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Portal:History of science

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The history of science is the study of the development of science, including both the natural and social sciences (the history of the arts and humanities is termed history of scholarship). Science is a body of empirical, theoretical, and practical knowledge about the natural world, produced by scientists who emphasize the observation, explanation, and prediction of real-world phenomena. Historiography of science, in contrast, studies the methods employed by historians of science.

The English word scientist is relatively recent, first coined by William Whewell in the 19th century. Before that, investigators of nature called themselves "natural philosophers". While observations of the natural world have been described since classical antiquity (for example, by Thales and Aristotle), and the scientific method has been employed since the Middle Ages (for example, by Ibn al-Haytham and Roger Bacon), modern science began to develop in the early modern period, and in particular in the scientific revolution of 16th- and 17th-century Europe. Traditionally, historians of science have defined science sufficiently broadly to include those earlier inquiries.

From the 18th through the late 20th century, the history of science, especially of the physical and biological sciences, was often presented as a progressive accumulation of knowledge, in which true theories replaced false beliefs. More recent historical interpretations, such as those of Thomas Kuhn, tend to portray the history of science in terms of competing paradigms or conceptual systems within a wider matrix of intellectual, cultural, economic and political trends. These interpretations, however, have met with opposition for they also portray the history of science as an incoherent system of incommensurable paradigms, not leading to any actual scientific progress but only to the illusion that it has occurred.

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Illustration from Nicholas Steno's 1667 paper of a Shark head with a tooth and a fossil tooth

The history of paleontology has been an ongoing effort to understand the history of life on Earth by understanding the fossil record left behind by living organisms. Inevitably it has been closely tied to geology and the effort to understand the history of the Earth itself. In the 17th and 18th centuries there was progress made in understanding the nature of fossils and the at the end of the 18th century the work of Georges Cuvier lead to the emergence of paleontology, in association with comparative anatomy, as a scientific discipline. The expanding knowledge of the fossil record also played an increasing role in the development of geology, particularly stratigraphy. The first half of the 19th century saw a rapid increase in knowledge about the past history of life on Earth and the progress towards definition of the geologic time scale. After Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species in 1859, much of the focus of paleontology shifted to understanding evolutionary paths, including human evolution, and evolutionary theory. The last half of the 20th century saw a renewal of interest in mass extinctions and their role in history of life on Earth.

As early as the 6th century BC Xenophanes of Colophon recognized that some fossil shells were remains of shellfish and indicated that what was now dry land was once under the sea. It is also well known that in one of his unpublished notebooks Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) concluded that some fossil sea shells were the remains of shellfish. However in both cases it is clear that the fossils were relatively complete remains of mollusk species that very closely resembled living species and thus were relatively easy to classify.

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This iconographic French tapestry from the early 16th century depicts the muse Astronomia consulting with an astronomer, possibly Ptolemy. The tapestry resides in the Röhsska Konstslöjdmuseet, but its origins are unknown.

Selected inventor

Vannevar Bush (March 11, 1890 – June 30, 1974) was an American engineer and science administrator, known for his work on analog computing, his political role in the development of the atomic bomb, and the idea of the memex—seen as a pioneering concept for the World Wide Web. A leading figure in the development of the military-industrial complex and the military funding of science in the United States, Bush was a prominent policymaker and public intellectual ("the patron saint of American science") during World War II and the ensuing Cold War. Through his public career, Bush was a proponent of democratic technocracy and of the centrality of technological innovation and entrepreneurship for both economic and geopolitical security.

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Did you know

...that the travel narrative The Malay Archipelago, by biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, was used by the novelist Joseph Conrad as a source for his novel Lord Jim?

...that the seventeenth century philosophers René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Leibniz, along with their Empiricist contemporary Thomas Hobbes all formulated definitions of conatus, an innate inclination of a thing to continue to exist and enhance itself?

...that the history of biochemistry spans approximately 400 years, but the word "biochemistry" in the modern sense was first proposed only in 1903, by German chemist Carl Neuberg?

...that the Great Comet of 1577 was viewed by people all over Europe, including famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe and the six year old Johannes Kepler?

...that the Society for Social Studies of Science (often abbreviated as 4S) is, as its website claims, "the oldest and largest scholarly association devoted to understanding science and technology"?



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