Who was the first real physicist?

A post from Brian Tanner – one of the most common searches we encounter on the Ordered Universe blog is ‘who was the first physicist/scientist’ or variants thereof – Brian offers some options:

Perhaps it is because my son is Director of Cross-Curricula Learning at St Albans School, that on Friday March 4th, I found myself speaking to a large number of sixth-form students about the history of physics. Their response to my initial questions to them of what they understood by the scientific method and why scientific enquiry differed, for example, from the study of literature was excellent. Ideas such as observation under controlled conditions, seeking fundamental understanding of a variety of phenomena, reproducibility of repeated observations, and prediction of new phenomena from theoretical models were all cited. Suitably armed, I presented them with five candidates for the world’s first real physicist, Aristotle, Ptolemy, our own Robert Grosseteste, Copernicus and Galileo. Without attempting to bias the result, I then gave reasons for each claiming the accolade. A vote followed, and we have a version below for everyone to try.

The Candidates (only in chronological order)
Aristotle_Altemps_Inv85751) Aristotle’s insistence on the importance of observation from which abstractions are made clearly gave him a head start, both chronologically and intellectually. His methodology of reaching general explanatory principles by induction from repeated and diverse observations, followed by testing through deductive reasoning further strengthened his case. Observations such as how the rainbow formed part of a cone, experimental observation of when visible organs appear in fertilized chicken eggs by breaking them open at intervals in time, development of a concept of force and associated dynamics were examples from a very long list of possibilities. His interpretation of observations to prove that the Earth is a sphere, (from its shadow on the moon during an eclipse, ships appearing over the horizon, the horizon being an arc of constant shape, and the change of position of stars with latitude), made him a strong contender.

PSM_V78_D326_Ptolemy2) Ptolemy, I argued was a brilliant experimentalist, whose measurement of the distance of the moon from the earth was outstandingly accurate. Although orders of magnitude out in his measurement of the distance of the Earth to the sun, at least he came up with a very large, but finite number. He developed a detailed model based on epicycles to explain the wandering retrograde motion of the planets and his deduction of the law of refection could be argued to be the first genuine scientific law. His measurements of the angles of refraction by systematic measurement at varying angles of incidence are the first examples of a systematic scientific experiment such as we would recognise today.

3) Grosseteste’s contributions to scientific methodology impressed the audience. I explained how he described the method for reaching a universal principle from repeated observations under controlled conditions, developed the principle of falsification for testing theories, developed the method of reducing a complex and intractable problem into simpler, more tractable components, in for example the explanation of the formation of the rainbow by refraction. I also suggested that Ockam’s Razor should really be called Grosseteste’s Razor as it was he who first argued that the explanation needing fewer suppositions and premises was the best. The extension of Aristotle’s principles of inductive and deductive reasoning to the explanation of new phenomena, not in the initial collection of observations was another of Grosseteste’s contributions to what the students had identified as the scientific method, together with his principle of proof by falsification – a method brought to widespread attention by Popper in the 20th Century. Finally, Grosseteste’s search for unification of explanation of diverse phenomena pushed him further into contention, the students being fascinated by his connection between light and matter. The “medieval Big Bang” theory in De luce went down well as always.

Nikolaus_Kopernikus4) Copernicus fared not so well, as it had to be pointed out that a very satisfactory heliocentric theory of the (then known) universe was described in the 3rd Century BCE by Aristarchos of Samos. This theory was suppressed in the late 3rd Century BCE by Cleathes on theological grounds, rather than those of experimental observation. It was argued that to Classical Greeks, the Earth was sacred and to displace that from the centre of the Universe was sacrilegious. Copernicus’ theory of circular orbits was every bit as unsatisfactory as that of the geocentric theory of Ptolemy in that it too required epicycles to explain the retrograde motions of the planets. All in all, the case for Copernicus did not look very convincing.

Justus_Sustermans_-_Portrait_of_Galileo_Galilei,_16365) Of course, the popular view that science began in the early modern period with the scientific revolution led by Galileo, was equivalent to him playing a home game. His telescopic observation of shadows on the moon and the realisation that these were the shadows of mountains is deservedly recognised as a turning point in scientific understanding. The construction of his own apparatus, improving on the telescopes obtained from the Netherlands, was a clear mark of what we recognise as a modern scientist. His observation of the moons of Jupiter, revealing a mini-planetary system not only gave credence to the heliocentric model of the solar system but also falsified the idea that the planets were moving on perfected, unchanging spheres about the earth. Experiments on dynamics involving a ball rolling down an inclined plane were excellent examples of measurement under deliberately controlled conditions. Further experiments in dynamics such as showing that if a swinging mass on a string is arrested by a nail so as to shorten the length of the freely swinging string, the bob still rises to the same height, reinforced the view that this really was when science was first done “properly”.

The Result
However, on the vote, Galileo did not fare well, with relatively few students taking the view that he was the first real physicist. The students were almost equally split between Aristotle and Grosseteste, Ptolemy and Copernicus trailing out of sight. In the run-off, the house remained almost equally divided as to whether Aristotle or Robert Grosseteste was the first real physicist. It was fun to ask the young people to think through such claims against their own assessment of what science is about and a delight to find such enthusiasm for the claims of Robert Grosseteste to be the world’s first true physicist. There is, of course, no right answer.

Your Turn
Let us know your decision on the candidates below!


One thought on “Who was the first real physicist?

  1. I really enjoyed this post – very interesting. I can see an excellent basis for paper resources that could be used beyond this session a balloon style classroom debate.

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