Measuring the Size of the World

28 November 2020


A Scientific Research Program That Never Happened

Carl Sagan liked to characterize the Library of Alexandria as a kind of scientific research institution in classical antiquity:

“Here was a community of scholars, exploring physics, literature, medicine, astronomy, geography, philosophy, mathematics, biology, and engineering. Science and scholarship had come of age. Genius flourished there. The Alexandrian Library is where we humans first collected, seriously and systematically, the knowledge of the world.”

Carl Sagan, Cosmos, 1980, pp. 18-19

Clearly, before the scientific revolution there were many intimations of modern science, but these intimations of modern science, these examples we have of scientific knowledge prior to the scientific revolution, are isolated, and almost always the work of a single individual, like Archimedes or Eratosthenes. Thus Sagan used the example of the Library at Alexandria to suggest that there was, in classical antiquity, at least an intimation of a research institutions in which scholars worked in collaboration with each other. How accurate of a picture is this of science in antiquity?

The philosopher of science Imre Lakatos used the phrase “scientific research program” to refer to a number of scholars working jointly on a common set of problems in science. These scholars need not know each other, or work together in the same geographical location, but they do need to know each other’s work in order to respond to it, to question it, to elaborate upon it, and to thus contribute together to the growth of scientific knowledge, not as an isolated scientist producing an isolated result, but as a community of scholars with shared methods, shared assumptions, and shared research goals. Did any scientific research programs in this sense exist in classical antiquity? And was the Library at Alexandria a focal point for ancient scientific research programs?

If there were scientific research programs in antiquity, I am unaware of any evidence for this. No doubt at some humble scale shared scientific inquiry did take place in classical antiquity, but no surviving accounts of research undertaken in this way describe anything like this. In Athens, and later at Rome and Constantinople, the ancient philosophical schools did exactly this, investigating common research problems in a collegial atmosphere of shared research findings, and since there was, in classical antiquity, no distinction made between science and philosophy, we can assert with confidence that scientific research institutions (Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum) existed in antiquity, and scientific research programs existed in antiquity (Platonism, Aristotelianism, etc.), but even as we assert this we know that this was not science as we know it today.

When universities were founded in the Middle Ages, these universities inherited the tradition of philosophical inquiry that the ancient schools had once cultivated, and they added theology and logic to the curriculum. If there is any research program in a recognizable science that extends through western history all the way to its roots in classical antiquity, it is the research program in logic, which we can find in antiquity, in the Middle Ages, and in the modern period still today. But the Scholasticism that dominated medieval European universities was, again, nothing like the science we know today. Scholars did collaborate on a large, even a multi-generational research program, in Aristotelianism and Christian theology, and in the late Middle Ages this began to approximate natural science as we have known it since the scientific revolution, but when the scientific revolution began in earnest, it often began as a rejection of the universities and Scholasticism, and the great thinkers of the scientific revolution distanced themselves from the tradition in which they themselves were educated.

One could even say that Galileo worked essentially in isolation, when, during the final years of his life, living under house arrest due to the findings of the Inquisition, he pursued his research into the laws of motion in his own home, building his own experimental apparatus, writing up his own results, and being segregated from wider society by his sentence. What is different in the case of Galileo however, what places Galileo in the context of the scientific revolution, rather than being simply another isolated scholar like Archimedes or Eratosthenes, perhaps with a small circle of intimates with whom they shared their research, is that Galileo’s work was shortly thereafter taken up by many different individuals, some of them working in near isolation like Galileo, while others worked in community (in some cases, in literal religious communities).

Alexander Koyré’s 1952 lecture “An Experiment in Measurement” (collected in Metaphysics and Measurement), details how Filippo Salviati, Marin Mersenne, and Giovanni Battista Riccioli all took up and built upon Galileo’s work. Some of the experiments undertaken by Mersenne and Riccioli demanded an almost heroic commitment to the attempt to make precision observations despite the technical limitations of their experimental apparatus. Riccioli built several pendulums and, with the aid of nine Jesuit assistants, counted every swing of a pendulum over a period of twenty-four hours. The many individuals who were inspired by Galileo to replicate his results, or to try to prove that they could not be replicated, is what made the scientific revolution different from scientific knowledge in earlier history, and this community of scientists working on a common problem is more-or-less what Lakatos meant by a scientific research program.

Since the scientific revolution we have any number of examples of the work of a gifted individual being the inspiration for others to build upon that original work, as in the case of Carl von Linné (better known today as Linnaeus), whose followers were called the Apostles of Linnaeus, and who spread out across the world collecting and classifying botanical specimens according to the binomial nomenclature of Linnaeus. During Linnaeus lifetime, another truly remarkable scientific research program was the French Geodesic Mission, which sent teams to Lapland and Ecuador in order to measure the circumference of the Earth around the equator and around the poles, to see which distance was slightly longer than the other.

While there were, in classical antiquity, curious individuals who traveled widely and who attempted to gather empirical data from many different locations, there was no community of scholars, inside or outside any institution, that, prior to the scientific revolution, engaged in this kind of research. We can imagine, as an historical counter-factual, if other scholars in antiquity had been sufficiently interested in Eratosthenes’ estimate of the size of the Earth that they had sought to replicate Eratosthenes’ work with the same passion and dedication to detail that we saw in the work of Mersenne and Riccioli. Imagine if the Library at Alexandria had conducted Eratosthenes’ experiment not only in Alexandria and Syene, but also had sent teams to the furthest reaches of the ancient world — the great cities of Asia, Europe, and North Africa — and had repeated their investigations with increasing precision with each generation of experiments.

If Eratosthenes’ determination of the circumference of Earth had been the object of such a scientific research program in classical antiquity, there would have been no need of the French Geodesic Mission two thousand years later, as these results would already have been known. And given that Eratosthenes lived during the third century BC, the stable political and social institutions of the ancient world still had hundreds upon hundreds of years to go; the wealth and growth of the ancient world was still all to come in the time of Eratosthenes. There was, in the post-Eratosthenean world, plenty of wealth, plenty of time, and plenty of intelligent individuals who could have followed up upon the work of Eratosthenes as Mersenne and Riccioli followed up on the work of Galileo, and the Apostles of Linnaeus followed up on the first research program of scientific botany. But none of this happened. The scientific knowledge that Eratosthenes formulated was preserved by others and repeated in a few schools, but no one picked up the torch and ran with it.

Why did no Eratosthenean scientific research program appear in classical antiquity? Why did scientific research programs appear during the scientific revolution? I cannot answer these questions, but I will note that these questions could constitute a scientific research program in history, which continues today to be weak in regard to scientific research programs. History today is in a state of development similar to natural science in medieval universities, before the scientific revolution. This suggests further questions. Why was there was scientific research program into logic that has been continuous throughout the history of western civilization (including the Middle Ages, which was particularly brilliant in logical research)? Why has history escaped, so far, the scientific revolution?

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One Response to “Measuring the Size of the World”

  1. […] Measuring the size of the world Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon […]

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