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The History of Science Portal

The history of science is the study of the development of science and scientific knowledge, including both the natural and social sciences (the history of the arts and humanities is termed history of scholarship). Science is a body of empirical, theoretical, and practical knowledge about the natural world, produced by scientists who emphasize the observation, explanation, and prediction of real-world phenomena. Historiography of science, in contrast, studies the methods employed by historians of science.

The English word scientist is relatively recent—first coined by William Whewell in the 19th century. Previously, investigators of nature called themselves "natural philosophers". While empirical investigations of the natural world have been described since classical antiquity (for example, by Thales and Aristotle), and the scientific method has been employed since the Middle Ages (for example, by Ibn al-Haytham and Roger Bacon), modern science began to develop in the early modern period, and in particular in the scientific revolution of 16th- and 17th-century Europe. Traditionally, historians of science have defined science sufficiently broadly to include those earlier inquiries.

From the 18th through the late 20th century, the history of science, especially of the physical and biological sciences, was often presented as a progressive accumulation of knowledge, in which true theories replaced false beliefs. More recent historical interpretations, such as those of Thomas Kuhn, tend to portray the history of science in terms of competing paradigms or conceptual systems within a wider matrix of intellectual, cultural, economic and political trends. These interpretations, however, have met with opposition for they also portray the history of science as an incoherent system of incommensurable paradigms, not leading to any actual scientific progress but only to the illusion that it has occurred.

Selected article

Darwin's first sketch of an evolutionary tree

The history of evolutionary thought has endured from antiquity, since the idea of biological evolution has derived as a philosophical idea since the Ancient Greek and Roman eras. Scientific formulations of the idea did not arise until the 18th and 19th centuries, when scientists such as Lord Monboddo and Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin's grandfather, proposed that living organisms were derived from a common ancestor. A hypothesized mechanism for biological descent with modification was proposed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who suggested that organisms inherit the characteristics acquired by their parents during the course of life. This since-discredited hypothesis is referred to as inheritance of acquired characteristics. The modern theory referred to as Darwinism was first publicly put forth by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace and discussed in great detail in Darwin's later publications, including his most famous exposition of the theory, On the Origin of Species. Darwin emphasized the difference between two main points: establishing the fact of biological evolution, and proposing the theory of natural selection to explain its mechanism

Although Darwin's theory offered a substantive explanation of a wealth of biological observations, the mechanism of biological inheritance was not yet known at the time of his work; although the person commonly considered the originator of modern genetic theory, Gregor Mendel, was a contemporary of Darwin, Mendel's work was largely neglected until the early 20th century. The combination of the Darwinian proposal of natural selection with classical genetics is known as the modern synthesis. Later work identified the gene, or the basic unit of inheritance in organisms, as encoded in DNA molecules carried by all living cells; subsequent work in molecular genetics has led to additional work in evolutionary theory such as the neutral theory of molecular evolution, which presents a role in biological evolution for genetic drift as well as natural selection.

Selected image

Fuegian BeagleVoyage.jpg

This watercolor depicts a native from the Tierra del Fuego, from around the time that Charles Darwin was on his Voyage of the Beagle (1830s). Darwin was taken aback at the crude savagery of the natives, in stark contrast to the civilised behaviour of the three Fuegians they were returning as missionaries (who had been given the names York Minster, Fuegia Basket and Jemmy Button). He described his first meeting with the native Fuegians as being "without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I ever beheld: I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilised man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement." In contrast, he said of Jemmy that "It seems yet wonderful to me, when I think over all his many good qualities, that he should have been of the same race, and doubtless partaken of the same character, with the miserable, degraded savages whom we first met here." Four decades later, in The Descent of Man, he would use his impressions from this period as evidence that man had evolved civilization from a more primitive state.

Selected inventor

Vannevar Bush

Vannevar Bush (March 11, 1890 – June 30, 1974) was an American engineer and science administrator, known for his work on analog computing, his political role in the development of the atomic bomb, and the idea of the memex—seen as a pioneering concept for the World Wide Web. A leading figure in the development of the military-industrial complex and the military funding of science in the United States, Bush was a prominent policymaker and public intellectual ("the patron saint of American science") during World War II and the ensuing Cold War. Through his public career, Bush was a proponent of democratic technocracy and of the centrality of technological innovation and entrepreneurship for both economic and geopolitical security.


Did you know

...that the travel narrative The Malay Archipelago, by biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, was used by the novelist Joseph Conrad as a source for his novel Lord Jim?

...that the seventeenth century philosophers René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Leibniz, along with their Empiricist contemporary Thomas Hobbes all formulated definitions of conatus, an innate inclination of a thing to continue to exist and enhance itself?

...that the history of biochemistry spans approximately 400 years, but the word "biochemistry" in the modern sense was first proposed only in 1903, by German chemist Carl Neuberg?

...that the Great Comet of 1577 was viewed by people all over Europe, including famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe and the six year old Johannes Kepler?

...that the Society for Social Studies of Science (often abbreviated as 4S) is, as its website claims, "the oldest and largest scholarly association devoted to understanding science and technology"?


Selected anniversaries

August 21:
  • 1951 - Birth of Eric Goles, Chilean mathematician and computer scientist

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