Oddly enough, this story begins with Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher. The father of modern science, who created a precursor to the scientific method. A man whose contributions to mathematics continue to be built on today, whose ideas about economics and politics touched every subsequent society. It’s only natural you know his name 2300 years after his death — his accomplishments are enormous.
Aristotle was one of the smartest people of his time, but to a modern person, his understanding of nature would seem wrong at best, maybe even silly. For instance, he made the assertion:
Nature abhors a vacuum.
He meant there was no such thing as “nothing”, that a vacuum couldn’t exist. He claimed the “denser surrounding material continuum would immediately fill the rarity of an incipient void.” It was a reasonable conclusion to make given the tools he had to make observations.
The piece of the puzzle he was missing was gravity. Would it have blown his mind to learn our current understanding of the universe is that it is almost entirely nothing, absolutely emptiness, a vacuum?
Aristotle was a strong supporter of Empedocle’s “theory of the four elements”, the ancient Greek concept of everything around us being made up of a combination of four basic elements, earth, air, water, and fire. Once again, not an unreasonable conclusion to make given his observations.
Would seeing a modern periodic table of elements along with a detailed explanation of our current understanding of atoms and their interactions have flipped his world on its head?
The scientific method is much more robust than how of most of science worked throughout history: drawing conclusions based on observations. Not only that, we have better tools to make observations.
We use lenses to get a better look at things that are very small or very far away. We send people and things into space, or to the bottom of the ocean. It’s easy to feel like we have everything mostly figured out, and people of the past were just dead wrong about most things because they didn’t have the tools that we have now.
It’s difficult to think of yourself as part of human history, and not just part of “now.” Assuming things don’t go terribly wrong for the human race, what will the people of 4300 AD think about our ideas about nature?
Will they think of Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, any great modern thinker, the same way we think about Aristotle? That we made reasonable conclusions based on the observations we could make and tests we could perform, but we were missing a bigger picture?
No one can say for certain that our modern ideas about nature are incorrect, but consider this. Aristotle, despite his massive intellect, likely died not knowing that bacteria exists. What are you missing around you, that we don’t have the tools to describe, measure, or observe?
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