Great Scientific Ideas that Changed the World
A series of lectures by Professor Steve L. Goldman
Published by The Teaching Company
After a bunch of books that I blew hot and cold on, I thought, “Hey! Let’s learn something!” So, I downloaded a series of lectures from The Teaching Company and…
I have to admit that I really disliked the first couple of lectures in this series. There were a few problems; I was put off by Dr. Goldman’s style although I still cannot explain why, but what really irked me was that he insisted on differentiating “Know-how” from “Knowledge.” Perhaps I misunderstood, but I eventually figured out to my own satisfaction, that he was hampered by the fact that the English language does not really have a distinct single word for “Scientifically produced knowledge,” vs “merely knowing how to do something.” True, merely knowing how to do something is not necessarily scientific knowledge, but to keep saying “Scientific knowledge” over and over again would have been clumsy and time consuming so he shortened it to just Knowledge vs Know-how. Once past that stumbling block, I found the lectures both entertaining and enlightening.
For the first few hours of the lectures (and each one is roughly thirty minutes) I thought that perhaps a better title to this course would have been “The Development of Scientific Knowledge” because for lecture after lecture Dr. Goldman slowly worked his way from the Ancient World and the Aristotelian, Platonic and Pythagorean views and how they were not scientific in the modern sense, but eventually he gets down to specific scientific ideas.
Now, he is not talking about inventions. That would be an entirely different series of lectures. In this case Dr. Goldman is informing us of the great scientific hypotheses and theories over the course of history and, more to the point, how Mankind’s mode of scientific thought has evolved during that time. He also points out how both atomic theory (thinking in terms of the atomic structure of matter, not how to make them go “Boom” really destructively) and field theory both have their antecedents in ancient Greek philosophy even though how that are applied to modern science is quite different from what the ancient philosophers came up with.
Some inventions are mentioned, but only as consequences of the theories and thinking they were involved with. The telescope, for example, is important in observing the solar system, Milky Way and Universe around us, but it is the way we view that Universe, how we understand it that is the great idea that is being discussed. Computers are mentioned, but only because they are an important artifact of the modern Information Age, but it is how we think in terms of systems that is the point of the lecture.
Doctor Goldman works his way into the present day gradually, carefully showing how each new idea and way of thought developed, affected our understanding and then was replaced or added to new ways of thinking without which we might have the understanding we do today. It is to be noted that decades or a century from now people might look back and see how wrong we were, and yet without taking the step(s) that brought us to our current understand, it is possible that whatever we learn next, whatever new theories are ahead may not be possible without being where we are now. That seems to be the nature of how scientific knowledge has developed.
So, by the time we get to today, when it looks like String Theory may, or may not, have proved unworkable, we have traveled through the concept of matter as continuous, and discontinuous (made up of atoms), that atoms are made up of positrons, neutrons, and electron to discovery that protons and neutrons are further composed of quarks, and that there are a host of other particles as well. We have seen the development of the Gene Theory of evolution, which won out over Lamarckian evolution, the Germ Theory of disease (vs such notions as an imbalance of humors) and so on.
All told it was an interesting journey and I was sorry when it finally ended.