The Chinese made promising beginnings in the secular observation of nature, but never completed a full ideological framework for the scientific project comparable to Greek natural philosophy or developed an organized program dedicated to promoting the scientific method.- - - - - - - - -
We should be careful about projecting a too modern understanding of “science” onto the activities of ancient scholars. As the eminent historian Edward Grant reminds us, “Science in the ancient world was a tenuous and ephemeral matter. Most people were indifferent to it, and its impact was meager. It was a very small number of Greek thinkers who laid the foundations for what would eventually become modern science. Of that small number, a few were especially brilliant and contributed monumentally to the advancement of science.”
This is not said to dismiss them or downplay the significance of what they did. On the contrary, we should be all the more impressed by their achievements given how few they were and the limited resources they had at their disposal. Nevertheless, while the ancient Greek contribution was substantial and important it was only one of the major components of what would become modern science when this was finally created in early modern Europe.
Hipparchus, with his star catalog from the second century BC, was the first to introduce a system for measuring the brightness of stars with six levels of magnitude and the brightest ones in class 1. Today’s system essentially follows the same logic. Some stars are so bright that they even have negative magnitudes, for instance Sirius with a visual apparent magnitude of -1.46. Apparent magnitudes do not take into account the distance of the star in question from the Earth. Absolute magnitude is when you directly measure a star’s luminosity.
Robert Grosseteste (ca. 1170-1253) was a talented English scholastic philosopher, Bishop of Lincoln and commentator on the works of Aristotle. Grosseteste introduced Latin translations of some Greek and Arabic philosophical and scientific writings and around 1230 he was probably teaching at the then very young University of Oxford. He composed a number of short works regarding optics and experimented with mirrors and lenses. He proposed that a theory can only be validated by testing its consequences with physical experimentation.
This deviation from traditional Aristotelian philosophy has earned him, with some justification, the reputation of being a pre-modern supporter of the scientific method. Grosseteste’s student Roger Bacon (ca. 1220-1292) doesn’t deserve the label as the “founder of experimental science” that is sometimes bestowed upon him, but he was an influential advocate of gathering empirical evidence in the sciences and he practiced what he preached.
Read the rest at Brussels Journal.