Look back over the last 500 years since the great work of Erasmus in 1516, and we will see a world changed from top to bottom. Science and technology are the great dominant forces in society. We owe much of our comfort and prosperity and the fecundity of earth’s population to science and technology. So it would seem.
But the elements, the materials and the means to assemble the proponent parts of inventions existed throughout the history of mankind. Are we more intelligent today? Probably not, probably the reverse. Many of our everyday books on mathematics, philosophy, and politics originated one, two three millennia ago. How many people today could write from first principles a book on the geometry of conics or work out how to predict eclipses like the ancient Babylonians did?
Why is it then that only our last half-millennium was able to put the various pieces of these many different jig-saw pieces together to create a jet plane, satellite technology or a probe to the limits of the solar system and beyond? What sparked our scientific and technological revolution from around 1500? Up till then society plodded along at the same speed as the Romans.
We have electricity – a force that propels much of our traffic. It sparks our internal combustion engines. It propels our electric cars, some of which now drive themselves without the aid of a human. Electricity activates tiny splodges of metal on boards made from the same silicon material as seaside sand. We call them our computers. It also makes our light for us to see at night. It powers our ability to communicate as I am doing right now. Artificial intelligence answers our verbal questions.
What lies behind this great change of society, this supranational innovation that changes the way we live and think? Was it the genius of one man? Do we owe all this to someone like the practical Michael Faraday or the mathematics of James Clerk Maxwell?
Here we are confounded by the facts of history. Our west European society was not the first to have electricity. We may have been the first to exploit it on such a wide scale.
Two thousand years ago, the Parthians, that great super-power that rivaled and defeated the Roman Empire many times, possessed the electric cell. The construction of it implied that they used the cells in series to create a stronger current of electricity. They may have used the electricity to electroplate base metals with gold or for other uses we know not of.
But they did not, as far as we know, create semi-conductors as the essential elements for digital computers.
Some intellectual impulse far greater than the life-and-death battles, that the Romans fought on the Euphrates, in Israel and Greece, ignited and motivated our western society. The Parthians had abundant wealth, wealth so great that it provoked the covetous Romans to try vainly to conquer them.
The Parthians also debunk a common assumption of today’s Erasmus programme of student exchanges. The presumption is that students will gain from cultural exchange. Science will progress because one set of students or scholars interact with another who approach a problem from a different cultural point of view.
Yet the Parthians had global reach in their cultural interactions. They traded with the Far East. It was probably the Parthians who in the first century introduced silk from the Far East to the Romans in their Far West.
Yet despite all this cultural exchange neither Romans or Parthians had aeroplanes. The native brilliance of Parthian rulers established a rich and long-lived empire that confederated different tribes and competing religions for nearly 500 years from 250 BCE to 226 CE. Neither Romans or Parthians produced a scientific society like our own. Why? The Romans on the contrary may have destroyed the early roots of it.
One can perhaps excuse the Roman Empire for its lack of accomplishments in these areas. It was for most of its time involved in a bloody struggle to attain the peak of a military dictatorship. Once they had reached the emperorship, many of the emperors gave themselves over to sexual excess and the persecution of dissenters.
What of the great engineering accomplishments of the Roman Empire? These have been much vaunted by too many of the West’s historians who still live under the Stockholm symptoms of the Roman conquest of their lands. Many of the most extraordinary achievements of the so-called Roman Empire were in fact due to engineering skills that existed prior to Roman conquest. Take for instance, the building of harbor at Israel’s Caesarea, the largest port in the Roman world. Jewish engineers set huge limestone blocks 15m by 2.7m by 3m exactly in place, one exactly on top of the other, in 60m depth of seawater. Figure that out.
Then look at the great fort of Jerusalem, Antonia. How would you manoeuvre a polished limestone oblong block 13.6m x 3m x3.3m still in its foundations? How would today’s engineers, smooth it to perfection and place it exactly within millimeters? It weighs an estimated 570 tons.
Look high to the mountain fortress of Masada where a city and a palace with its Roman baths were created in what many would today say was barren, arid Dead Sea.
In the west Keltic Britons built hundreds of astronomical circles and ellipses to measure the calendar and examine the stars. Hero of Alexandria, Egypt, created a steam engine but neither he nor the next generation built a locomotive.
The Antikythera Mechanism was a fished out from a vessel sunk off the Greek island. It contained an amazing array of cogs and delicate settings. What was its purpose? it was a mechanical computer able to predict the movement of the planets, eclipses and dates based on the 19-year Metonic cycle that controls our seasons and religious festivals.
Our last 500 years has not just seen great engineering achievements and computers, it has seen together with the microscope the realization that human beings are composed of cells. Further, for the proper functioning of the human body, we call on 100 trillions of bacteria and other creatures. Each human is really a community of living organisms. Scientists have explored the material components of the cell such as its DNA and the part it plays in genetics.
Why did ancient societies not investigate these vital matters themselves? Were the microscope or the telescope too complex for a society that could create the Antikythera mechanism around 100 BCE? Not at all. Did the microscope require the intervention of a highly educated scientist and advanced optics?
A century-and-a-half after Erasmus, the Royal Society in London was amazed at the extraordinary sketches of microscopic creatures coming from a correspondent, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, in the Netherlands. From 1670s he wrote more than 500 letters to the Royal Society about his discoveries. This self-educated, independent-minded businessman invented a single-lens microscope that could render visible unicellular bacteria, sperm, blood, and minute water life.
Today we know that the human body is composed of nearly 100 trillion cells, with more than half independent uni-cellular bacteria etc. This form of life makes up most of what we are, not our own flesh! With specimens attached to the spike he could examine the various types of life on this planet — some of these forms were eternal — and they did not need sex to reproduce.
Yet Leeuvenhoek, “the father of microbiology” created his single lens from a small sphere of glass. And glass has been around for 4 or 5000 years. It was a recognized profession and trade. Ancient Egyptians made multi-colour glass vessels that compete with the finest Venetian glassware. Where were the ancient Leeuvenhoeks in antiquity who looked through a tiny ball of glass? Why don’t we have an Egyptian name for the father of microbiology?
From around 1500 all areas of knowledge, science and technology flourished all across Europe. What was the motor? Did Erasmus know it in 1516? What was the secret that Erasmus spoke of, when in 1517 — 500 years ago, he wrote:
” At the present moment I could almost wish to be young again for no other reason but this — that I anticipate the near approach of a golden age.”
, 1517, Ankythera, Caesarea, computer, electricity, Erasmus, Faraday, glass, Greece, Hero, Israel, Jews, Leeuvenhoek, locamotive, Masada, Maxwell, microbiology, Parthia, Romans, Royal Society, Schuman, science, steam engine