Monday, June 10, 2013

The scientific explosion (part 2 of 2)

And then came the Age of Enlightenment. Philosophy and science (which is itself a branch of philosophy) thrived and major discoveries took place. The notion of the Earth revolving around the sun became more common, Kepler uncovered the rules that define how planets and other celestial bodies turn around each other in ellipses, Newton formulated the theory of gravitation. Hume and Locke wrote lengthily about subjects that would become "humanism" and formulated ideas that would take root in the colonies of America and influence the authors of the USA's constitution. Descartes published the Discourse on the Method which is the foundation of modern science, relying on initial skepticism and construction of models whose reliability and prediction power need be tested, while unverifiable claims must be discarded. Philosophy bloomed in the UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands. Though wars were still being fought everywhere, intellectuals were cooperating internationally. Mathematicians started producing advanced works (currently taught at university level) on prime numbers (Fermat), differential calculus, etc. As sciences were being developed at a steady pace, as the development of knowledge could have brought significant changes between a person's birth and her death, society also evolved quickly. Populations started gathering into towns. Literature started becoming popular and education started spreading even to the masses. Charles Perrault wrote Cinderella, Little red riding hood, Puss in boots, Bluebeard, and The Sleeping beauty. The brothers Grimm wrote Hansel and Gretel, Snow White and other famous stories. Last (but by no means "least") Charles Darwin published "The origin of species" (1859) while Gregor Mendel discovered an inheritance of characterics which would later give birth to genetics. The economic activity led to many changes in society and techniques which allowed the dawn of the new age around 1870.

Then came the Industrial Revolution. A few years separate the early days of the British IR and its spreading to other countries but it started more or less in 1870 and lasted until 1939 (World War 2). In this relatively short period, merely 3 generations, the mechanization transformed the full landscape of society. Women became almost equal members of society, at least on paper. Inventions revolutionized the way we live: cars, cameras, cinema, radio. But also in the field of war, with the terrifying German submarines. Marine fleets developed metal-made boats with engines. Planes progressed and claimed record after record. Radioactivity was discovered. With industrial productions that drove prices down came high employment and salaries that allowed to buy more. But let's be realistic: society was still heavily rural and involved in agriculture. What also changed dramatically the world of science is that all branches of science started branching into specializations. Physics gave rise to chemistry, optics, acoustics, electricity. Biology turned into medicine (real one, not just the mumbo-jumbo of the past centuries) with the discovery of the germ theory and penicilin, evolution as Darwin's ideas won battle after battle against its opponents and we discovered fossils of dinosaurs, pharmacy. Electricity itself was specializing into fields of application like radio waves, domestic lighting (which owes nothing to that jerk Edison but more to Nikolai Tesla), quantum physics... Marie Curie, who had worked on radioactivity and discovered radium developed radiography and set up an entire fleet of ambulances with X-ray equipment for taking care of the wounded of World War 1. The reasons of such progress were numerous but among these, I will identify Industrialization, which provided more to a lot of people. With the abundance, it was easier for families to let their children go to school rather than requisitioning them to work in the fields. Higher education led to a democratization of knowledge and hence more development. The development of railroads and post services also allowed easier communication and travel and permitted the creation of active scientific communities beyond the limit of borders. That's how, in just 3 generations, the world changed.

And then arrived the modern era with the advent of World War 2. Of course, we only continued what had been started since the Industrial revolution, but philosophy and politics (Nietzsche's relativity of morality, Russel's logic, Marx's humanism and communism, the separation of church and state) contributed to a dramatic change in moral standards. The children of each generation since have grown up in a society whose views are radically different from those of the previous generation. In the late 60's or early 70's (my mother's generation), a female student would be reported to her parents if the school's principal had spotted her wearing trousers in the street (even outside of school time). With the high employment of the post-war decades, very few people lacked money and families could afford more toys and entertainment for the kids and the parents. Social standards also evolved and the amount of paid holidays increased in several countries to 3, 4 or even 5 weeks per year. Social Security was instituted to provide a form of universal health insurance. With such comfortable conditions and improvements of medicine, life expectancy increased dramatically from 31 years old in the early 20th century to 67 years old nowadays. Meanwhile, sciences kept progressing.

  • Medicine, which is itself a branch of biology specialized into neurology, anatomy, psychiatry, functional reeducation, genetics, oncology, virology, dentistry and orthodontia, plastic surgery, epidemiology, fertility, organ transplant, immunology, cardiology, endocrinology, hematology, forensics, pediatrics, rheumatology, obstetrics, gerontology... and more.
  • Electricity has spawned electronics which has spawned computer science which has spawned specialties like operating systems, databases, programming, debugging, computer viruses (and antiviruses), video games, automatics, voip, web services, drivers, data centers, satellites, image processing, video and audio streaming, etc. Astronomy has brought us to the moon and is now about to take us to Mars, has allowed us to map the cosmic microwave background radiation across the sky with tremendous precision thanks to the Hubble telescope. We were also able to understand more about the Big Bang and where we're coming from.
  • In the domain of Physics, the Quantum theory is getting surpassed by String theory. The Higgs boson (theorized in 1964) was proven to exist almost 50 years later in 2013. The atom bomb was invented. So were lasers. The invention of new materials like carbon polymers allowed to build planes that fly longer and further. The whole world of military equipment has been through serious updates with notable milestones like the U2, the Blackbird, F117, and B2 (for planes) and the T90 or the Abrahams (for tanks). Antennas have been developed for television, radio, telecom, and more recently for RFID tagging of animals, goods, and passports.
  • Archaeology uncovered a deep knowledge of past human civilizations and of previous geological eras with the evolution from unicellular organisms to bacteria, plants, fishes, reptiles (hello-goodbye dinosaurs!), mammals...
  • Mathematics developed game theory, statistics, the mathematical tools used for telecommunications (μ-law algorithm, Error detection and correction, orthogonal codes), asymmetric cryptography...
  • Biology diversified in genetics of course, additions to the synthetic theory of evolution through natural selection like Richard Dawkins' selfish gene, ethology, and many specializations for each genus, family, specie. Just an example: Myrmecology (study of ants) is a specialization of entomology (study of insects), which is specialization of biology. 
The number of fields having been specialized is impossible to estimate (with my limited means). But hopefully, the few I have mentioned give an insight into the diversification of scientific domains that occurred in the past 70 years and continues today.


I hope that I did not misplace too many events in time. This 2-parts article followed my amazement at the dimension of biology-related fields today. It is gigantic! and wonderful. If you are curious about evolution in particular, I recommend you the following book, which I'll probably review someday: "Your inner fish" by Neil Shubin. Comments are very welcome. A potential 3rd part would be about future prospects, but this is highly speculative and this article is already long enough. So we'll see later (or not).

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