Saturday, January 28, 2012

To Infinity and Beyond: Documentation as a cause for Discovery

I was thinking about what caused the renaissance to occur. Think about it, society and everything just stagnated or went backwards for the medieval times. Shiny armor, but a little tarnished when it comes to learning and accepting new ideas.

What made the big difference then? In class we talked about the creation of the printing press and the spread of information, and Humanism was formulating itself. But when I looked at several timelines of the reniassance I noticed that there was not a lot of scientific discovery in the 16th century, most of the big names like Kepler and Gallileo, Leevenhoek and Lavoisier were in the 17th century, not the 16th.

But then I realized that before there is progress you have to start observing your surroundings...

I can't imagine being there when Columbus discovered an entire continent that no one had ever even seen before in the western world. The world wasn't flat anymore, and many of the scientists were making breakthroughs that turned thoughts on end. Vesalius was stealing corpses from graveyards and documenting what really makes bodies work, drawing with intricate detail the delicate nerves and sinews. William Gilbert and Aaron Dowling were documenting their experiments on loadestones that would eventually lead to their book in 1600 "De Magneye, Magneticisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure" postulating that the entire earth was a magnet, just like the needles of their compasses. Tycho Brache was taking observational astronomy to the next level and documenting aberrations in the movement of the planets that eventually led to Kepler to formulate his theories of planetary motion.

All of this is simple exploration with documentation. Kepler needed Brache's observations before he could begin to calculate the trajectories of the planets. Galileo needed the same observations to begin postulating his own theories. Modern medicine thanks Vesalius for his sketches on the human body, which started the study of anatomy and physiology as we  know it today.

I started thinking about the theory of Evolution. Darwin was traveling around the world when he saw and wrote about the finches that helped him formulate his theory of evolution. He pondered and documented many different examples before he felt he was ready to announce his discovery to the public. (which he only did because a young upstart named Alfred Wallace was about to scoop him on the story with much less extensive information which would have made the theory very unpalatable to the general science community) But that is how the science goes. Someone makes the observations, and later someone else puts together the data to prove a theory about the nature of the world. I wonder what observations are being made today that will be the discoveries of tomorrow.

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