear those small, barely-visible glasses above a chiseled, athletic jaw. Well, he did go blind eventually…

Erastothenes was the head librarian at The Great Library of Alexandria, perhaps the world’s first pure research institution. The Library was charged, by royal decree, with the modest task of gathering all the world’s knowledge. Over the few hundred years it survived the destructive consequences of war, Alexandria became a magnet for scholars of the ancient world. They flocked to this magnificent institution of knowledge, research and peer discourse and were even provided living accommodations.

Erastothenes had access to an enormous wealth of knowledge, both written on scrolls and through lively chatter amongst the inhabitants of Alexandria. One semi-famous account finds Erastothenes coming across a scroll which described how shadows fell in the city of Syene upon the summer solstice. Or, rather, how they didn’t fall. With clever insight, he hired a man to painstakingly measure the distance between Syene and Alexandria. Then, by using the geometry of shadows cast in Syene and Alexandria at the same time of day, combined with the distance between Syene and Alexandria, Erastothenes proved, through scientific observation and experimentation not only that the world was round; he also managed to compute the circumference of the Earth with astonishing accuracy.

I’m not exactly certain why “modern” scientists believe Galileo was the first modern scientist. Maybe it has something to do with the thousand or so years of intellectual darkness that fell upon us after the destruction of Alexandria and the ongoing pursuit of war in the Roman Empire.. Or maybe Galileo is the first modern scientist because he used a tool, such as a telescope, instead of just a ruler and a shadow like Erastothenes. Perhaps this demonstrates one of the fundamental differences between philosophers and scientists: perhaps Galileo was the first modern scientist because he is not considered a philosopher. The trouble is, he was. And Erastothenes used math to determine things about observations, and made predictions. Even Pythagoras applied geometry to the vibrations of strings, hundreds of years before Erastothenes. Maybe Galileo was the first modern scientist because he railed against the social power structures of his day, at great personal cost. No? Well, he did take advantage of his position to sell “his” telescope invention for military purposes, shutting out a competitor. Ok. Now we have it. Galileo is the father of modern science.

That’s not really fair, though. Today, nearly all leading edge physics and cosmology is done more in mathematics than experimentation and observation. Newton’s our guy, here. After all, he pretty much invented “the calculus”, not to mention our laws of gravity. He’s certainly the grandaddy of all theoretical physicists. Interestingly, he wrote more on religion than he did on science. Obsessively so. He also studied alchemy. Eventually he took over the job of making coins for the British Empire, entrapping counterfeiters, and personally seeing to their prosecution and hanging. Alright, I can see why scientists wouldn’t want this nutter, however brilliant, being the poster boy for “modern” science.

His use of higher-order mathematics was a staggering revolution in science, nonetheless. We long knew that math could be applied to the observed physical world, but calculus was cooking with gas. It had all the bells and whistles, and you didn’t even need to get your hands dirty or waste any time mucking about with experiments and contraptions. And somewhere along our path to modernity, the metaphysics of mathematics seems to have shed most of its “meta” qualities. Reassuringly, mathematicians recognized this trend and a slight schism ensued, resulting in a new branch of mathematics called “applied” mathematics. It’s a very special bridge, between the physical and the metaphysical. It makes things go.

And from here, we have a multitude of scientists exploring and defining the mechanics of existence, getting far out ahead of themselves, where science might, hopefully, some day, find ways to test through old-fashioned experimental validation. Our best tests for theories rest in the aesthetic of a beautiful math snippet. Elaborate, intricate and towering structures are built with metaphysical instruments, and even more is built upon those if they appear aesthetically pleasing enough to prevailing trends or factions. It’s a frantic obsession within the metaphysical, worthy of Newton in his most manic conditions, deep in the isolated darkness, lost in the magic of alchemical experiments.

But we do get experimental results occasionally, as experimental scientists laboriously claw their way toward the math, concocting physical instruments that might show us what we do, or do not expect. And since there are an infinite number of numbers between 0 and 1, hope remains.

The tensions between philosophy and science are interesting ones. Scientists have a tendency to discount philosophers, while at the same time employing philosophical reasoning to their work. I imagine philosophers appear somewhat willy-nilly in their sensibilities since their sensibilities are not absolutely dependent upon science. And in a universe where scientists wrestle with the notion of free will in a potentially mathematically determinate wad of body and brain particles, I imagine it is no surprise that a good song might be all the more appreciated at the end of the day.