Peter Yeargin

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  1. Christopher Martin 1824 Accepted Answer Community Answer

    Quite a bit, actually!  By lumping astrologers and alchemists together, you're confusing the issue a little, but basically it seems to me what you are asking is "were people who charted the stars and experimented with the combination of materials found in nature predecessors of modern-day scientists?"  And the answer is yes.


    Astrologers, as portrayed today, were con artists who bilked the gullible out of their cash in exchange for advice or prophecy based on the positions of objects in the sky - starts, planets, comets etc.  And while that isn't wrong as such, it does dismiss the body of knowledge that was accumulated through observation and analysis to predict the movement of the stars/planets and the timing of repeated celestial events like comets.  One of the foundational elements of modern science is observation and recording of data, and in that sense those who studied the movements of the night sky were doing science.

    Alchemists, similarly, are portrayed as searching for the ability to transmute elements (classically lead to gold) through the application of mystical formulae and arcane processes.  And again, while not wrong, this does dismiss the extent to which the transmutation of elements WAS possible, through chemical reactions and the blending of different metals, to produce entirely different metals.  Consider Bronze, an alloy of copper - when it was first discovered, the copper was alloyed with arsenic.  Later it was discovered that using tin as an alloy produced superior bronze, and had the bonus side effect of not producing toxic fumes.  

    This move from copper to bronze happened about 5000 years ago, and it wasn't until the last 500 years or so that we came to really understand why any of these processes worked - and from a molecular science level, less than 100 years!  All people knew was that if you did certain things, combined certain materials in certain amounts, you'd get something different than what you started with.  When the Bronze economy collapsed about 3200 years ago, metallurgists (a kind of alchemist, I'd argue) turned to Iron, a metal that had been known for millennia but was harder to work with than copper.  Eventually metallurgists figured out that infusing iron with small amounts of carbon resulted in steel, a metal that was lighter, cheaper, and stronger than bronze.

    If these things were possible - combining the ore of two metals to make a stronger, more durable material - what else might be possible?  The foundations of modern western science are laid upon the search for answers to these questions.  In Europe, the collapse of the Western Roman Empire meant the loss of a great deal of knowledge.  Much of the wisdom of older civilizations had to be reconstructed by trial and error, and mysticism was heavily involved in the process.  Even today, the stereotype of the "Mad Scientist" who tampers with "subjects not meant to be understood by man" persists.  There were people who believed the CERN superconducting supercollider would cause the formation of a black hole that would consume the earth.  I imagine there are people who believe this did happen, and there is a massive, secret-world-government conspiracy to cover it up, but that's a bit far afield.  

    The modern scientific method  is grounded in observation and prediction, and on the idea that all results are provisional - if new information comes along that challenges conclusions, it must be incorporated / grappled with before moving on.  For all the human failings associated with the execution of the process, this is fundamentally what astrologers and alchemists were doing - searching for an understanding of the world around them, and looking for ways to use that knowledge to change their world.



    UTC 2020-09-07 03:19 PM 1 Comment
  2. Christopher's answer is superb.  I have only one perspective to add: 


    We are forever indebted to all those "primitive scientists" who made up crazy theories that were wrong, because finding out what does not work is the essence of the scientific method, as explained eloquently by Karl Popper about a century ago.  "Science Studies" philosophers may scoff at Popper's "Conjectures and Refutations" because they've "moved on" since the discovery of Social Relativism, but their arguments lead to the assertion that, because there is no such thing as a "proven" theory, there is no need to disprove theories either.  Fortunately, they weren't around in the Middle Ages.  

    UTC 2020-09-18 10:02 PM 0 Comments

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