For Joanna, Daniel, Benjamin and Susanna

With thanks to Marilyn for her help and encouragement

Visions that Shaped the Universe

1994 by Joseph L. Spradley. All rights reserved.

Previously published by Wm. C. Brown, 1994-97
and by McGraw-Hill, 1997-2007

ISBN 0-697-26512-9

Reprinted with some revisions in 2007 for Wheaton College
Wheaton, IL 60187

Extended Contents page vi
List of Figures ix
Preface xi
Introduction: A Changing Universe 1
1. Science and History 1
2. Science and Religion 2
3. Science and Creation 3
1. A Religious Universe 6
1. Prehistoric Cultures 6
2. Ancient Egyptian Science 7
3. Babylonian Science 12
4. Phoenician & Hebrew Influences 17
2. A Rational Universe 22
1. The Greek Miracle 22
2. Pre-Socratic Science 23
3. Athenian Science 30
4. Alexandrian Science 40

3. A Purposeful Universe 49
1. Roman Science 49
2. Early Christian & Byzantine Views 51
3. Islamic Science 56
4. Medieval Christian Science 63

4. An Infinite Universe 71
1. The Copernian System 71
2. Copernican Responses & Parallels 76
3. Reactions to Infinity: Brahe & Kepler 79
4. Visions of Infinity: Galileo & Followers 86

5. A Mechanical Universe 95
1. Galileo & Mechanical Ideas 95
2. Scientific Philosophies & Societies 99
3. Mechanical Instruments & Ideas 104
4. Triumph of Mechanistic Science 109

6. An Energistic Universe 125
1. Origins of the Energy Concept 125
2. The Chemical Revolution 129
3. Heat and Thermodynamics 136
4. Energy Propagation: Waves 143

7. An Evolving Universe 152
1. Early Evolutionary Ideas 152
2. Design & Development in Biology 157
3. Earth History & Geology 162
4. The Theory of Evolution 167

8. An Electromagnetic Universe 176
1. Electric Charge & Current 176
2. Electromagnetism 185
3. Electromagnetic Fields & Waves 191
4. Electromagnetic Applications 200

9. A Relational Universe 206
1. Ether & Relativity Theories 206
2. Radioactivity & Atomic Models 215
3. Quantum Theory & the Atom 221
4. Quantum Wave Theory 228

10. An Expanding Universe 235
1. Evidences of an Expanding Universe 235
2. Nuclear Particles & Energy 240
3. Birth of Stars & the Universe 248
4. Elementary Particles & Forces 252

Conclusion: A Living Universe 262
1. The Secret of Life 263
2. The Miracle of Life 264
3. The Value of Life 266
Index 268

Visions that Shaped the Universe

List of Figures page ix
Preface xi

Introduction: A Changing Universe 1
Shifting Views of Science and the Universe

Chapter 1. A Religious Universe 6
Origins of Science in the Earliest Civilizations
Paleolithic Hominids 6
Neolithic Cultures 7
Religious Background 7
Egyptian Technology 8
Egyptian Science 9
Egyptian Mathematics 10
Cultural Background 12
Babylonian Mathematics 13
Babylonian Astronomy and Mythology 14
Late Babylonian Astrology 16
Phoenician Contributions 17
The Hebrew View of Nature 18
The Biblical Idea of Creation 18
The Importance of the Idea of Creation 19

Chapter 2. A Rational Universe 22
Foundations of Science in Ancient Greece
The Cultural Setting 22
The Homeric Background 23

Ionian Science: Matter & Change 23
Pythagorean Science: Mystics & Mathematics 26
Eleatics & Atomists: Permanence & Motion 29

3. ATHENIAN SCIENCE (450-323 BC) 30
Early Syntheses of Pre-Socratic Science 30
Plato and the Academy 32
Aristotle and the Lyceum 36

Hellenistic Trends 40
Alexandrian Mathematics 40
Alexandrian Astronomy & Geography 43

Chapter 3. A Purposeful Universe 49
Transmission and Transformation of Greek Science
Encyclopedia Tradition 49
Medicine 50
Astrology and Alchemy 50
The Birth of Christianity 51
Early Christian Views 51
The Augustinian Synthesis 52
Decline of Science in the West 54
Byzantine Science 55

Origins of Islam 56
Islamic Science before AD 1000 57
Islamic Science after AD 1000 59
The Translators 63
Medieval Universities 63
The Medieval Synthesis 65
Reactions to Thomism 66
Renaissance Awakenings 68

Visions that Shaped the Universe

Extended Contents vii

Chapter 4. An Infinite Universe 71
The Copernican Revolution and its Reception
Background and Sources 71
Objections and Innovations 72
Advantages and Problems 75
Early Lutheran Responses to Copernicus 76
Developments in Other Sciences 77
Catholic and Protestant Reactions 79

The Work of Tycho Brahe 79
The Tychonic System 81
Early Work of Johannes Kepler 82
Breaking of the Circle 83
Harmony of the Universe 84

Galileo and the Telescope 86
Galileo's Telescopic Discoveries 88
Galileo and the Church 89
Responses & Reactions to Galileo's Work 92

Chapter 5. A Mechanical Universe 95
The Scientific Revolution and Newtonian Synthesis
Free Fall and Gravity 95
Projectile Motion and Inertia 97
Gassendi's Revival of Atomism 98
Borelli's Development of Mechanics 99

Bacon's Empiricist Philosophy 99
Descartes and Mechanistic Philosophy 100
Boyle and Corpuscular Philosophy 102
Scientific Societies & the Puritan Ethic 103

Huygens' Clock & other Contributions 104
New Mechanical Ideas 105
The Air Pump and Other Machines 107
The Microscope 108

Early Newtonian Ideas 109
The Newtonian Synthesis 112
Newton's Fluxions and Optics 117
The Influence of Newtonian Ideas 119

Chapter 6. An Energistic Universe 125
Chemical & Industrial Revolutions, Heat & Light
The Vis Viva Concept 125
The Phlogiston Theory 126
New Gases and Experimental Methods 127
Lavoisier and the Elements 129
Dalton's Atomic Theory 131
Avogadro's Molecular Theory 132
Organic and Structural Chemistry 133
Mendeléev's Periodic Table 135
Heat and the Steam Engine 136
Dissipation of Heat 139
Conservation of Energy 140
Thermodynamics and Kinetic Energy 142
Waves and Sound 143
Revival of the Wave Theory of Light 146
Development of the Wave Theory of Light 147
Radiation and Spectroscopy 149

Chapter 7. An Evolving Universe 152
Developmental Concepts and Evolutionary Theories
Temporalizing the Chain of Being 152
Evolutionary Speculations 153
Lamarck's Theory: Acquired Characteristics 154
Early Evolution Debates 156

Natural Theology & Nature Philosophy 157
Epigenesis and Embryology 158
The Cell Theory 159
The Decline of Vitalism 160

Early Theories of the Earth 162
Vulcanism and Neptunism 163
Uniformitarianism and Catastrophism 164
Fossils and Stratification 166

The Darwinian Synthesis 167
The Origin of Species 169
Reception and Reaction to Darwinism 170
Genetics and Neo-Darwinism 172

viii Extended Contents

Chapter 8. An Electromagnetic Universe 176
Electric Charge and Field Concepts
The Concept of Electric Charge 177
Electric Conduction and Fluids 178
Electric Force and Quantity of Charge 181
Electric Current and the Battery 183
Magnetic Effects of Electric Current 185
Electromagnetic Force & Electric Motor 187
Electromagnetic Induction & the Generator 189
Mutual and Self-Induction 190
The Field Concept and Electrolysis 191
Electric Circuits and Oscillations 194
Maxwell's Electromagnetic Field Theory 196
Prediction of Electromagnetic Waves 197
Reception of Maxwell's Theory 200
Hertz and the Discovery of Radio Waves 201
Applications of Radio Waves 202
Extensions of the Electromagnetic Spectrum 203

Chapter 9. A Relational Universe 206
Relativity and Quantum Theories
The Michelson-Morley Experiment 207
The Lorentz-Fitzgerald Contraction 208
Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity 209
The General Theory of Relativity 212
Discovery of Radioactivity & the Electron 215
The Analysis of Radioactivity 218
Radioactive Decay and Isotopes 219
The Nuclear Model of the Atom 220
Planck's Analysis of Thermal Radiation 221
Einstein and the Photoelectric Effect 223
Bohr Theory of the Hydrogen Atom 224
Extensions of the Bohr Theory 227

Wave-Particle Dualities 228
The New Quantum Mechanics 229
Interpretations of Quantum Wave Theory 231
Extensions of Quantum Mechanics 232

Chapter 10. An Expanding Universe 235
The Big Bang Theory and Elementary Particles

Galaxies and the Red Shift 235
Relativistic Cosmologies 237
Hubble's Law of Expansion 238
The Exploding Universe 239

Discovery of the Neutron and Neutrino 240
Nuclear Forces and the Meson 242
Discovery of Nuclear Fission 243
The Development of Nuclear Energy 245

Energy Processes in the Stars 248
Steady-State Theory & Continuous Creation 249
The Big Bang Theory and Nucleosynthesis 250
Successes of the Big Bang Theory 251

Strange Particles and Particle Families 252
Quarks and Leptons 253
Unified Force Theories 255
Creation of the Universe 257

Conclusion: A Living Universe 262
New Evidence for Design and Human Significance


Index 26

1. A Religious Universe 6
1.1 Ancient Egyptian Geometric Concepts 11
1.2 Babylonian Astronomical Concepts 15
2. A Rational Universe 22
2.1 Thales' Right-Triangle Theorem 24
2.2 Anaximander's Unsupported Earth 25
2.3 The Pythagorean Theorem 27
2.4 Pythagorean Cosmology of Philolaus 28
2.5 The Phases & Eclipses of the Moon 31
2.6 Five Regular Solids of Pythagoras 33
2.7 Concentric Spheres of Eudoxus 35
2.8 Aristotle's Antiperistasis Concept 37
2.9 Aristotle's Geocentric Cosmology 39
2.10 Archimedes' Method of Limits 41
2.11 Conic Sections of Apollonius 42
2.12 The Epicycle of Apollonius 43
2.13 Aristarchus on the Size of the Sun 44
2.14 Eratosthenes' on the Size of the Earth 45
2.15 Ptolemy's Epicycle Model 47
3. A Purposeful Universe 49
3.1 Al-Farghani's Planetary Distances 58
3.2 Al-Haytham's Atmospheric Refraction 60
3.3 Al-Haytham's Crystalline Spheres 61
3.4 Oresme's Graph & Mean-Speed Rule 68

4. An Infinite Universe 71
4.1 Heliocentric Earth Motions 73
4.2 Planetary Distances & Stellar Parallax 74
4.3 Copernicus' Use of Circles for Orbits 75
4.4 Tycho Brahe's Measurements 80
4.5 The Tychonic System 81
4.6 Kepler's Theory of Planetary Distances 83
4.7 Kepler's Three Laws of the Planets 85
4.8 Galileo's Discovery Jupiter's Moons 88
4.9 The Phases of Venus in Three Systems 90
4.10 Torricelli's "Sea of Air" Hypothesis 93

5. A Mechanical Universe 95
5.1 Galileo's Analysis of Motion on an Inclined
Plane 96
5.2 Galileo's Concept of Projectile Motion 97
5.3 Huygen's Centrifugal Force Idea 105
5.4 Conservation Laws in Collisions 106
5.5 Roemer's Measurement of the
Speed of Light 107
5.6 Newton's Demonstration of the Composite
Nature of White Light 110
5.7 Inverse-Square Law for the Moon 111
5.8 Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation 114
5.9 Equatorial Bulge and its Effects 115
5.10 Newton's Explanation of the Tides 116
5.11 Comet Orbit & Planet Perturbations 117
5.12 Measurement of Universal Gravitation 123

6. An Energistic Universe 125
6.1 Dalton's Atomic Symbols 132
6.2 Kekulé's Structure for Benzene 135
6.3 Watt's Steam Engine 138
6.4 Rumford's Idea of Heat as Motion 139
6.5 Joule's Measurement of the Mechanical
Equivalence of Heat 141
6.6 Transverse & Longitudinal Waves 144
6.7 Interference & Standing Waves 145
6.8 Young's Double-Slit Experiment 147
6.9 Infrared, Ultraviolet & Line Spectra 149

7. An Evolving Universe 152
7.1 Modern Biological Classification 157
7.2 Stages in Cell Mitosis 160
7.3 Steno's Diagrams of Strata Changes 162
7.4 Hutton's Geological Processes 165
7.5 Smith's Correlation of Fossils & Strata 166
7.6 Wegener's Theory of Continental Drift 172
7.7 Diagram of Mendel's Pea Plants 173

x List of Figures

8. An Electromagnetic Universe 176
8.1 Franklin's Lightning Experiment 181
8.2 Volta's Electric Battery 184
8.3 Oersted's Electromagnetic Effect 185
8.4 Ampère's Current Measurement 186
8.5 Ampère's Electrical Theory of
Magnetism 187
8.6 Direct-Current Electric Motor 191
8.7 Faraday's Field Concept 192
8.8 Alternating-Current Generator/Motor 193
8.9 Mutual Induction & Transformer 194
8.10 Henry's Electric Oscillator 195
8.11 Maxwell's Electromagnetic Wave
Concept 199
8.12 Hertz's Discovery of Radio Waves 201

9. A Relational Universe 206
9.1 Michelson-Morley Experiment 207
9.2 Invariance of the Speed of Light 211
9.3 Principle of Equivalence 213
9.4 Gravitational Bending of Light 215
9.5 Thomson's Identification of Electrons 216
9.6 Millikan's Oil-drop Experiment 217

9.7 Separation of Radioactivity by a
Magnetic Field 218
9.8 Rutherford's Scattering Experiment 221
9.9 Thermal Blackbody Radiation 222
9.10 Photoelectric Effect & Photon Concept 224
9.11 Bohr's Model of the Hydrogen Atom 226
9.12 Stimulated Emission and the Laser 227
9.13 Compton's X-ray Experiment 228
9.14 DeBroglie Wavelength for an
Orbiting Electron 229
9.15 Free Particle Wave Function 231

10. An Expanding Universe 235
10.1 Friedmann Universes 238
10.2 Hubble's Law of Expansion 239
10.3 Lemaître's Hesitation Universe 240
10.4 Quantum Fields and Exchange Forces 242
10.5 Liquid-drop Model of Nuclear Fission 245
10.6 Nuclear Reactor for Generating
Electric Power 246
10.7 Critical Mass Concept 247
10.8 Quark Model of the Proton 254
10.9 Creation & Expansion of the Universe 258

Most books on the history of science
make little effort to describe the concepts of sci-
ence in any detail, and few books on the natural
sciences attempt a comprehensive historical per-
spective. In order to achieve both of these empha-
ses on the conceptual and historical within a rea-
sonable length, it is necessary to combine both
brevity and a clear focus on a basic unifying
theme. The broadest possible theme is the universe
itself, and the scientific visions that have shaped
various views of the universe over the course of
history in Western civilization.
Although the methodology of science
involves the search for natural causes and expla-
nations, its history shows that the concepts and
theories that guide this search have been heavily
influenced by aesthetic, cultural, philosophical and
religious values and ideas. Thus an emphasis on
history can help to establish connections and show
relationships between science and various world
views that have dominated different historical
The historical approach means that some
blind alleys and historically limited perspectives
must be explored, but these can reveal the human
dimensions of science and the often tortuous proc-
ess of scientific discovery. It also should provide
an enhanced appreciation for our cultural heritage
in regard to many things we often take for granted.
Humanities students can especially benefit from
the historical approach to science since it allows
them to see the relationship between science and
culture, and to recognize the relevance of scientific
ideas to their disciplines. Such an approach is
often more accessible and interesting to the liberal
arts student than the more traditional emphasis on
scientific methodology and applications in
Science students can also benefit from the
historical foundations of their disciplines in order
to appreciate how basic scientific concepts were
discovered and developed. They should also
recognize the connection between their special
field of interest and other fields of science, and
gain a more critical understanding of scientific
theories as human creations. The broader
implications of science and its influence on world
views are also important for science students to
know. The history of science can reveal both the
multicultural roots and the societal fruits of
scientific knowledge.
To clarify scientific ideas in their histori-
cal context, some use of mathematics is unavoid-
able. Simple geometry and basic algebra are used
to express some of the more important scientific
relationships and to reveal their quantitative and
predictive potential. In a few cases, more advanced
equations that express fundamental laws are
included to reveal basic connections and sym-
metries, even though their operational meaning is
too advanced for many readers. A minimum of
algebraic manipulation is used to demonstrate the
development of scientific laws, but no emphasis is
given to problem solving. Most college students
should have enough knowledge from high school
mathematics to appreciate the simple equations
that are used, but even these are not essential to
follow most of the discussion of the basic concepts
and their historical development from the narrative

xii Preface

To clarify some of the most important
concepts, about 100 diagrams appear in conjunc-
tion with the text. Although the narrative can be
read without reference to these figures, they are
intended to provide a graphic representation of
ideas that might otherwise be difficult to visualize.
Captions should also make the figures intelligible
apart from the text. Most of the diagrams relate to
important historical contributions. They have been
developed and tested for their pedagogical value
over several years of teaching. They were designed
and produced by the author with the aid of a
simple computer graphics program (Microsoft
Draw). In many cases, they borrow ideas from
other sources, but all are original in their overall
conception and design.
Much of the material presented here was
developed over several years for a general science
requirement for nonscience majors at Wheaton
College. It has also been used for similar courses
abroad at Ahmadu Bello University (Nigeria), at
Daystar University College (Kenya), and at the
American University in Cairo (Egypt). A good
start on the first draft was made possible by a sab-
batical leave at the American University in Cairo,
where a convenient teaching schedule permitted
large blocks of time for writing. The opportunity
to travel in Egypt stimulated my interest in both

ancient Egyptian and Islamic science. I would like
to express special appreciation to Dr. Fadel
Assabghy, Dr. Gregg DeYoung, and Dr. Cynthia
Nelson for helping to make my year in Egypt both
enjoyable and productive.
I would also like to acknowledge the en-
couragement of administrators and colleagues at
Wheaton College. Dr. Arthur Holmes has been
especially helpful in my own liberal arts education
ever since I participated in his History of Philoso-
phy class early in my teaching career, and since
then in various seminars he led. Several genera-
tions of students have also provided stimulation
and encouragement by their participation in
courses I have taught. I especially appreciate the
assistance of Dr. Douglas Penney in reviewing
some of my manuscript on ancient science, and Dr.
William Wharton for making helpful suggestions
for the last two chapters on modern science. Any
grammatical or spelling errors should be attributed
to Microsoft Word, since that program was used to
check the grammar and spelling in each chapter.
Finally, I am deeply indebted to my wife Marilyn,
who provided constant support and encouragement
both at home and while living and traveling
Joseph L. Spradley
Physics Department
Wheaton College (IL)


Science is ever changing. The history of
science reveals many ways of viewing the uni-
verse. The long tradition of Western science has
explored the world from a variety of perspectives,
using many different metaphors and models to try
to capture its essence.
These ideas about the universe have
contributed to the shape and meaning of existence
within various cultural expressions. They have
helped to structure social experience. They have
guided the cycles of life and opened up new vistas
of understanding and appreciation. They have tried
to answer fundamental questions about God and
the world, and have offered new ways to benefit
from the resources around us.
However, every answer has raised new
questions and mysteries, and growing knowledge
has shifted ideas and values. Every attempt to
understand the universe bases its approach on
different values and assumptions that affect the
very language of observation and the definition of
what is factual. Each deserves our appreciation on
its own merits.


Any adequate definition of science must
be broad enough to account for its changing ideas
and historical development. Science is more than
just an effort to control nature, which gave rise to
both magic and the craft tradition. It is more than
the accumulation of information, whatever accu-
racy that may have, since such information is
meaningless without interpretation. It is not just
any theory about nature without a solid empirical
basis, lest it becomes mere speculation.
It is important to distinguish science from
technology, although they often overlap. Science is
more than just a method for gaining systematic
knowledge, no matter how precise and objective
that knowledge may be. Above all, science is a
creative human effort to explain and understand
natural phenomena, and thus is continually
changing as it interacts with new ideas and
What can we learn from the antiquated
ideas of the past? Should we only trace those
theories and discoveries that have contributed to
our modern view of the universe, or can we benefit
by learning from the mistakes of the past as well?
Awareness of the intellectual roots of con-
temporary knowledge and the stages in its
development is an important aspect of learning and
a safeguard against false or misleading opinions.
Some knowledge of the scientific basis of modern
technology can help to keep it from becoming a
new form of magic or even idolatry. Often, the
best way to understand science is to trace the
process of discovery and see how scientific ideas
have developed historically.


A Changing Universe

Shifting Views of Science and the Universe

Introduction • A Changing Universe 2

The history of science also teaches us that
scientific ideas are always changing and that our
view of the universe is not the last word. Perhaps
there are lessons to learn from other ways of
seeing the world that will help us to understand
both the importance and the limits of our own
intellectual heritage. Every historical period has
built its view of the universe on different aspira-
tions and assumptions, and ours is no exception.
The relationship between science and culture, and
the underlying presuppositions of each, are often
more evident in the world views of the past. It is
necessary to study them in terms of their own
goals and values if they are to make sense.
Here the emphasis will be on the history
of scientific ideas that have influenced various
views of the universe and thus shaped world views
more generally. The earliest scientific ideas grew
out of religious practices that led to careful records
of celestial regularities, especially in the ancient
Egyptian and Babylonian civilizations (Chapter 1).
In an attempt to explain these regularities, the
Greeks gave birth to a rational view of the
universe. This included the idea of a spherical
Earth at the center of the celestial spheres (Chapter
2). The medieval cultures that inherited these ideas
developed them into hierarchical systems with a
purposeful relationship between God, humans and
the Earth (Chapter 3).
In the Renaissance revival of Greek
knowledge, the new Copernican system of the
planets circling the Sun led to the idea of an infi-
nite universe (Chapter 4). Development of this
heliocentric system in the seventeenth century pro-
duced a new emphasis on a mechanical universe of
inert matter in motion, culminating in the New-
tonian synthesis as the basis for the eighteenth
century Enlightenment (Chapter 5). During the
Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century, the
energy concept gave rise to the more active view
of an energistic universe, supporting a chemical
rev-olution (Chapter 6). By the nineteenth century
a new idea of progress helped to introduce de-
velopmental concepts in geology and biology,
leading to the evolving universe of the Darwinian
revolution (Chapter 7).
Perhaps the most important scientific idea
of the nineteenth century was the field concept,
revealing the interdependence of an electro-
magnetic universe (Chapter 8). The two major
theories of the physical sciences in the twentieth
century, quantum and relativity theory, extended
the field concept from the smallest atomic system
to the largest galactic cluster in an increasingly
relational universe (Chapter 9). Most of the ideas
of modern science culminate in the vision of an
expanding universe based on the big-bang theory,
leading to a unified view of cosmology and parti-
cle physics (Chapter 10). These concepts correlate
with biology through the vision of a living
universe, especially in the anthropic principle of
recent cosmology (Conclusion).


Religious sensibilities motivated much of
the development of science throughout history,
and science, in turn, has contributed much to
religious insights. The actual history of science
largely contradicts the nineteenth century idea of
warfare between science and religion. When such
conflicts have occurred, historical perspective
often shows them, in retrospect, to be the source of
new religious conceptions, or corrections that help
to purify and enlarge older religious ideas. In the
history of Western culture, science and religion
have been the two main factors in how we view
the universe and our place in it. Our understanding
of the universe and our ideas about God are
mutually related.
All the major religions in Western civili-
zation have contributed to and benefited from the
development of science and associated views of
the universe. The polytheism of the ancient
civilizations stimulated the search for regular
patterns in the behavior of their celestial deities,
leading to the development of descriptive astron-
omy. Jewish monotheism and the idea of a uni-
verse created by one God provided the basis for a
break with polytheism and an understanding of
nature governed by universal laws rather than the
whims of the gods.
Greek rationalism, in spite of its focus on
natural phenomena, sought to discover the har-
monies of the heavens and the inner soul that
animated the world. Islamic scholars developed
Introduction • A Changing Universe 3

Greek science in a monotheistic tradition and kept
it alive for eventual transmission to Western
Medieval Christian thinkers supported
and developed the doctrine of creation with an
emphasis on the goodness and intelligibility of the
created order, and the human responsibility to
understand and use it wisely. Beginning in the
sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation
continued these themes with a further emphasis on
individual interpretation of scripture and nature as
revelations of God and his creation. The scientific
revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries was largely the product of Christian
investigators, who mostly viewed their work as
revealing the greater glory of God and contributing
to human welfare. This attitude continued through
much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
and is not without its adherents in the twentieth
Perhaps the strongest effort to break the
ties between science and religion was the positiv-
ism of the last half of the nineteenth century and
the first half of the twentieth century. Positivists
combined the claim that science should limit itself
to descriptions of observable phenomena with the
assertion that science is the only valid knowledge.
They not only excluded religion from science, but
also classified it as meaningless because they
could not verify it by observational evidence.
However, on the basis of this verification
criterion, scientific laws are also meaningless since
as universal statements it is impossible to verify
them conclusively. Furthermore, the positivistic
claim that only empirically verified knowledge
was valid could not itself be empirically verified,
thus invalidating positivism and its narrow view of
In the second half of the twentieth cen-
tury, positivism came under direct attack with a
new emphasis on the history of science, notably
by writers such as N. R. Hanson, Thomas Kuhn,
Stephen Toulmin and Paul Feyerabend. They
showed that science changes continually and that
many nonscientific factors influence it. Their
analysis revealed that “all data is theory laden,”
and that no scientific idea is completely separate
from prevailing world views and cultural values.
The human dimensions of science, such
as creativity, mystery and fallibility, became clear
from its history, linking it more closely with a
variety of cultural and religious traditions. The end
of the myth of scientific objectivity opens up new
possibilities for relating science and religion, each
benefiting from the other. Unfortunately, in some
circles a narrow view of creation hinders this
prospect of mutual benefit.


In much of recent scientific discussion,
the ideas of science and creation have appeared to
be in conflict. This is especially true in the
reemergence of “creationism” as an alternative
approach to science. Ironically, creationists have
followed a positivistic approach in insisting on a
literal and factual interpretation of the creation
narrative in Genesis, as though it were a scientific
account of origins. They give little attention to the
historical and cultural setting of the narrative, nor
to evidence in the text of natural processes,
anthropomorphic language, pictorial images or its
polemical emphasis against idolatry.
This positivistic approach led to the idea
that all of creation occurred in six literal days and
that the Earth is relatively young, perhaps as recent
as 6000 years if there is no allowance made for
gaps in the genealogies of the Genesis record. It
requires a rejection of much of modern science,
especially evidence from astronomy, biology and
Three creationist theories are typical of
those introduced in the nineteenth century. The
gap theory, given notoriety by the notes appended
to the 1909 Scofield Reference Bible, separated a
creation “in the beginning” from a much later
catastrophic ruination and six-day restoration,
culminating in the creation of Adam and Eve (at
4004 BC in the Scofield marginal reference). This
view relegates fossils to the “primitive creation,”
but there is little if any empirical or Biblical basis
for such an interpretation.
The apparent-age theory proposed that
the fossil evidence of ancient life forms resulted
from a recent creation of the Earth, but with the
appearance of great age. Developed by the British
Introduction • A Changing Universe 4

biologist Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888), the
Greek word Omphalos (navel) in the title of his
1857 book referred to the idea that Adam had a
navel even though his direct creation required no
umbilical cord, just as the creation of trees would
have rings of apparent age. Such a view denies
both the reality of all aspects of creation and the
validity of empirical observations.
Flood geology tried to explain away evi-
dence for an ancient Earth by insisting that Noah’s
Flood was a universal deluge that buried fossils
and reshaped the Earth. Ellen G. White (1827-
1915), the charismatic founder of the Seventh-Day
Adventist church, used this idea to strengthen her
emphasis on Sabbath worship as a memorial to a
literal six-day creation. In the 1930s, George
McCready Price developed this flood-geology
approach in the Seventh-Day Adventist tradition.
Henry Morris and John Whitcomb revived it in the
1960s. Flood geology rejects much of the
established evidence and scientific inferences of
the geological sciences.
The Biblical tradition views both the
word of God in scripture and the works of God in
nature as revelations of God given for human
understanding, and thus sees both as intelligible
and reliable. Several options for interpreting the
Biblical account of creation in the light of modern
science are worthy of brief mention.
As early as the fifth century, Saint
Augustine suggested that the “days” of Genesis
were “ineffable” and should be interpreted as God-
divided days of indefinite length, rather than Sun-
divided days of only 24 hours. Some nineteenth
century theologians correlated the “creation days”
with geological epochs in the day-age theory.
They viewed the diversity of living species as the
result of special acts of creation separated by long
periods of time. In some versions, this kind of
progressive creation tried to partially accom-
modate the theory of evolution by allowing for
limited evolutionary development of species be-
tween creative events.
Another nineteenth century suggestion,
sometimes called the revelatory-day theory, was
that God revealed creation to Moses in six 24-hour
days, rather than completing it in six days. This
would reflect the Babylonian tradition of recording
their creation accounts on six clay tablets, giving a
day of revelation for each tablet. In this view, the
Genesis account did not intend to give scientific
information about creation, but instead it seeks to
evoke worship of God, affirm the dependence of
the created order on God’s power, prohibit
idolatry, and prevent superstitious views of the
universe. It is then the God-given task of humans
to employ the usual methods of observation and
reason to work out the details of God’s creative
activity in bringing the universe to its present state
of development.
After Charles Darwin introduced the
theory of organic evolution, most nineteenth
century Biblical theologians (Charles Hodge,
Benjamin Warfield, James Orr, Augustus Strong,
et al.) accepted various versions of a view called
theistic evolution. They maintained that God
created the natural order and its laws, and con-
tinually guides the evolutionary processes of
nature through his immanent activity in the world
to achieve his purposes. In this view, the theories
of science are the best efforts of humans to de-
scribe and explain these processes, but should not
be absolutized to exclude the idea of a God who
creates and sustains the universe. These theo-
logians distinguished between “evolution” as a
natural process guided by God, and an “evolu-
tionism” that was completely naturalistic and
denied the existence of God.
Some Christians take exception to the
idea of limiting God’s activity to only immanent
(internal) processes in nature, suggesting that God
is also transcendent and sometimes acts directly to
change the course of natural events for special
purposes. Thus they suggest that such events as the
beginning of life and the appearance of the first
humans required direct acts of God to overcome
the extreme improbability (see Conclusion) that
such events might have occurred spontaneously by
purely natural processes.
A mediating view concerning the first
humans is that God acted directly on preexisting
hominids whose bodies developed through evolu-
tionary processes. By breathing into them “the
breath of life,” God created truly human beings of
sufficient intelligence to be morally responsible for
their actions and capable of responding to their
Introduction • A Changing Universe 5

creator. In the Biblical tradition, Adam’s
disobedience and rejection of God introduced
moral evil into the world. Since Adam represented
the new humanity, his sin was imputed to all other
humans, “For as through the one man’s dis-
obedience the many were made sinners” (Romans


Barbour, Ian G. Religion in an Age of Science. San
Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990.
Hanson, N. R. Patterns of Discovery. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1958.
Jaki, Stanley. Science and Creation. Edinburgh:
Scottish Academic Press, 1974.
Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revo-
lutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
Livingstone, David N. Darwin’s Forgotten De-
fenders. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987.
Numbers, Ronald L. The Creationists. New York:
Alfred Knopf, 1992.
Ramm, Bernard. The Christian View of Science
and Scripture. Grand Rapids, Michigan:
Eerdmans, 1955.
Whitcomb, John C. and Henry M. Morris. The
Genesis Flood. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and
Reformed Publishing Co., 1961.



Nowhere is the relationship between sci-
ence and religion more evident than in the ancient
civilizations where science had its origins. Since
the earliest civilizations deified natural creatures
and celestial objects, the priests of their religions
were diligent to observe the behavior of their gods
and record their regularities. This led to
considerable knowledge about the heavens and the
ability to predict many celestial phenomena.
The religious world view of these civili-
zations led to the development of practical tech-
niques in other fields such as agriculture, architec-
ture, writing and mathematics, which were eventu-
ally rationalized into early scientific traditions. A
survey of early contributions to science by the
ancient Egyptian and Babylonian civilizations will
show how much these religious concerns
motivated the origins of science. First, however, it
will be helpful to trace the origin of these religious
con-cerns in the earliest human cultures, where
they appear to be of the very essence of what it
means to be human.

Paleolithic Hominids
The general stages in the development of
cultures are nomadic food gathering, settled
agriculture, and the urban dwelling that initiated
the great civilizations of the world. The earliest
evidence of hominid (human-like) creatures comes
from East Africa, stretching back some two
million years into the Old Stone Age or Paleolithic
period. In the Lower Paleolithic cultures, evidence
points to nomadic hunters and gatherers who
sheltered in caves, made stone tools, and used fire,
probably kindled from the sparks flying from the
chipping of flints.
From about one million to about 15
thousand years ago, large glacial sheets per-
iodically covered the northern continents in a
series of ice ages. By the Middle Paleolithic period
about 80,000 years ago, the appearance of
Neanderthal hominids includes evidence of burial
as well as stone tools and fire. Fossil remains from
Europe to the Middle East and Northern Africa,
but first found in Neanderthal, Germany, in 1856,
give no evidence to indicate whether they became
extinct or interbred with more modern types of
By the Upper Paleolithic period, there is
evidence of a sudden flowering of more distinc-
tively human culture, including communal
hunting, man-made shelters, and religious belief
systems suggested by burial practices and cave
paintings. Skeletal remains of the first biologically


A Religious Universe

Origins of Science in the Earliest Civilizations

Chapter 1 • A Religious Universe 7

modern human beings were first found in France
in 1868. These so-called Crô-Magnon men
appeared about 40,000 years ago, leaving cultural
artifacts such as flint and bone tools, shell and
ivory jewelry, and naturalistic cave paintings of
considerable elegance and vitality.
The Upper Paleolithic was also a time of
rapid population expansion and migration to all
parts of the globe. In this period the use of
markings begins, perhaps to keep track of time.
The first evidence of musical instruments also
appears together with the first indications of the
use of magic and language. Magic is an attempt to
alter the course of nature by controlling super-
natural forces through ritual and incantations.
Although it recognizes causal and associational
relationships, its utilitarian and superstitious
emphases prevent it from being considered as

Neolithic Cultures
About 10,000 years ago, after the end of
the last ice age, the formation of settled commu-
nities near bodies of water began to appear. These
give evidence of a number of new techniques,
including sophisticated stone tools and small flint
implements, gradual domestication of plants and
animals, and the development of pottery. The New
Stone Age or Neolithic period, began about 8000
to 6000 BC in the Middle East with polished stone
tools, settled villages, cultivated grains,
domesticated animals, developed pottery, and
The smelting of ores may have developed
out of experience with cooking, leading to the
Bronze Age when alloys of copper appear with tin
or lead to produce stronger metals. These were
first introduced for making tools, weapons, and
castings after about 4000 BC. In this period the
first urban civilizations made their appearance in
the Fertile Crescent, extending from the Nile Delta
and the eastern Mediterranean coast to the Tigris
and Euphrates River valleys as far as the Persian
Megalithic monuments consisting of huge
stone slabs up to 20 meters in length and 100 tons
appeared in Western Europe and the British Isles
in the third millennium BC, probably serving
religious functions. The most famous of these is
the Stonehenge group of megaliths on the
Salisbury Plain in southern England, consisting of
four series of giant stones. The two outermost
series form circles surrounding a horseshoe shaped
series and an ovoid series, within which lies an
altar stone. These appear to have combined
religion with accurate observations of the Sun and
Moon, but lack any written records to confirm this.
Similar activities had already begun in Egypt, with
the added advantage of some of the earliest written
records, leading eventually to the development of
science. Egypt would also initiate the Iron Age in
about the fifteenth century BC.

Religious Background
The earliest civilizations emerged in great
river valleys that could support extensive
agricultural practices. The Nile River valley pro-
vided one of the best such environments because
of its isolation by deserts from outside attack, its
comfortable climate, and its regular pattern of
flooding that provided predictable agricultural
conditions and annual renewal of fresh topsoil.
The invention of hieroglyphic writing
(Greek: sacred carvings) and papyrus made it
possible for the priests of Egypt to keep extensive
records over long periods of time. They made
papyrus from interwoven strips of pressed pith
from the stem of a tall Nile sedge plant.
Hieroglyphic pictograms were eventually adapted
into an alphabet of 24 phonetic symbols and an
abbreviated script called “hieratic.”
The unification in about 3100 BC of
Upper Egypt in the south with Lower Egypt in the
north (delta region of the Nile) established the
First Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, or Pyramid
Age, leading to about a thousand years of relative
peace and stability along some 1000 kilometers of
the Nile Valley. The great pyramid building
projects near the beginning of the delta region
helped to weld the nation together. The pyramid
tombs reveal two features of Egyptian religion:
concern for the pharaoh’s afterlife; and the impor-
tance of the Sun in their worship, with the rays of
the Sun represented by the pyramid shape. They
Chapter 1 • A Religious Universe 8

built them on the western bank of the Nile where
the Sun seemed to die each night. Some 80
pyramids still stand in various states of preserva-
tion, most in the vicinity of the ancient capital of
Memphis near modern Cairo.
By the end of this period, the capital was
shifted to Upper Egypt to a city that the Greeks
called Thebes, which became the dominant city of
Egypt for about 1500 years. Here they built the
great temples of Luxor and Karnak on the east
bank of the Nile, and they dug royal tombs in the
Valley of the Kings on the west bank.
In addition to their recognizable geo-
graphic boundaries, the ancient Egyptians believed
that mountain peaks or pillars held up the sky at
the four cardinal points. The sky was the goddess
Nut who supported the heavenly bodies and across
which the Sun-god Atum-Ra sailed each day in a
barge like the papyrus boats on the Nile. Two of
the earliest religious cults were the Upper
Egyptian solar cult of Atum-Ra at Heliopolis (later
Amon-Ra at Thebes) and the Lower Egyptian
nature cult of Osiris.
The solar and nature cults were eventu-
ally combined and elaborated in a myth of creation
from an eternal ocean. This ocean then subsided to
leave the Nile flowing between two oceans in the
south and north and a primeval hill from which
Atum-Ra created himself. Egyptians viewed Atum
as the creator, who thus became joined with the
Sun-god Ra, symbolized by the pyramid, giving
birth to the sky-goddess Nut and the Earth-god
Geb. The children of Nut and Geb were the gods
of the nature cult, Set, Nepthys, Osiris and Isis, and
their son Horus. The importance of the Sun is
evident in many ancient Egyptian texts, such as the
following hymn:

Thanks to you, O Sun of the day,
You who rise each morning without fail,
The brilliance of your light exceeds that of
You who are inspired, great, and creative,
Who contain the universe and enfold it at a
Creatures see you as you traverse the sky,
Failing to understand how you move.
You travel the universe without haste,
Making the people’s day unfold beneath.
When you walk toward the west,
It hastens the night to bow to your will.
When you complete your journey and
The universe surges forth to receive your
That all creatures may pursue life once

The religious world view of the Egyptians
took a more definite shape with the identification
of the pharaoh with the Sun-god Ra, believed to be
the direct ancestor of the pharaohs. They came to
associate life with the eastern bank of the Nile
where the Sun rose with new life each morning.
Cities of the dead, with their monumental tombs in
the form of pyramids at Memphis and under-
ground chambers at Thebes, were usually built on
the western bank where the setting Sun began its
journey through the underworld. Pyramid building
reenacted the creation of Atum-Ra from the
primeval hill. Elaborate funerary preparations for
the pharaohs provided a corporate basis for their
most deeply rooted concept, the belief in life after
death. Priests mummified the dead in a process
requiring from 40 to 90 days, depending on family
wealth, to provide a home for the soul.

Egyptian Technology
Religious ideas were a large factor in
motivating the technical abilities of the ancient
Egyptians, as is especially evident in the con-
struction of the great pyramids of Sakkara and
Giza near the ancient city of Memphis and the
modern city of Cairo. The largest of these, built for
King Khufu (Greek: Cheops) in the 27th century
BC, was originally 140 meters high with each side
measuring 230 meters at the base. It contains about
2.3 million stones averaging 2.5 tons each. Some
of its stones weigh as much as 50 tons, apparently
moved by no more than ropes, levers, rollers and
pulleys. Measurements show that the sides differed
by less than 2 centimeters, and their corners form
90-degree angles within 2 minutes of a degree. It
was oriented toward the true north with nearly the
same degree of accuracy, indicating a high level of
astronomical skill.
Chapter 1 • A Religious Universe 9

Construction of the first pyramid, the Step
Pyramid at Sakkara, was a century before the Giza
pyramids in the 28th century BC during the Third
Dynasty for King Zoser, believed to have been the
first monarch imputed with divinity. It rises in six
steps on each of four sides, peaking at a height of
more than sixty meters, and is believed to
represent a staircase to heaven. Zoser’s chief
advisor, the legendary Imhotep, apparently de-
signed the step pyramid. He is also reputed to be
the first physician whose name has been recorded.
In later times, Egyptians worshiped him as the
god of medicine.
Egyptian Science.
Although the earliest of about 20 medical
papyri that have survived come from about the
17th century BC, they seem to reflect knowledge
going back to the earliest dynasties of the Old
Kingdom. They are unusual in their emphasis on
practical medicine in addition to the usual magical
incantations that suggest a “demon theory” of dis-
ease. The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, dating
from about 1700 BC, was purchased by the
American Edwin Smith in 1862 at Luxor, Egypt,
but not translated until 1930. It describes 48 sur-
gical cases of wounds and fractures throughout the
body, giving practical instructions for treatment. It
is unique among ancient medical texts in class-
ifying some cases as incurable, and thus “not to be
treated.” The Ebers Medical Papyrus, dating from
about 1600 BC, purchased at Luxor in 1873 by
German Egyptologist Georg Ebers, describes some
47 diseases, including symptoms, diagnoses, and
prescriptions. These earliest medical texts recog-
nized the healing power of nature in many cases,
and are impressive in their factual detail. Other
texts are more magical, describing the identi-
fication of demons from various omens and how to
draw them off into an animal, ointment or amulet.
One of the most important contributions
of ancient Egypt was the invention of the solar cal-
endar. The annual flooding of the Nile determined
the pattern of agriculture for the Egyptians over a
period of a few days more than 12 lunar months
(29.5×12=354 days), making a lunar calendar awk-
ward for an agricultural civilization. The
Egyptians recognized three seasons, which they
called inundation, emergence and harvest. Careful
obser-vations revealed that the star Sirius, the
brightest star in the heavens, followed this same
pattern on a more regular basis. Priestly observers
noted that Sirius set earlier every evening as its
position shifted closer to the Sun until it finally
disappeared in the light of the Sun. About 70 days
later, they observed that it reappeared in the
morning just before sunrise. This so called heliacal
rising of Sirius (the Dog Star in the constellation
Canis Major) occurred each year at about the same
time that the Nile flooding began, still referred to
as the “dog days” of July.
The earliest recorded calendar in Egypt
consisted of the three seasons, each of four lunar
months, but priests added a thirteenth month every
two or, more often, three years to synchronize the
heliacal rising of Sirius with the year. As Egypt
became a better organized kingdom, it
supplemented this fluctuating “luni-stellar”
calendar of 12- and 13-month years by a “civil
calendar” with a constant 365 days, corresponding
to the successive reappearances of Sirius. This
celestial confirmation established the civil year
with 12 months of 30 days each, followed by 5
feast days at the end of the year to celebrate the 5
children of the sky-goddess Nut. This civil
calendar, breaking the bonds of the lunar month,
served for administrative purposes alongside the
older seasonal calendar used for agricultural and
religious functions.
Eventually the Egyptians noticed that
every four years the first day of their civil calendar
shifted one more day earlier than the reappearance
of Sirius (Egyptian: Sothis), leading them to rec-
ognize that the actual solar year is 365 + 1/4 days.
A period of 1460 years (4×365) became the so
called Sothic cycle, during which the beginning of
their civil year shifted by 365 days before it again
coincided with the reappearance of Sirius. The
Roman author Censorinus noted that this coin-
ciding of Sirius with the Egyptian new year
occurred in AD 139, leading to speculation that the
Egyptians discovered the solar year two or three
Sothic cycles earlier at about 2781 BC or even
4241 BC. When Julius Caesar introduced his
calendar reforms in 46 BC, he took the advice of
the Egyptian astronomer Sosigenes and included a
Chapter 1 • A Religious Universe 10

366-day leap year once every four years, bringing
the Julian calendar into closer correspondence with
the solar year.
The Egyptians developed the Sun dial and
other kinds of shadow clocks for measuring time
during the day. They also developed the water
clock for measuring time at night by making a
small opening in the bottom of a conical vessel
shaped to allow water to escape at a uniform rate.
They grouped stars over a wide equatorial band
into 36 constellations, now called “decans”
because each occupies ten degrees. Each decan
contained a particular star, beginning with Sirius,
whose heliacal risings followed each other every
ten days to mark the beginning of 10-day weeks.
The decans formed a star clock that made
it possible to determine the “hour” of the night
from the rising of any given constellation. In mid-
summer when the night is shortest, only 12 decans
rise during darkness, leading to the 12-hour
division of night with the length of night-time
hours shorter in the summer and longer in the
winter. The Egyptians divided the 30-day month
into three ten-day weeks corresponding to the
decans. They divided the day into ten hours, with
one hour added at either end for twilight, giving a
total of 12 daytime hours. By about the 14th
century BC the concept of 24 equal hours
Religious ideas and astrological concerns
strongly influenced both astronomy and the
measurement of time. The primary goal as re-
vealed by their texts was to determine the correct
hour and season of their religious festivals. As
each decan shifts nearer the Sun, it disappears for a
period of about 70 days. An inscription on a
monument of Seti I (ca. 1300 BC) describes how
one decan after another “dies” and is then
“purified” in the embalming house of the nether
world during 70 days of invisibility before being
reborn. This matched the traditional 70-day em-
balming period in the preparation of mummies.
The Egyptians designed even the astronomical
inscriptions on coffin lids and tombs to inform the
dead when they needed incantations on their
nocturnal journeys.

Egyptian Mathematics
Practical and religious concerns associated with
agriculture, architecture and record keeping also
gave rise to Egyptian mathematics. They used a
decimal system based on addition, with different
symbols for units, tens, and multiples of tens,
similar to Roman numerals. A number like 365
then appeared as ρρρΛΛΛΛΛΛ11111, with ρ re-
presenting hundreds, Λ for tens, and 1 for units.
Multiplication involved an additive process of
consecutive duplication. Thus multiplying a
number by 16 requires four duplications (2
) of the
number. Multiplication of 35 by 21 requires
adding the results for 1, 4, and 16 as shown:

\ 1 35
2 70
\ 4 140
8 280
\ 16 560
so 1 + 4 + 16 = 21
and 21 x 35 = 35 + 140 + 560 = 735.
Division involved a similar method. Thus dividing
735 by 35 would look like the above example, but
the scribe would first find which products add up
to 735 and then sum the corresponding multipliers
to find the answer 21. Division does not always
give a whole number. Thus dividing 25 by 4
involves duplicating 4 until it is the largest number
equal to or less than 25. The result would be:

1 4
\ 2 8
\ 4 16
since 8 + 16 = 24 is 1 less than 25
and 2 + 4 = 6, the answer is 6 + 1/4
The Egyptians used only unit fractions, so they did
not reduce a sum such as 1/3 plus 1/15 to its
simpler equivalent of 2/5, and they expressed
higher fractions in terms of various combinations
of unit fractions.
Apparently the Egyptians developed geo-
metry (literally “Earth measurement”) from its
association with the need for surveying land
Chapter 1 • A Religious Universe 11

boundaries each year after the Nile floods receded.
The concept of area may have grown out of the
need for a quantitative measure of a given piece of
land as a basis for taxation, as suggested by the
Greek historian Herodotus, leading to some of the
first geometric formulas. The Egyptians defined
the area of a rectangle of base b and height h (see
Figure 1.1a) by the product of the lengths of its
sides, A = bh, and is thus a measure of the number
of square units (s²) it contains. Similarly, they gave
the area of a triangle of base b and height h as half
of their product, A = bh/2, which follows in the
case of a right triangle from dividing a rectangle
with its diagonal into two equal triangles (Figure
1.1b). Such formulas appear as practical computa-
tional procedures without any attempt to give an
explanation or proof.
The Egyptian formula for the area of a
circle reveals the practical character of their ge-
ometry, in contrast to the theoretical approach of
the Greeks. The oldest known mathematical treat-
ise, the Rhind Papyrus dating from about the 20th
century BC (purchased by the Scotsman Henry
Rhind at Luxor in 1858, now in the British Mu-
seum), gives a procedure for measuring the area
of a circular piece of ground. Probably obtained by
trial and error, it involved subtracting from the
diameter d of the circle 1/9 of its value (d - d/9)
and squaring the result (Figure 1.1c). Since the di-
ameter d is twice the radius r, this is equivalent to:
Area = (8d/9)
= (16r/9)
= (256/81)r
= 3.1605r
indicating a value of π (circumference/diameter) of
about 3.16 as compared with the Greek formula:
Area = πr
where π = 3.14159....
This is an excellent approximation with an error of
less than 1%, but it is a practical rule with no
b = 4m
d = 2r
(e) Pyramid
(a) Rectangle (b) Triangle
(c) Circle
(d) Cube
(f) Cylinder
s = 3m
A = bh = 12 m² A = bh/2
A=(d - d/9)²=(8d/9)²
= 256 r²/81
= 3.16 r²
V = (8d/9)²h V=s²s=s³ =27m³
V = b²h/3

Figure 1.1 Ancient Egyptian Area and Volume Concepts and Formulas
The Egyptian invention of area and volume concepts involved practical considerations of surveying
land and building structures for grain storage or monuments based on the ideas of a unit area s² and
a unit volume s³.
Chapter 1 • A Religious Universe 12

theoretical basis, rather than a precise result as
derived by the Greeks from mathematical princi-
Egyptian scribes also developed the
concept of volume (Figure 1.1d), including formu-
las for simple geometric solids. In one papyrus,
they gave the volume of a cylindrical storage
granary (Figure 1.1f) by the product of the area of
the circular base times the height. One of the
highest achievements of ancient Egyptian mathe-
matics, probably found by careful measurement
methods, was the formula for the volume V of a
truncated pyramid with a square top of sides a,
square base of sides b, and height h. Their result is
equivalent to the formula:

V = (a
+ ab + b
)h/3 ,

which reduces to V = b
h/3 when a = 0 for a
regular pyramid (Figure 1.1e). This was especially
useful in the planning and construction of the
pyramids, revealing again the practical and
religious sources of Egyptian knowledge. Such a
practical application, however, does not disqualify
it as being unscientific. In fact, these religious
motivations contributed to their concern for
accuracy and all the other achievements that the
Greeks would later admire so much.


Cultural Background
Science also developed in the river val-
leys of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, a region
known as Mesopotamia (Greek: land between the
rivers) where the modern country of Iraq is
located. This was also a fertile area like the Nile
River valley, but with much more chaotic condi-
tions of weather and geography. A greater annual
rainfall some-times produced unpredictable flood-
ing that would wipe out entire villages. Several
Sumerian and Babylonian accounts describe vast
floods in this region. An ancient Babylonian flood
story from about the 18th century BC appears in a
longer work known as the Epic of Gilgamesh,
written on twelve tablets. Tablet eleven tells of a
flood planned by the gods to destroy all human
life. The story is similar to the Biblical account of
Noah’s flood, including the building of an ark, but
the rains end on the seventh day and the setting is
polytheistic in which the gods personify the forces
of nature.
Building materials in Mesopotamia were
mostly bricks obtained from mud, which have
almost completely weathered away over the cen-
turies, in contrast to the stone monuments of
Egypt. Fewer archaeological monuments remain to
reveal the glories of the past and the patterns of
life. Invaders had easier access to this region than
to Egypt, leading to more warfare and linguistic
confusion. In spite of these conditions, there is
evidence that early civilizations in Mesopotamia
developed a high level of mathematical and astro-
nomical skill, largely motivated by religious
concerns similar to the Egyptians.
The earliest records from this region were
written on clay tablets from as early as about 3500
BC by the ancient Sumerian civilization, near
where the two rivers join before flowing into the
Gulf. They developed a method of writing known
as cuneiform (Latin: wedge shaped) by making
indentations in clay tablets with pointed reeds and
then leaving them in the Sun to bake. Eventually
the Akkadians (Assyro-Babylonian) conquered the
Sumerians and they mixed with other Semitic
peoples, but their culture persisted and reached its
intellectual heights about 2000 BC with its center
in the ancient city of Babylon on the Tigris River.
Most of what we know about the Sumerians and
the Babylonians who followed them comes from
large quantities of cuneiform tablets recovered
over the last century. Unlike the papyrus rolls of
Egypt, scribes never assembled these tablets into
book form but kept them in large library
The golden age of Babylonian culture
came under the Amorite King, Hammurabi, in the
18th century BC. The Babylonian language was
Semitic in origin and was the language of diplo-
macy with Egypt and other nations. However, the
Babylonian priests did not forget Sumerian, and it
became their sacred language. Hammurabi is best
known for the first complete code of laws, which
was discovered in 1901 in the form of an
engraving on a large block of polished black
diorite nearly two and one half meters high, and is
Chapter 1 • A Religious Universe 13

now preserved in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
The top shows in low relief the Sun-god Shamash
presenting the code to King Hammurabi.
Hammurabi’s code includes 282 articles
with laws concerning property, business, family,
injuries and labor. Perhaps the chaotic conditions
in the region led to a greater emphasis on organ-
ized information about legal procedures as well as
religious practices and scientific knowledge.
Available Babylonian scientific texts consist
almost exclusively of lists of objects, tables of
information, practical hints and worked examples
without explanations. In these early Mesopotamian
cultures, naming things was synonymous with
creating them, providing knowledge of the
external world.

Babylonian Mathematics
About one hundred tablets have been
found representing early Babylonian mathematics.
Their most important contribution appears to be
the invention of the positional number system,
which was much more efficient than the Egyptian
numeral system and was probably the original
source of our modern decimal system. They used a
sexigesimal system based on multiples of 60 as
well as 10. Only two separate signs appear in their
numbers, with wedge shapes like a Y for 1 and <
for 10, but the first sign also represented powers of
60 depending on its position. Thus a number like
365 has three positions in the decimal system
representing 3 hundreds, 6 tens and 5 units.
However, it requires only two positions in base 60,
with 6,5 meaning six sixties and 5 units and
written as YYYYYY YYYYY. A number such as
32 appears as <<< YY, while a change in positions
gives YY <<< equivalent to 2 × 60 + 30 or 150.
Since a symbol for zero was not added for several
centuries, scribes indicated a missing power of 60
by a space.
The many factors in 60 (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10,
12, 15, 20, 30) made fractions easy for the Sum-
erian computer to manipulate, since their position
could designate a negative power of 60 similar to
the decimal use of negative powers of 10. Thus a
fraction such as 2/15 (.0833...) is 8/60, which they
would write in the sexigesimal system as 8 in the
next position after units. We still use this system
today in our division of the hour and the degree
into 60 minutes, and each minute into 60 seconds.
The Sumerians also gave us the division of the
circle into 360 degrees, matching their belief that
there were 360 days in the year corresponding to a
shift in the Sun of about one degree each day
relative to the stars.
Although the Sumerians had no symbolic
equations, they had considerable algebraic ingenu-
ity, including the use of negative numbers. They
were able to solve the equivalent of linear and
quadratic equations, and even simple exponential
equations involving compound interest. By 2000
BC the Babylonians could calculate the area of
triangles and recorded long lists of different
lengths of the sides of right triangles (later gen-
eralized in the theorem of Pythagoras). These
included not only the more obvious Pythagorean
triplets like 3, 4, 5 (3² + 4² = 5²) and 5, 12, 13, but
also some less obvious ones like 4961, 6480, 8161.
On one tablet the diagonal of a square is marked
with a value giving the square root of 2 as
2 = 1;24,51,10 = 1 + 24/60 + 51/60² + 10/60³.

Expressed as a decimal, this is equal to 1.414213...
instead of the actual value 1.414214....
In general, Babylonian geometry fell
somewhat short of the Egyptians. Their usual de-
termination of the circumference of a circle was
the simple approximation of three times its diame-
ter (3d), equivalent to taking π = 3 compared to the
Egyptian value of 3.16. The Old Testament of the
Bible reflects a possible Babylonian cultural
influence in using the same approximate value of 3
in discussing circular measures (I Kings 7:23 and
II Chronicles 4:2). One Babylonian tablet dealing
with the perimeters and areas of polygons appears
to imply the approximate value of
π = 3;7,30 = 3 + 7/60 + 30/60² = 3.125,
but this result is not explicit and must be inferred
from the mathematical context. The Babylonians
also used a simplified approximation for the
volume of a truncated square pyramid, V =
)h/2, which suffered by comparison with the
correct formula found by the Egyptians and later
derived by the Greeks.
Chapter 1 • A Religious Universe 14

Babylonian Astronomy and Mythology
The influence of religion is especially
clear in Babylonian astronomy. They worshipped
celestial objects as gods, especially the Sun, Moon,
and the five visible planets. Careful observation of
the sacred heavens was the duty of the priest-
astronomers. The motions of the heavens were the
basis for both the divination of future affairs of
state and the determination of the calendar for
religious and civil observances. This was a kind of
judicial astrology in contrast with the personal as-
trology that appeared later. With the mathematical
foundations they had established, the Babylonians
began the long series of observations over many
centuries that would eventually provide the basis
for the astronomical generalizations of the Greeks.
From about 2000 BC the Sumerians had
developed the building of monumental brick
towers, called ziggurats, which served both as
religious temples and as platforms for astrological
observations. They consisted of a series of edifices
of decreasing size built on top of each other with
an encircling stairway for the priests to reach the
top. Though similar to Egyptian pyramids, the
Babylonians did not use ziggurats as tombs and
their mud bricks were more vulnerable to
deterioration from weathering. Only the
foundation ruins remain, including one of the best
examples at Ur near the Arabian Gulf, where
excavations were completed in 1933. It has been
suggested that the Biblical account of the Tower of
Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) may be related to the
ziggurat tradition and the attempt of Babylonian
priests to reach their celestial gods.
By the time of Hammurabi (ca. 1750 BC),
star catalogs and planetary records were regularly
prepared. Since Babylon was the center of a large
land empire, commerce, religion and agriculture
required a predictable and uniform calendar. Along
with his other reforms, Hammurabi ordered the
establishment of a common calendar to operate
throughout his empire. Since the original lunar
calendar alternated 29 and 30 day months, 12
months contained 354 days instead of the 365 days
of the seasonal cycle. To compensate for this
deficiency, the priests occasionally inserted
(intercalated) an extra (thirteenth) lunar month so
that the legal year would more closely match the
solar year. Eventually they established a 19-year
luni-solar calendar (235 lunar months), during
which they added an intercalary month in 7 out of
every 19 years to nearly match lunar months to the
solar year (later called the Metonic cycle after its
revival by Meton of Athens in 432 BC).
The Babylonians mapped the heavens
into groupings of stars that formed recognizable
patterns called constellations, named in honor of
mythological figures. They divided 36 of these
constellations into three bands of 12 each, and the
Greeks later added a fourth band of 12 more. Mod-
ern astronomy still uses these 48 constellations,
together with 40 more seen only from the southern
hemisphere, making a total of 88 over the entire
sky. The most important of these bands for the
Babylonians was a continuous sequence of 12
constellations in a great circle around the sky,
about 20 degrees wide, in which the planets
always appear. Since these constellations were
mostly named after animals, the Greeks called this
band the zodiac from the same word as zoology, a
kind of celestial zoo.
The path of the Sun through the zodiac,
approximately one degree per day relative to the
stars, is called the ecliptic. One way to map it is to
observe the pattern of stars on the western horizon
just after sunset, noting the position of the Sun in
relation to the zodiacal constellation that appears
on the horizon at that time. During one month the
Sun advances through one constellation of the
zodiac, completing its journey through all 12 in
one year, which may have been the basis for
dividing the zodiac into 12 constellations. A
Babylonian tablet a few centuries after Hammurabi
shows each sign of the zodiac marked with 30
vertical lines, and by the 6th century BC the
constellations of the zodiac were each divided into
30 equal degrees. After this, astronomers used
more mathematics and maintained increasingly
detailed records. About the third century BC, the
Greeks introduced the zodiac into Egypt and
combined it with decans.
One star, about 32º above the northern
horizon from Babylon (corresponding to the lati-
tude of Babylon), appeared to remain almost
stationary while all the other stars seemed to rotate
around it. This North Star, Polaris, acted as
Chapter 1 • A Religious Universe 15

a kind of polar axis, with a corresponding celestial
equator at right angles to it, parallel to the daily
motions of the stars and about 58º above the
southern horizon at Babylon. The annual shifting
of the Sun on the ecliptic (see Figure 1.2) carried it
about 23º above the celestial equator in the
constellation Cancer, and 23º below the equator in
Three of the principal gods of the Baby-
lonians governed the “celestial roads” running,
respectively, along the celestial equator (Anu), the
Tropic of Cancer (Enlil), and the Tropic of Capri-
corn (Ea). The summer solstice (Latin: Sun
standing) occurred on the longest day of the year
when the Sun stood at its highest point on the
ecliptic (58º + 23º = 81º

above the horizon at
Babylon). At the winter solstice, the shortest day
of the year, the Sun was at its lowest point on the
ecliptic (58º - 23º = 35º above the horizon). The
equinoxes (equal day and night) occurred halfway
between the solstices when the Sun crossed the
celestial equator.
The Babylonian cosmological poem
known as the Enuma Elish (from its first two
words: When Above) describes the behavior of the
celestial gods. The earliest versions of this epic
date from the time of Hammurabi and were largely
reconstructed from fragments discovered at
Nineveh in the nineteenth century. It includes
about one thousand lines of text on seven clay
tablets covering the following topics, tablet by
tablet: (1) Apsu (male personification of fresh
water ocean) and Tiamat (female personification
of primeval salt water ocean) beget a company of
gods, who so try Apsu’s patience that he tries to
slay them all. Ea binds and slays Apsu and then

Figure 1.2 Babylonian Concepts of the Daily and Annual Motions of the Sun
The Babylonians mapped the constellations of the stars and noted the motions of the planets through
the 12 constellations of the zodiac (five shown above). They also charted the annual motion of the
Sun along the ecliptic and noted the daily motion of the heavens from east to west about the north
star, Polaris. They observed the shift in the angle of the Sun’s path as it moves along the ecliptic
above and below the celestial equator, giving the longest and shortest days of the year at the summer
and winter solstices, respectively, and the vernal and autumnal equinoxes when the Sun crosses the
celestial equator and the day and night are of equal length.
Chapter 1 • A Religious Universe 16

begets Marduk, patron god of Babylon. To avenge
her husband, Tiamat creates terrible monsters with
Kingu as their head. (2) Ea counter plots against
Tiamat and appoints Marduk to oppose her. (3) A
banquet is held to prepare for Marduk’s entrance
into battle. (4) Marduk (god of light) slays Tiamat,
signifying the final victory of order over chaos,
and from her body creates the heavens. Later he
creates the Earth and appoints residences for the
gods of the sky, air, and subterranean waters. (5)
Marduk appoints the Moon to rule over the night
and to indicate the days and months of the year,
and he forms the constellations in the heavens. (6)
Marduk creates man from the blood of Kingu and
assigns him to serve the gods. (7) Marduk is
advanced from chief god of Babylon to head over
all the gods.
This account of creation from the original
watery chaos is also a political claim to the
supremacy of Babylon. It is a hymn to Marduk
after his defeat of the primal goddess Tiamat. Her
defeat by Marduk established world order, which
was viewed as inseparably connected to order in
the heavens:
Then Marduk created places for the great
He set up their likeness in the constella-
He fixed the year and defined its divisions;
Setting up three constellations for each of
the twelve months.
He set up the station of Nebiru (Zodiac) as
a measure of them all,
That none might be too long or too short,
And set up the stations of Enlil and Ea.
By the Assyrian period in the seventh
century BC, when King Sargon II ruled both
Babylon and Ninevah, eclipse predictions were
being made on the basis of Babylonian records
over many centuries. They observed the Moon to
shift some 5º above and below the ecliptic in a
zigzag motion during its 27-day circuit of the
zodiac. Records of these zigzag motions made it
possible to relate the motion of the Moon to its
phases. Since the priests were aware that lunar
eclipses only occurred at the full Moon (in oppo-
sition with the Sun) when it was near the ecliptic,
they could make predictions by projecting when
these occurrences would happen simultaneously.
Solar eclipses occur when the new Moon
(in conjunction with the Sun) crosses the ecliptic.
However, since solar eclipses can only be seen
within a narrow band at differing locations on the
Earth, the likelihood of being at the right location
was very small. By the fourth century BC, the late
Babylonian (Persian) astronomer Kidinnu was able
to use the centuries of careful and continuous
records of his predecessors to account for small
fluctuations in the positions of the Sun and Moon.
He was able to make more accurate predictions
than all but the last of the Greek astronomers, who
finally had access to Babylonian records.
The Babylonians kept careful records of
the motions of all the visible planets (Greek: wan-
derer) since they viewed them as gods, including
the Sun and Moon among the seven celestial
bodies that moved through the zodiac. However,
the other five planets had especially irregular
motions, carefully recorded since they were
thought to reveal the will of the gods. In addition
to their daily motion from east to west and their
slow eastward progression through the zodiac,
they differ from the Sun and Moon in periodically
reversing their motion in the zodiac for several
weeks before resuming their normal motion.
Although the Babylonians recorded this retrograde
motion, and could even predict it, there is no
evidence that they ever attempted to explain it
apart from their religious views.
Late Babylonian Astrology
At first, the priests applied Babylonian
astrology only to matters of state. They derived the
more usual methods of individual divination from
the examination of animal entrails and from other
terrestrial omens, rather than from observations of
the stars. The Babylonians used the sky as a stage
for their mythological imagination. By about the
third century BC, however, the Chaldeans (New
Babylonian Empire from about 625 BC) developed
a more personalized form of astrology based on
the idea that celestial influences predetermine all
events. This included the casting of individual
horoscopes, eventually influencing the Roman and
medieval world.
Chapter 1 • A Religious Universe 17

Another Chaldean influence, growing out
of earlier Babylonian and Jewish traditions, was
related to the invention of the seven-day week.
The lunar calendar can be divided into quarters of
approximately seven days by the phases of the
Moon. The Babylonians set aside the seventh day
of the month as a feast to Marduk and offered
sacrifices to their gods on the 7th, 14th, 21st, and
28th days of the month, placing restrictions on
certain activities on those days. However, these
Babylonian “weeks” were not continuous like our
weeks, and the first day of each lunar month was
the first day of a week. The Babylonians called the
fifteenth day of the month shabattum, ety-
mologically equivalent to the Hebrew Shabbat
(Sabbath). By the time of the Chaldeans around
the seventh century BC, continuous weeks that
followed each other without regard to month and
year had been introduced. Mutual influences
between Babylonian and Jewish cultures might
date from the time of the Jewish captivity in
Babylon beginning in 586 BC.
Ideas of Chaldean astrology led to the
dominance of each day of the week by one of the
seven planetary deities, influencing the Romans to
name the days of their week after the planets.
Ironically, the Roman Catholic Church preserved
this pagan astrological basis for the names of the
days of the week in Western European languages.
The survival of planetary names is obvious in the
names for Sunday (Sun), Monday (Moon), and
Saturday (Saturn), but not as obvious in the
English names for the other days of the week,
which were named for the equivalent Anglo-Saxon
gods Tiw, Woden, Thor and Frigg. In a language
like French, the planetary names are more obvious
in the names for Tuesday (Mardi for Mars),
Wednesday (Mercredi for Mercury), Thursday
(Jeudi for Jupiter), and Friday (Vendredi for
The order of the days of the week is not
the usual order according to their relative speeds
through the zodiac (Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun,
Mars, Jupiter, Saturn). Instead, it is based on a
cycle in which each hour of the day is dominated
by a planet in their natural order and with each day
named after the planet dominating its first hour.
Thus the lure of the skies for the Babylonians has
yielded a fertile lore of the skies ever since. Arabs
in the Islamic tradition suppressed this astrological
basis for the names of the week by naming most
of them numerically in Arabic, beginning with


Phoenician Contributions
The Fertile Crescent of the Tigris and
Euphrates river valleys extends northwest up the
Euphrates before curving south along the Jordan
valley and Mediterranean coast, providing a land
bridge with Egypt. This region of Palestine and the
Phoenician coast developed during the third
millennium BC into a unique culture called Ca-
naanite, from the name used in the Bible.
Canaanite civilization borrowed from Egyptian,
Mesopotamian and Aegean influences, among
others, including the Hebrews after their migration
into the region from their Babylonian origins.
Although neither the Phoenicians nor the Hebrews
developed strong scientific traditions, both con-
tributed important ideas for later work in science.
The Phoenicians usually wrote on papy-
rus, which in their language led to the Greek word
byblos and hence our word Bible. Little of their
writing would have survived except that the people
of the town of Ugarit in Northern Canaan (now
Ras-Shamra in Syria) had shifted to clay tablets
before the middle of the second millennium BC.
The discovery of Ugarit in 1928 yielded a large
number of such clay tablets, some written in a
form of Babylonian, but others were written in a
Ugaritic (proto-Phoenician) script using an
alphabet of only thirty letters.
This remarkable invention of an alphabet
greatly simplified writing, especially when com-
pared to the Babylonian script with some 600
cuneiform signs and the Egyptian use of about 700
hieroglyphic symbols. These earlier complicated
forms of writing were a virtual monopoly of the
scribal and priestly classes. The alphabet
eventually supplanted these earlier forms of
writing, making it readily available for more
widespread use. The Romans derived their
alphabet from the Greeks, who in turn had imitated
the Phoenicians.
Chapter 1 • A Religious Universe 18

Although both Sumerians and Egyptians
used alphabetic or syllabic scripts along with
ideographic symbols, the Phoenicians seem to
have been the first to invent the exclusive use of
such phonetic symbols. This resulted in a radical
simplification of writing by representing the
sounds of a language with as few signs as possible.
The Phoenician alphabet was especially econ-
omical in omitting most vowel signs, leading to
some ambiguity for anyone not familiar with the
After the Israelites settled in Palestine,
they adopted a Canaanite dialect and later de-
veloped the ancient Hebrew script from the
consonantal alphabet of the Phoenicians. Even-
tually the Greeks imitated the Phoenician alphabet
and improved it by adding vowel symbols, which
became the basis for alphabetic writing in most
other languages and the foundation for modern
science and literature.
The Hebrew View of Nature
Most of what is known about ancient
Hebrew civilization is based on the Bible. Many
aspects of Hebrew culture borrowed from the
surrounding civilizations of the Canaanites, Egyp-
tians and Mesopotamians. For example, they
employed a decimal system with traces of the
Babylonian sexigesimal system, especially in their
weights and measures. Astronomical knowledge in
common with the Babylonians included such
constellations as the Great Bear (Ursa Major),
Orion and the Pleiades (Job 38:31-32). Most of the
language of the Bible about nature is phenomenal,
from the perspective of the observer, rather than
theoretical. Thus an observer sees the Sun moving
around the Earth, and no references are made to
the more complicated planetary motions other than
perhaps such metaphors as the morning stars
(Venus and Mercury?) singing together (Job 38:7).
Although the Old Testament reflects and
even shares certain aspects of Babylonian cos-
mologies, it also presents a fundamentally differ-
ent world view that was especially important for
the development of science after the Greeks. The
radical contrast between the polytheistic gods of
nature and the monotheistic God of creation and
history has far reaching implications. Most ancient
religions viewed the world as a closed system
where good and evil coexisted and deterministic
principles influenced both gods and humans. This
contrasts sharply with the open Biblical view of a
transcendent God who rules over a good creation,
in which evil is a subsequent intruder. The
participation of God with His people in history and
the uniqueness of His covenant with them leads to
a break down of the cyclical view of time and its
fatalistic attitudes. The Biblical teaching about
creation introduced new values and attitudes
toward nature that had important implications for
the later development of science.
The Biblical Idea of Creation
Much of the Biblical creation account ap-
pears to be a polemic against the polytheistic and
idolatrous cosmogonies and cosmologies of the
ancient world. Thus in the Genesis creation nar-
rative, God created light before the starry heavens,
and he created the Earth and plants before the Sun
and Moon (Gen. 1:3-19). Rather than a purely
chronological sequence, it appears that this order-
ing serves as a polemical rejection of the celestial
idolatry of the Babylonians, Egyptians, and
Canaanites. The Old Testament directs a number
of attacks against astrology (Dan. 2:10-19; Isa.
47:13). The Babylonians deified nature, and the
Sun, Moon and planets were among the chief
deities. Eventually they named the seven days of
the week after the planets and designated each day
for worship of the corresponding planetary deity.
The Biblical account of creation avoids
the usual names of the Sun and Moon, negating
their identification with gods by referring to them
as the “greater” and “lesser” lights (Gen. 1:16) and
giving them a reduced priority in the order of their
description. This approach separates the seven-day
week from Babylonian idolatry and gives it a new
significance, symbolizing the control and ordering
of creation by the one God who created and
sustains all things. Thus the days of creation
appear to provide a ritual order for celebrating
God’s creation, rather than a purely historical
chronology. It is intended to call God’s people
away from idolatry to worship the Creator rather
than his creation. This distinction between nature
Chapter 1 • A Religious Universe 19

and God was an important prerequisite to a mature
development of science.
The literary structure of the first chapter
of Genesis also suggests that the “days of creation”
are not necessarily chronological. The first three
verses emphasize the basic theme of order out of
In the beginning God created the heavens
and the Earth. Now the Earth was form-
less and empty, darkness was over the
surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God
was hovering over the waters. And God
said, “Let there be light,” and there was
The rest of the chapter describes the ordering
process from “formless and empty” chaos to an
ordered cosmos by a parallel development of
forming and filling:
Forming (Days 1-3) Filling (Days 4-6)
1. Creation of light 4. Creation of Sun
Separation from Creation of Moon
darkness (1:3-6) and stars (1:14-19)
2. Creation of expanse 5. Creation of birds
Separation of waters Creation of fish
(1:6-8) (1:20-23)
3. Creation of vegetation 6. Creation of animals
Separation of dry Creation of humans
ground (1:9-13) (1:24-31).

These verses use forming verbs like “separate” and
“gather” in the first three days, and filling verbs
like “teem,” “fill,” and “increase” in the last three
days. This literary structure clearly emphasizes
God’s control over nature and His preparation of
an ordered cosmos for human habitation, rather
than a chronological account of the stages in
creation. The latter idea is reinforced by English
translations that read “the first day,” “the second
day,” rather than “a first day,” “a second day,”
which is more consistent with the lack of a definite
article in the original.
The inability of Babylonian and Egyptian
civilizations to think theoretically in spite of their
magnificent technical abilities may correlate with
their basic attitudes toward nature. Since both
humans and gods were part of nature, history and
society had integral connections to cosmologies
that related humanity with the cosmos. Celestial
motions and annual floods combined with myth-
ological and religious traditions to provide the
framework for societal cohesion. Nature exercised
control over humans so long as they perceived it as
an extension of social relationships and an
embodiment of deities to be placated. Scientific
curiosity and creativity require the disenchantment
of the physical world and the removal of its terror.
The Biblical view of creation initiated such a result,
which for the first time established a separation of
nature from God and made it a matter of human
responsibility to exercise stewardship in caring for
the Earth and its creatures (Gen. 2:15).
The Importance of the Idea of Creation
The importance of creation is not con-
fined to the early chapters of Genesis, nor to a
mere explanation of origins. The idea that God is
the Maker of heaven and Earth permeates the
Bible, and this idea has important theological
implications. In contrast with mythological cos-
mogonies, God is not generated out of some kind
of primal chaos, but he is prior to every part of his
creation. All things came into being by his will,
rather than through cosmic struggle. The world is
not bound by conflicting forces of immanent gods
to be placated, but is under the control of one God
who created it by his power and for his purposes.
The attitudes and values contained in the
Biblical idea of creation correlate with three basic
aspects of science. First, the reality and goodness
of creation provide a basis and motivation for
experimental science. Second, the order and in-
telligibility of nature are essential for theoretical
science. Third, the purpose and meaning of
creation encourage the development of applied
science. These ideas began to permeate Western
culture during the medieval period, eventually
superseding the limitations of ancient and Greek
The Bible explicitly proclaims the good-
ness and reality of nature. Experimental and
observational science, in both laboratory and field
work, depends on an affirmative attitude toward
the physical world. The first verse of the Bible
establishes the existence of the basic categories of
Chapter 1 • A Religious Universe 20

physical reality: “In the beginning God created the
heavens and the Earth” (Genesis 1:1). Thus, in the
Biblical view, the reality of time (beginning),
space (heavens), and matter (Earth) are grounded
in creation. The goodness of nature is affirmed six
times in the first chapter of Genesis, being
repeated for each addition to the created order. The
chapter concludes with a seventh affirmation that
“God saw everything that he had made, and behold
it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
Because the physical world is good, it is
worthy of detailed and devoted study. Because it is
real, such efforts will not be irrelevant or illusory.
However, in the Biblical view, the goodness of
creation does not imply a realm of perfection. It
sees the world as a place of human probation and
judgment (Genesis 3:16-19). The Earth with its
thorns and thistles is not evil in itself, but it does
not function for humanity as God originally
intended. Evil appears as an intruder in a world
that is otherwise by nature good.
The order and intelligibility of nature
follow from the idea of creation through the
wisdom of God. This validation of the rational and
logical dimensions of the physical world is an
essential ingredient in theoretical science, both
mathematical and descriptive. In the Biblical view,
the regularity of nature is based on more than
experience of past events and an inductive
assumption about the future. It is grounded in the
faithfulness of God who created and sustains the
universe. The laws of nature have their source in
the nature of God. Order in the physical world is
the product of divine wisdom: “O Lord how mani-
fold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made
them all” (Psalm 104:24).
Numerous Biblical references explicitly
affirm the regularity and uniformity of creation.
God promised Noah the regularity of “seedtime
and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter,
day and night” after the chaos of the flood
(Genesis 8:22). Job refers to a “decree for the rain,
and a way for the lightning” (Job 28:26) and
Jeremiah speaks of the “fixed order of the Moon
and stars” (Jeremiah 31:35). Biblical monotheism
also implies the unity of the created order in which
natural laws apply uniformly throughout a
universe governed by one God.
The concept of creation also provides
assurance that the created order will be intelligible
to human reason. It reveals that the universe has a
design in which patterns can be discovered. The
Biblical affirmation that “God created man in his
own image, in the image of God he created him”
(Genesis 1:27) suggests that human creativity and
intelligence reflect the order and intelligibility of
creation and the laws of logic. The Bible
recognizes that we are a part of nature (Genesis
2:7) and thus finite as well as fallen creatures
(Genesis 3:6-7). However, the psalmist reaffirms
the ability to think God’s thoughts about the
universe in spite of our fallen nature: “Great are
the works of the Lord, studied by all who have
pleasure in them” (Psalm 111:2). The prophet
Isaiah invites us to reason even about our sins
(Isaiah 1:18).
Creation also implies that history and
culture have meaning and purpose, providing
support for applied science and technology. The
Biblical faith that human progress is both possible
and important is based on the first command given
by God to Adam and Eve: “And God blessed
them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and
multiply, and fill the Earth and subdue it’”
(Genesis 1:28). Being created in the image of God
ensures the creative and rational powers to exer-
cise this responsibility. Despite our fallen nature,
this creation mandate is reaffirmed by the psalmist
who declares: “Thou hast given him dominion
over the works of thy hands” (Psalm. 8:6).
The Biblical idea of creation teaches that
nature is not divine, but is God’s handiwork as-
signed to human responsibility for its care and
protection: “The Lord God took the man and put
him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care
of it” (Genesis 2:15). Though we are seen as a part
of nature, we are also set apart from nature and can
live in the world free from enslavement to nature
but responsible for it. The exercise of dominion is
clearly distinguished from selfish exploitation by
the call to responsible stewardship consistent with
the intentions of the Creator. In this view, our
distinction from nature and acceptance of
dominion are what make us human and is the basis
for culture and civilization even though corrupted
by sin.
Chapter 1 • A Religious Universe 21

The purpose and meaning of historical
existence within the natural order provide moti-
vation and significance for science and technol-
ogy. The cyclical view of time in the ancient
civilizations was antithetical to human purposes
since no goals can be achieved without vanishing
again. If history is just an endless process of
repetition, then no vocation can have lasting
significance, and real progress is not possible. God
created time with a beginning and end, so its
moments are unrepeatable and meaningful as they
move toward a final goal.
The Biblical view sees the world as good
and beautiful and worthy of the efforts of experi-
mental science to try to observe and appreciate it.
It also believes that the Creator has ordered the
universe and reveals it to patient inquiry, confirm-
ing the vision of theoretical science in seeking to
understand and explain the world. And it gives
motivation and purpose for applied science to seek
the advancement of human welfare with respon-
sibility and wisdom. Although these Biblical
attitudes were not applied to science for many
centuries, they eventually permeated western
culture, providing the basis for transforming
ancient science.


Alioto, Anthony M. A History of Western Science.
Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1987.
Harris, J. R., ed. The Legacy of Egypt, Second ed.
London: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Hatem, M. Abdel-Kader, Life in Ancient Egypt.
Cairo: Al Ahram Commercial Press, 1982.
Neugebauer, O. The Exact Sciences in Antiquity,
2nd ed. New York: Dover, 1969.
Sarton, George. A History of Science, Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952-59.
Taton, Rene. Ancient and Medieval Science, Trans.
A. J. Pomerans. New York: Basic Books Inc.,
Toulmin, Stephen and June Goodfield. The Fabric
of the Heavens. New York: Harper Row, 1961.
Westermann, Claus. The Genesis Account of
Creation. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964.



The Greek “miracle” refers to both the
wonder one feels for the achievements of ancient
Greece and our inability to adequately account for
them. Early Greek speculations seem to open up a
new universe in contrast to the static ideas of the
other ancient civilizations. Although the first
Greek attempts at understanding the universe
around them resembled science little more than did
the Egyptian and Babylonian techniques, each
con-tributed in different ways to the development
of the scientific tradition. The goal of the ancient
civilizations to predict and divine the future is in
sharp contrast with the Greek aim to make sense
out of natural phenomena. The Greeks were
convinced that eternal principles lay behind the
flux of changing events, and that a rational
explanation was possible.

The Cultural Setting
The Greek experience around the Aegean
Sea differed sharply from that of the Egyptians and
Babylonians. Although dynasties might rise and
fall in these ancient civilizations, centralized
empires remained with stable social organizations.
Religious rituals continued in their traditional
cycles, and ancient mythologies passed from
generation to generation with little change. As-
tronomy developed with the demand for accurate
calendars and skillful divination. However, the
Aegean lands seldom experienced such order and
stability. After the breakdown of the Minoan
Empire based in Crete and of the Mycenaean
civilization on the Greek mainland by about 1000
BC, the Greek cities were mostly independent
except for loose confederacies until Philip of
Macedon united them in 338 BC.
Most of the Greek port cities depended
for their livelihood on maritime trade with the
empires of the Eastern Mediterranean and their
own colonies along the Ionian coast in the east and
the Italian coast in the west. They were well placed
to learn from the surrounding civilizations, but
they also had to try to reconcile their traditions
about Zeus and Apollo with the Egyptian stories of
Isis and Osiris or the Babylonian myths about Ea
and Marduk. Lacking traditions of their own in
astronomy and mathematics, they had to assimilate
the ancient knowledge they learned about on a
more intellectual level. Happily, Greek social life
was structured loosely enough to permit lively
discussion of new ideas.
The Greeks pursued a variety of ap-
proaches in their attempt to understand the
universe, including some borrowed from their
neighbors, some adaptations, and some original
ideas. In spite of debates and disagreements, they
were confident that there were unchanging prin-
ciples behind the flux of phenomena. Although


A Rational Universe

Foundations of Science in Ancient Greece

Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 23

their leading thinkers were philosophers rather
than prophets or priests, their belief in the exis-
tence of such principles was as much a matter of
faith as the Egyptian confidence in the regularity
of the cycles of nature or the Babylonian belief in
the predictability of eclipses. However, this faith
gave rise to a new curiosity that led to a search for
different kinds of answers and new possibilities.

The Homeric Background
The first and greatest gift of the emerging
Greek culture was Homer’s Iliad, dating from
about the ninth century BC. This earliest monu-
ment of European literature, perhaps the best of all
Western epics, was the herald and teacher of a new
way of looking at the world. In spite of its
mythological contents, it was remarkably free of
religious constraints, magical formulas, and su-
perstitions. Together with the Odyssey, it cele-
brated the adventuresome spirit of Greek warriors
and travelers. Although Herodotus (fl. 450 BC)
suggests that the Greeks assimilated Egyptian
gods, identifying Amon with Zeus, Isis with
Demeter, and Osiris with Dionysus for example,
they humanized their gods and heroes, sometimes
referring to them as though they were mortals.
In many respects the world of Homer is
similar to that of the Babylonians. The sky is a
solid hemisphere covering the flat Earth, around
the rim of which flows the primordial river
Okeanos. The eighth century BC poet Hesiod also
echoes the Babylonians in his Theogony when he
states: “Verily first of all did Chaos come into
being, and then broad-bosomed Gaia (Earth)...”
Zeus leads the gods against the titanic forces of
nature, much like Marduk fought Tiamat, in order
to es-tablish their rule. However, the more per-
sonal gods of Greece live closer at hand on Mount
Olympus in Thessaly, and eventually were seen as
subject to the more remote power of fate or des-
tiny. Faith in such an unchanging principle in
nature was a first step toward a more rational
world view.
The Homeric age was the literary prepa-
ration for another Greek miracle, the sudden ap-
pearance of Greek science in the sixth century. As
merchants and traders, the Greeks came into
contact with the older Egyptian and Babylonian
civilizations. They were able to learn about their
techniques and traditions without being bound by
them. This was especially true of the Ionian region
east of the Greek mainland along the Asiatic coast
of the Aegean Sea. Even closer to Ionia was the
land of Canaan, or Palestine, where Hebrew
prophets by the seventh century had already
composed many of the books of the Bible. How-
ever, the contrast between the capricious gods and
heroes of the Greek poet and storyteller, and the
prophetic God of eternal justice, was so great as to
probably reduce communication between the
Hebrews and Ionians to a minimum.
Ionian colonists were an adventurous
people whose new location brought them into
closer contact with Asians by land and Egyptians
by sea. As they learned from these ancient civili-
zations, they felt free to raise questions and seek
explanations beyond the limits of their original
religious sources. Unfortunately, our knowledge of
this important step toward a more generalized and
theoretical science depends only on fragments
from pre-Socratic philosophers (Socrates died in
399 BC), mostly as quotations in the writings of
Plato, Aristotle and other Greek writers.


Ionian Science: Matter and Change
The first-mentioned of the Greek thinkers
in this new tradition was Thales (about 640-546
BC) of Miletus, the main harbor on the Ionian
coast. Every listing of the Seven Wise Men of
ancient Greece includes him, usually heading the
list. As a youth he traveled to Egypt where he
learned about astronomy and mathematics,
measuring objects like the pyramids from their
shadows. Plato says that he was once so intent on
observing the stars that he fell into a well. Aristotle
portrays a man of more practical potential, who
earned a large sum of money by cornering the
olive market after leasing all the olive-presses in
the region.
Herodotus says that Thales’ mother was
Phoenician, and he probably also came into con-
tact with Babylonians. Herodotus also claims that
he predicted the solar eclipse that led the warring
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 24

kings of Lydia and Persia to end their fighting.
Modern astronomy can date this event since the
only solar eclipse to cross Asia Minor at the time
of Thales was May 28, 585 BC. Although it may
have been possible for him to use Babylonian
eclipse tables to predict the time of such an event,
its location could only have been by sheer luck
since solar eclipses, when they do occur, follow a
narrow path on the Earth.
Thales initiated the traditions of Greek
geometry and cosmology. He is credited with a
number of geometric pro-
positions, including the
generalizations that any
angle inscribed in a semi-
circle is a right angle (see
Figure 2.1), and the sides
of similar triangles are
proportional. Although he
gave no proofs, he began
the process of generaliz-
ing geometry that culmi-
nated 300 years later with
Euclid. Thales’ cosmol-
ogy seems to borrow from
Babylonian mythology in
claiming that “all is
water.” This somewhat
primitive idea of a mate-
rial unity in nature seems
to be an attempt to
account for the basic
forms of liquid, solid and
gaseous matter in terms
of an unchanging ele-
mental substance. He
taught that the Earth was
a flat disk floating on
water, as in Homer’s view
of the Earth surrounded by the primordial ocean.
He seems to rationalize Homer in suggesting that
the world was full of gods, as exemplified in his
observation of the magnetic effect of a lodestone
animated by a soul.
The ideas of Thales were modified and
extended by Anaximander (ca. 610-546 BC), his
younger companion and fellow citizen of Miletus.
Anaximander taught that the ultimate basis of
matter was beyond ordinary perception, a sub-
stance he called apeiron (unlimited or indefinite),
out of which an infinite sequence of worlds has
come into being and then been reabsorbed accord-
ing to a single law of cosmic justice or necessity.
Animals emerged from inanimate matter through
the action of the Sun and water, and humans de-
veloped from fish.
According to Anaximander, our world
formed in a process of separation that left the
Earth suspended at the center of space, since it had
no preferred direction to
move away from the
center. The Sun, Moon,
and planets consisted of
openings in hollow rings
or wheels of fire circling
the Earth, sug-gesting
for the first time the con-
tinuity of their motions
around the Earth and the
idea of a complete celes-
tial sphere of stars
surrounding the Earth
(Figure 2.2), although it
was inside the planetary
Some later ac-
counts of Anaximander
indicate that his ideas
included quantitative
speculations. The solar
ring had a diameter
some 27 times the
Earth’s diameter, and
the Sun appears through
a hole in its rim equal in
size to the Earth (giving
the Sun an angular size
of about 4°, which is 8 times too large). The
diameter of the lunar ring was 19 times that of the
Earth. Eclipses and the phases of the Moon
involved changes in the openings in the rings. The
orientation of these rings may correspond to simple
measurements of sundial shadows, attributed by
some sources to Anaximander. He assumed that
Earth was a cylinder with a diameter three times its
depth. He probably thought of the surface of

Figure 2.1 Thales’ Right-Triangle Theorem
Thales might have used the following
informal proof that a triangle ABC inscribed
in a circle on a diameter AB is a right
triangle: The diagonals of a rectangle are
equal and bisect one another, so a rectangle
ABCD can be inscribed in a circle with
center O and diameters AB = CD, and thus
the angle α+β is a right angle.
(Note that the angles of triangle ABC must be
180° = 2α+2β, so α+β = 90°.)
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 25

the Earth as corresponding
to the flat top of the cylinder
(Figure 2.2); but some say he
conceived of it as oriented
with a convex side on top to
account for the changing
elevation of the stars when
traveling north or south.
Anaximander also produced
the first primitive map of the
world that included Europe
and Asia.
The last Milesian to
speculate about a primary
substance or material unity
was Anaximenes. Probably a
student of Anaximander, he
returned to a more physical
approach with air as the
universal principle, which he
also related to the breath of
life to account for the human
soul and organic processes.
Air is indeterminate in itself,
but it undergoes observable
processes such as conden-
sation and rarefaction with
their associated temperature changes.
The airy exhalation of the Earth rises to
form the fiery objects of the heavens, which like
the Earth are disks supported by the air. According
to Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle,
Anaximenes taught that “The heavenly bodies do
not move under the Earth, as some suppose
(Anaximander?), but round it; like a cap turned
round on one’s head.” He suggests that the stars
“are fixed like nails in the crystalline vault of the
heavens.” This seems to be a clear distinction
between stars and planets, but the stars appear to
spread over only a hemisphere.
In the writings of Heraclitus (ca. 540-475)
of Ephesus, chief of the 12 Ionian cities, the
problem of permanence and unity amidst diversity
gave way to an emphasis on change. His choice of
fire as the primordial substance symbolized the
conflict and change that ruled the world. Thus he
claimed that “Fire governs the universe,” and that
“All things are changed by fire and fire by all
things.” However, he also taught that beneath the
apparent flux and disharmony of the world there is
a profound harmony of universal law that governs
change. He despaired because few people listen to
what he called the logos (or logic) of divine reason
that permeates the universe and reveals its
harmony. Heraclitus reconciled the conflict of
opposites as the general scheme of nature: “God is
day and night, winter and summer, war and peace,
surfeit and hunger.” It is the invisible harmony
that matters. This principle of rationality in science
was a necessary ingredient to transcend the flux of
Xenophanes (ca. 570-478) of Colophon in
Ionia carried this principle of rationality one step
further. He ridiculed the many gods of Homer and
went beyond the search for a single material
substance by suggesting that unity in diversity
could only be found in one invisible God that fills
the universe: “The all is one and the one is God.”
He taught that all material things come from earth
Axis of
stars that
never rise
stars that
never set Celestial
of celestial sphere

Figure 2.2 Anaximander’s Idea of an Unsupported Earth
Anaximander proposed that the Earth is suspended in space, without
any support, at the center of a celestial sphere. The celestial sphere
provided a mechanism to carry the stars in their daily rotation about
a polar axis pointing toward the North Star Polaris, with the celestial
equator in a plane perpendicular to this axis of rotation. Circumpolar
stars are near enough the polar axes that those between the North
Pole and the horizon never set, and those between the South Pole and
the horizon never rise.
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 26

and water in recurring cycles of flooding, as
evidenced by the discovery of seashells in the
mountains and fossils in the midst of the Earth.
These observations came from a lifetime of
traveling after Cyrus the Persian had conquered his
homeland. Xenophanes settled for a time in Elea in
southern Italy where he may have influenced
Parmenides in the same region that the Pytha-
goreans settled.

Pythagorean Science: Mystics and Mathematics
As we have seen, religion played an im-
portant role in the development of Greek science
in spite of its rationality. This is especially true of
the Pythagorean school that began in the Greek
colony at Croton in southern Italy, which attracted
Ionians because of the Persian menace in the east.
Pythagoras (ca. 570-497) was born on the island of
Samos in Ionia and may have met Thales before
leaving the region to escape the Samian tyrant
Polycrates. Some accounts say that Pythagoras
traveled to the eastern Mediterranean and lived for
several years in Egypt and Babylon, where he
learned oriental knowledge before finally settling
in Croton.
Following a common religious practice of
the time, Pythagoras and his disciples formed an
ascetic community that abstained from certain
foods and lived simply in order to contemplate
intellectual pursuits and mystical ideas, such as
reincarnation and the relation between music and
mathematics. Their practice of secrecy seems to
have raised suspicions in Croton that forced Py-
thagoras to flee to Metapontum where he died.
Apparently women played an important part in the
early community. Some accounts indicate that his
student Theano, variously described as his wife or
daughter, may have helped to keep the school
going after his death.
The Pythagoreans rejected the Ionian
concept of a single material substance and replaced
it with the pluralistic idea that numbers are the
basis for a universal harmony of opposites, such as
odd-even, limited-unlimited, one-many, and
straight-curved. They had no symbols for numbers,
but represented them by dots in the symmetrical
geometric forms of triangles, squares and
rectangles. For example, the sum of the triangular
numbers 3 and 6 give the square number 9:
o o o o o o
o + o o = o o o
o o o o o o

leading to the discovery that the sum of any two
consecutive triangular numbers is a square
number. The so called tetractys represented their
perfect number 10,
o o
o o o
o o o o

consisting of the numbers 1 + 2 + 3 + 4. The
number 1 is a mathematical point, 2 points form a
line, 3 produce a plane, and 4 are required for a
solid. Thus the tetractys symbolized the structure
of the universe and their religious faith in its
mathematical harmony.
Pythagoras demonstrated his ideas about
the mathematical structure of the world with
simple experiments on the harmonious sounds
produced by the strings of musical instruments. He
showed that two strings whose lengths differ by a
ratio of 1:2 produce sounds one octave apart (8
tones in diatonic scale), while a ratio of 2:3 gives
the har-monic interval called a “fifth” (5 diatonic
tones) and a 3:4 ratio is an interval of a “fourth” (4
dia-tonic tones). Thus the harmonic intervals of
classical Greek music depend on whole number
ratios (root of the word “rational”). The cube re-
vealed a “geometric harmony” because its 6 faces,
8 corners and 12 edges form the ratios 1:2:3:4.
The Pythagoreans thought that musical
intervals determined even the motions of the seven
planets, emitting sounds that depended perhaps on
their spacing or relative speeds through the zodiac.
According to some accounts, only Pythagoras
sensed the vibrations of the universe sufficiently to
hear this “music of the spheres.” Some also say
that he was the first to recognize that the morning
and evening stars, Phosphorus and Hesperus, were
one and the same, the planet Venus. Various
accounts credit either him or his disciple Alcmaion
(ca. 500 BC) with the idea that the planets move
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 27

slowly backward from west to east relative to the
stars along circular paths, rather than erratic
wandering. Some sources also claim Alcmaion dis-
covered the optic nerves from the eyes to the brain,
and the air tubes linking the ears with the mouth.
Several Greek writers attribute to Py-
thagoras the idea of a spherical Earth, probably
based on the perfect symmetry of the sphere and
the spherical form of the heavens, rather than on
empirical evidence. In fact, most scientific hy-
potheses begin as an act of faith that lead to test-
able theories, as in this supposition of the spheric-
ity of the Earth, which led to a number of confir-
mations as later summarized by Aristotle. The idea
of spherical perfection became the basis for a new
kind of dualism that associated perfection with the
celestial world, the abode of the gods, and imper-
fection with the sublunar terrestrial world for the
next two thousand years.
The name of Pythagoras is particularly
associated with the theorem giving the square of
the hypotenuse of a right triangle as the sum of the
squares of the other two sides (c² = a² + b²).
According to legend, he sacrificed a hundred oxen
to celebrate the discovery of this general relation,
or perhaps even its proof. He could have obtained
a proof from consideration of a small square with
sides of length c inscribed at an angle in a larger
square so as to divide its sides into lengths a and b,
forming four triangles of sides a, b, and c and of
area ab/2 each (Figure 2.3a). The area of the large
square then takes two equal forms:
c² + 4(ab/2) = (a + b)² = a² + 2ab + b²,
which reduce to the Pythagorean theorem,
c² = a² + b².

However, when this result is applied to
the simplest right isosceles triangle with sides one
unit long, it gives 2 for the hypotenuse (Figure
2.3b), which was found to have no rational repre-
sentation, as later shown by Euclid. If the hypote-
nuse is assumed to have a rational representation
with integers m and n of 2 = m/n, then m² = 2n²
so m² must be even. Thus m must also be even and
b a
2 √
(a) Pythagorean Theorem (b) Discovery of Irrationals

Figure 2.3 Proof of the Pythagorean Theorem and the Discovery of Irrationals
(a) The Pythagorean theorem for any right triangle can be proved by equating the small square of
area c² plus the four triangles each of area ab/2 to the area of the large square (a + b)².
(b) A right triangle of sides a = b = 1 has hypotenuse c given by c²

= 1² + 1² = 2 or c = 2. The
Pythagoreans discovered that this number was irrational by assuming that it was rational and then
showing that this assumption led to a contradiction.
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 28

n must be odd for any ratio reduced to its lowest
terms. But if m is even then m = 2p (p is an
integer), so m² = 4p² = 2n² and n must be even.
Since no number can be both odd and even, 2
cannot be a ratio of whole numbers. This dis-
covery of irrational numbers challenged the basic
assumptions of the Pythagoreans and seemed a
threat to their view of the universe. They aban-
doned their effort to identify number with geome-
try, and the two remained largely separate until af-
ter the development of algebra and analytic ge-
ometry. The new emphasis was on form and qual-
ity, instead of the quantitative use of numbers.
More than a century after Pythagoras
died, his followers were still developing his ideas,
including the proposal of an unusual cosmology.
Philolaus (ca 480-400 BC) was born at or near
Croton. He was the first to propose the motion of
the Earth (and by implication its rotation as well).
Recognizing the orbital motion of the planets, he
was able to eliminate their daily westward
revolutions and have only eastward motions by
having the Earth revolve once every 24 hours
around a postulated Central Fire, or “Hearth of the
Universe,” which acts as a central force or motor
(Figure 2.4). Observers on Earth do not see the
central fire because the inhabited side of the Earth
always faces outward. Thus the Earth also rotates
about its own axis (though Philolaus was probably
not aware of this).
According to Philolaus, a Counter Earth
always moves directly between the Central Fire and
the Earth, shading the Earth from the Central Fire.
Thus there are ten revolving bodies spaced ac-
cording to a musical progression in the fol-lowing
order: Counter Earth, Earth, Moon, Sun, the five
* *
Saturn (30-year revolution)
Sun (1-year revolution)
Moon (27 days)
Earth (daily revolution)
Counter Earth (daily)
Central Fire (stationary)
Celestial Sphere (stationary stars)
10 planets with moving earth,
counter earth and central fire
Venus (revolves near sun)
Mercury (revolves near sun)
¤ ¤
Jupiter (12-year revolution)
Mars (2-year revolution)

Figure 2.4 Pythagorean Cosmology of Philolaus with a Moving Earth
In the cosmology of Philolaus, the Earth revolves around the Central Fire every day, making it un-
necessary for the stars and planets to have a daily revolution. The idea of a Counter Earth may have
been introduced to shield the Earth from the Central Fire by always moving between them. The
Earth is inhabited on the side away from the Counter Earth and thus it is never seen. Aristotle sug-
gested that the unobservable Counter Earth may have been added to the idea of a moving Earth to
give 10 celestial bodies, since 10 was the number of perfection for the Pythagoreans.
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 29

planets and finally the celestial sphere. Actually,
with a rotating Earth the stars could have remained
stationary. However, Philolaus gave the celestial
sphere a very slow rotation, perhaps to generate the
lowest pitch in the music of the spheres. Aristotle
suggests that Philolaus added the Counter Earth to
make the number of moving objects equal to the
perfect number ten. According to some accounts,
the younger Pythagorean Ecphantos (ca. 350 BC)
and perhaps his teacher Hicetas (ca. 400-335BC),
both from Syracuse, suggested that the Earth was at
the center of the universe and rotated daily on its
axis instead of a rotating celestial sphere.

Eleatics and Atomists: Permanence and Motion
A more metaphysical approach to reality
developed on the southwest coast of Italy at Elea,
established by Ionians fleeing the Persians. The
founder of the Eleatic school was Parmenides (ca.
515-450 BC), who had some association with the
Pythagoreans, but appears to have more influence
from Xenophanes. He tried to develop Ionian
monism as an alternative to Pythagorean dualism
and pluralism by the use of pure logic regardless
of appearances. Instead of a primordial substance,
however, he postulated an ultimate reality of Being
(the One) beyond all phenomena. By the law of
contradiction, the opposite of Being is not-Being,
which cannot exist even though it can be thought.
The same argument applies to the void, and if the
void does not exist motion is not possible.
Contrary to Heraclitus, change is not possible
since it implies that Being comes from its
opposite, not-Being, which does not exist. The
infinite is also impossible, since thinking of it is to
set a limit in thought. Multiplicity is really unity,
and reality is beyond appearances. Logic seems to
have displaced science.
In actuality, Parmenides did not deny that
phenomena followed laws that science could
study, only that there is an unchanging reality
behind all phenomena. His cosmology was quite
similar to that of the Pythagoreans, except that the
unity of being replaced the multiplicity of num-
bers. Being completely fills space without any
void in a finite spherical universe, since the sphere
is continuous yet finite. He was the only non-
Pythagorean to accept the spherical form of the
Earth until Plato. He was the first to divide the
Earth into five zones, but he thought the tropic zones
were about twice their actual width and uninhabited.
He was also the first to use a series of concentric
spheres to account for the different mo-tions of the
planets, with the Earth at the center, but he located
the celestial sphere below the Sun similar to
Anaximander. In the midst of the Earth was a divinity
ruling over all, and she generated all the gods.
Parmenides’ disciple Zeno (ca. 490-430
BC), who came from Elea, defended his master’s
ideas. He developed several paradoxes to show the
logical absurdity of motion. In the first, called the
“dichotomy” by Aristotle, Zeno claims that you
cannot travel between two points in a finite time
since you first must go half the distance, then half
the remaining distance, ad infinitum, through an
infinite number of points. A second, called the
“Achilles,” asserts that Achilles cannot pass a
tortoise because he first must reach the place from
which the tortoise started. By then the tortoise will
have gained some ground that Achilles must again
make up, and so on, making it impossible to catch
up. Thus motion is inconceivable on the pluralistic
basis of space as the sum of points and time as the
sum of instants. The Eleatic school made it nec-
essary to reconcile perception with reason.
Atomism in ancient Greece reacted to
both Ionian monism and the Eleatic denial of mo-
tion. The atomists introduced a radical pluralism in
which the world consists of an infinite number of
imperceptible atoms moving in an infinite void.
Aristotle and other Greek authors agree that
Leucippus invented the atomic theory, but seem to
know very little about him. He flourished about
430 BC, and was probably from Miletus. He may
have once been a student of Zeno, but probably
reacted against the fantastic ideas of Parmenides.
In the one statement credited to him, he seems to
be the first to clearly state the principle of
causality: “Nothing happens in vain (without
reason), everything has a cause and is the result of
Leucippus’ student Democritus (ca. 460-
371 BC), who came from Abdera in the north of
Greece, developed and described his ideas. He
used an inheritance to study for several years in
Egypt, and may have traveled as far as Persia and
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 30

India. Known as the “Laughing Philosopher,” all
branches of philosophy and science interested him.
He defined the atom as the smallest conceivable
unit of matter, and thus indivisible or literally
“uncuttable.” They are alike in quality but differ
in “shape, order and position,” according to
Aristotle’s description. Different combinations of
the atoms make up all things, and apparent
changes in matter result from their separation and
rejoining in different patterns.
But what is the cause of motion among
the atoms? Apparently motion is their natural
state, so it is not necessary to account for it. Both
the atoms and their motion in the void are eternal,
a kind of anticipation of the principles of conser-
vation of matter and momentum. The ideas of
causation and necessity had been reduced to a
mechanical determinism in which human freedom
and choice are only an illusion resulting from ig-
norance and the infinite complexity of combining
atoms. Worlds are formed and then vanish from
the blind swirling of the atoms throughout infinite
While Parmenides denied change and the
evidence of the senses, basing everything on the
mind, the atomists used their theory to explain the
phenomena, but in the process they lost the mind.
The soul was not distinct from matter, but con-
sisted of more subtle and mobile atoms and there-
fore superior to the grosser atoms of the body.
Sensations result from the impact of atoms on the
body and are due to their size, shape and ar-
rangements. In a purely atomistic theory, devoid of
any organizing principle, life and thought remain a
mystery. The Greeks resisted this thoroughgoing
materialism, partly because of ideas like the void
and self-moving bodies, and partly because it
seemed to lack any basis for values like freedom
and responsibility. The comic dramatist Aristo-
phanes (fl. 400 BC) summarized their reaction in
the couplet, “Whirl is King, Zeus is dead.”
About a century after Democritus, Epicu-
rus (341-270 BC) of Samos revived atomism and
established a popular school in Athens. He tried to
escape from its determinism by allowing the atoms
to have a random tendency to “swerve” as they fall
through space, but the Epicureans could still find
nothing of higher value than human pleasure with
moderation; thus their motto was “Eat, drink and
be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Their ideas were
the basis for an epic Latin poem by Lucretius (ca.
95-55 BC), which became quite influential in the
revival of atomistic ideas after its rediscovery in
AD 1417.

SYNTHESES (450-323 BC)

Early Syntheses of Pre-Socratic Science
Athens had reached its pinnacle of suc-
cess after the defeat of the Persians in the fifth
century BC. Even after the Peloponnesian Wars
and the fall of Athens to Sparta in 404 BC, it
remained the crossroads and intellectual center of
Greece. Ideas from the far corners of Greek culture
converged in Athens, where they stimulated lively
debate and discussion. But the proliferation of
scientific theories had given rise to a group of
teachers known as sophists who taught that all
theories are equally true and false and only practi-
cal expediency is possible. Socrates (ca. 470-399
BC) countered this growing idea that “man is the
measure of all things” by pointing out that their
principle of relativism must also submit to having
no sure basis in truth, and therefore invalidates
itself. His intellectual heirs, especially Plato and
Aristotle, attempted to synthesize differing
scientific ideas in order to “save the appearances”
and reveal the underlying reality. To some extent,
Anaxagoras, Empedocles and others had already
begun to combine Ionian and Pythagorean ideas
reaching Athens.
With Anaxagoras (ca. 500-428 BC), the
last of the Ionian philosophers, a more scientific
approach is evident, He moved to Athens soon
after the Persian wars, where he became the first
teacher of natural philosophy in that city and a
friend of Pericles. His solution to the problem of
change was to postulate that matter is a mixture of
countless “seeds” (spermata), differing from
elements since each is as complex as the whole,
and from atoms since there is no limit to their
subdivision. Going beyond Pythagorean numbers
as an organizing principle, Anaxagoras asserted
that Mind (nous) orders the seeds apart from
matter and is the source of its motion. Mind
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 31

produces a cosmos out of chaos through a process
of rotation.
Anaxagoras extended Ionian materialism
to suggest that the Moon was a material object like
the Earth, and the Sun was incandescent iron like a
meteorite that fell in 467 BC. He also applied Py-
thagorean geometric ideas to the Sun and Moon to
explain lunar phases in terms of reflected light
from the Sun (Figure 2.5). Thus, according to
Plato, he was the first to clearly recognize that the
Moon reflects light from the Sun in differing geo-
metric relationships to produce its phases. He may
have also recognized that eclipses are alignments
of Earth, Moon and Sun, though this could not
have been entirely clear due to his belief that the
Earth was disk shaped. A few years before his
death, enemies of Pericles charged him with im-
pious rationalism and banished him from Athens.
Empedocles (ca. 492-432 BC) of Agri-
gentum, on the south coast of Sicily, traveled in
Italy and the Peloponnesian Peninsula, perhaps
even as far as Athens, as a rhapsodist, healer and
preacher. He suggested a compromise between
Ionian monism and complete pluralism by postu-
lating four distinct and unchangeable substances:
earth, water, air and fire. These substances were
first called elements by Plato, and appear to sym-
bolize solids, liquids, gases and heat.
Empedocles also introduced a primitive
concept of attractive and repulsive forces that he
called love and strife, distinct from matter, by
which the four elements unite or separate to pro-
Rays of sun
Orbit of moon
Phases of moon as seen from earth
of moon

Figure 2.5 Greek Rational Explanation for Phases and Eclipses of the Moon
Anaxagoras believed that the Sun was a ball of fire, that the Moon was made from Earth, and that
the phases of the Moon resulted from the light of the Sun reflected from the Moon as viewed from the
Earth. Thus when the Moon is between the Sun and the Earth, no reflected light can be seen from the
new Moon; and as the angle between the Moon and the Sun increases, the phases of the Moon wax
to crescent, half, gibbous, and full. The orbit of the Moon is inclined 5° from the plane of the Sun’s
apparent motion (ecliptic), so that eclipses only occur when the Moon is crossing the ecliptic plane
at the new Moon (solar eclipse) when it comes in front of the Sun at conjunction, or at the full Moon
(lunar eclipse) when it passes through the shadow of the Earth at opposition.
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 32

duce the various forms of matter. Some accounts
suggest that he chose four based on the Pythago-
rean tetrad, and others because of a presumed
relation with four of the five regular solids as de-
veloped later by Plato. He conceived of the stars as
attached to an egg-shaped crystalline surface and
speculated about the finite speed of light. His
theory of vision was a compromise between light
emitted and light received by the eye. His idea of
health was a condition of equilibrium between the
four elements.
Hippocrates (ca. 450-370 BC) of Cos, an
island off the Ionian coast, extended the ap-
plication of Pythagorean and Ionian ideas to
medicine. He came from a family of medical
practitioners in the tradition of Asclepius (Greek
god of medicine), which had begun to embrace the
emerging rational spirit in Greece. He traveled
widely in Greece, and by some accounts he studied
in Egypt and taught in Athens before establishing a
school of medicine in Cos. The Hippocratic corpus
of more than 50 books in Alexandria by 300 BC
represents this rational and empirical tradition that
led to the reputation of Hippocrates as the “father
of medicine.”
Hippocratic physiology associated four
humors (bodily secretions) with the four elements
of Empedocles, as well as the four seasons and the
four major organs of the body. Thus he connected
blood with air, the heart, and spring; yellow bile
with fire, the liver, and summer; the mysterious
black bile with earth, the spleen, and autumn; and
phlegm with water, the brain, and winter. By the
second century AD, the Roman physician Galen
related the four humors (blood, yellow bile, black
bile and phlegm) to four qualities in pairs (moist-
hot, hot-dry, dry-cold and cold-moist), and even to
four temperaments (sanguine, choleric, melan-
cholic and phlegmatic).
In the Hippocratic tradition, good health
meant to achieve a Pythagorean harmony through
a balance of the humors in their ideal proportions.
The physician was to aid nature in restoring equi-
librium, especially through “diet,” which included
sleep, rest and exercise. The famous Hippocratic
Oath for acceptance into the physician’s guild an-
nunciates the professional attitudes and ethical
obligations of physicians.
Not to be confused with Hippocrates of
Cos was his older contemporary, Hippocrates of
Chios, from another island on the Ionian coast. He
taught mathematics in Athens about the middle of
the fifth century BC and wrote what was probably
the first textbook in geometry. He began the
process, later completed by Euclid, of putting the
increasing number of geometric theorems from
Ionian, Pythagorean, and other sources into a
systematic order, and thus might qualify as the
“father of geometry.” His most famous discovery
was how to find the area (squaring) of certain
crescent-shaped lunes formed by the intersection
of two circular arcs with different radii, showing
for the first time the possibility of squaring curvi-
linear figures. His younger contemporary and fel-
low citizen, Oinopides of Chios, used Pythagorean
astronomy to obtain the first meaningful measure-
ment of the angle of the ecliptic (obliquity: 24
degrees) relative to the celestial equator.

Plato and the Academy
Plato (427-347 BC), like his teacher
Socrates, concerned himself more directly with
moral and political philosophy than natural
science, but his Pythagorean emphasis on the
importance of mathematics led to the first truly
universal synthesis of Greek thought. After eight
years as a disciple of Socrates, ending with his
death, Plato spent twelve years traveling as far as
Egypt and Italy. At about age 40 he began a school
in Athens called the Academy (at an oak grove
originally owned by the Greek hero Academos),
which lasted for nearly a thousand years. His
famous theory of Ideas encompassed all
knowledge, including cosmology. It greatly influ-
enced scientific thinking, even though it demoted
the world of observable phenomena to mere ap-
pearance and opinion in contrast with the realm of
pure Ideas, which was the source of true knowl-
edge about reality.
Plato attempted to resolve the conflict be-
tween permanence and change by separating true
knowledge about reality from opinion based on
appearances. Science, like knowledge in general, is
to ascertain eternal Ideas or universal Forms
through their changing appearances to our senses.
The idea of equality, for example, is not the same
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 33

as its appearance in the material world, where two
objects may appear the same, but when examined
more closely are found to be different. Like
mathematical concepts, rational contemplation
reveals the eternal Ideas, rather than sense
experience. If we do not use our reason to separate
these eternal Ideas from
ever changing phenom-
ena, what Plato called
“saving the appearances,”
we are like prisoners
chained in a cave so that
they can only see
flickering shadows on its
walls. If we can break our
chains, we will see that
these shadows are only
reflections of eternal
Ideas in the real world
Tradition says
that over the gate of
Plato’s Academy was a
sign saying “Let no man
ignorant of geometry en-
ter.” His later dialogues
became more and more
mathematical, and his
Timaeus reveals a dis-
tinctively Pythagorean
cosmology. As a rational
account of the harmony
of the universe, he bases
it on the Forms; but since
these can only be imper-
fectly realized in the world, he calls it only a
“likely story.” Thus there can be no exact science
of nature, and God is not a creator but a
“Demiurge” who injects reason and order into ma-
terial chaos. Plato’s real contribution to science is
not any particular discovery, but the idea that
mathematics can reveal and model the world
around us and yet be apart from it.
In Plato’s “likely story,” the universe is a
living body whose rational soul reveals itself in the
regularity of the heavens. Both the universe and
the Earth at its center are spherical and consist of a
harmony of the four elements structured by the
geometry of the regular solids. Theaetetus (d. 369
BC), a Pythagorean mathematician and con-
temporary of Plato, studied these solids formed by
identical polygons on each face meeting at equal
angles. He was probably the first to show that only
five regular solids can exist (Figure 2.6).
Plato associated fire with the tetrahedron
(4 triangular faces), having the sharpest corners.
The structure of water depends on the icosahedron
(20 equilateral triangles), closest to the smoothness
of a sphere. Air has the form of the octahedron (8
triangles), whose faces could break up and reform
as fire or water.

Earth relates to the cube (6
squares), the most immobile and also, with its
square sides, incapable of combining with the
other elements. Since there are five solids, Plato
associated the entire universe with the dodecahe-
dron (12 pentagons), and later with a fifth element
called ether.
dodecahedron icosahedron (ether) (water)
tetrahedron cube octahedron (fire) (earth)

Figure 2.6 Five Regular Solids of Pythagoras (Platonic Solids)
A regular solid, or polyhedron, has congruent faces, each a regular
polygon and meeting at equal angles. The Pythagorean fascination with
the four of these solids previously known led to their discovery of the
dodecahedron. Plato speculated that these solids determined the
structure and properties of the four elements.
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 34

Although Plato did not work out the ce-
lestial motions in detail, he felt that a theory of the
heavens must go beyond mere description by
seeking to make sense out of their motions. He
viewed the circle as the eternal Idea for explaining
the apparent irregularities of planetary motion,
which became the leading idea in astronomy for
the next two thousand years. He divided the
heavens into two kinds of motion: the Circle of the
Same for the daily rotations of all celestial bodies
from east to west parallel to the celestial equator;
and the Circle of the Diverse, which was divided
into seven unequal and slower motions for the
planets from west to east through the constel-
lations of the zodiac. Plato claimed that the
planetary circles are also of unequal diameters
proportional to the arbitrary sequence 1, 2, 3, 4, 8,
9, 27, in the order of Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus,
Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. He also noted “opposite
tendencies” in the motions of the planets, and in
the case of Mars “the appearance of turning back
on itself.” This may be an implicit reference to its
occasional westward retrograde motion.
According to Plato, the daily rotation of
the Circle of the Same corresponds to the motion
of the World Soul, and God is further identified
with the Idea of the Good. The same rational
principle is found in humans, whose immortal soul
perceives the operation of reason in nature. Time
is defined as the “moving image of eternity,”
which came into being with this world and the
motion of the heavenly spheres. The details of
Plato’s system were left for his students to work
out, who tended to form into two groups called the
“gods” and the “giants.” The gods, such as Eu-
doxus, favored mathematics and the Forms, while
the giants, especially Aristotle, tried to bring sci-
ence down to the visible world.
Eudoxus (ca 400-347 BC) was born in
Cnidus on the Ionian coast. He studied geometry
and medicine before entering Plato’s Academy,
and is credited with proving the formulas for the
volumes of the cone and pyramid. After a few
months in Athens, he went to Egypt and studied
for more than a year with a priest of Heliopolis,
where he probably gained his knowledge of plane-
tary motions. He eventually returned to Athens as
a teacher with his own students. He was the first to
go beyond the Egyptians in proposing a four-year
cycle of solar years that included a leap year, some
300 years before Julius Caesar introduced it into
his Julian calendar. He was the greatest math-
ematician and astronomer of his age, far
surpassing Plato in his scientific achievements.
In mathematics Eudoxus is best known
for his theory of proportions and his method of
exhaustion (Books V and VI in Euclid’s Ele-
ments), building on the work of Theaetetus. The
discovery of irrationals was disturbing to Plato as a
source of instability in mathematics. In his general
theory of proportions, Eudoxus extended the ideas
of number and length to include irrationals by
introducing the concept of magnitudes with no
particular quantitative values, but reducible to
proportions based on a definition of equal ratios.
He also showed how the continued division of a
given magnitude can “exhaust” the continuum of a
curve in order to compute the areas and volumes
of curved figures. Archimedes later developed this
method of exhaustion, which appeared in the 17th
century AD as the limit of an infinite sequence in
the calculus.
Eudoxus pioneered in the first of several
attempts to solve Plato’s problem of the planets.
As quoted from his younger contemporary, Eude-
mos of Rhodes, Plato wanted to know “which uni-
form and ordered movements must be assumed to
account for the apparent movements of the plan-
ets.” The elegant solution of Eudoxus combined
the circular motions of a series of concentric
spheres, each inside the other, with the Earth as
their common center. To explain the various
planetary motions, he used a total of 26 spheres:
four for each planet and three each for the Sun and
Moon. Nineteenth century analyses, especially by
the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli,
showed the validity and limits of his scheme.
The outermost sphere of the four spheres
for each planet produced its daily westward rota-
tion about the Earth. The second with its poles
oriented at an angle of about 24° from those of the
first, corresonding to the angle between the ecliptic
and the celestial equator, gave its eastward sidereal
motion (relative to the stars) through the zodiac.
The third sphere rotated with the synodic period of
the planet (time between successive conjunctions
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 35

with the Sun), with its
poles attached at right
angles to those of the
second sphere and
carried around by it.
The third and fourth
spheres rotated with the
same period but in op-
posite directions about
poles oriented at dif-
ferent angles for each
planet relative to each
other (see Figure 2.7
for Saturn). The planet
itself remained on the
fourth sphere, which
together with the third
produced a figure eight
motion that altered the
speed and position of
the planet as a possible
fit to its actual retro-
grade motion. This
system was adequate
for three of the planets,
but apparently fails to
account very well for
the retrograde motions
of Mars and Venus. It
also failed to account for the changing brightness
of the planets since their distances from the Earth
at the center remained constant for each planet on
its given sphere.
Of the three spheres for the Moon, the
first provided its daily westward rotation and the
third its 27-day eastward motion through the zo-
diac. The second intervening sphere revolved
westward once every 18.5 years to account for the
retrograde motion of the lunar nodes (intersections
of its orbit with the ecliptic) associated with
eclipse cycles. Only two spheres are needed for the
daily motion of the Sun and its annual motions
around the ecliptic; but Eudoxus added a third
sphere to account for a possible inclination of the
Sun’s orbit relative to the ecliptic, which he
viewed as the great circle through the middle of
the zodiac. No attempt was made to account for
the inequality of the seasons discovered 60 years
earlier by Meton of Athens, who also introduced
the 19-year luni-solar cycle of the Babylonians to
the Greeks. Thus with the celestial sphere
included, Eudoxus ended with a total of 27 con-
centric (or homocentric) spheres in the first serious
attempt to match the actual planetary motions.
A considerable simplification of the sys-
tem of Eudoxus could have been realized if the
ideas of another student of Plato, Heraclides (ca.
388-315 BC) of Pontus (on the Black Sea), had
been accepted. His reputation is indicated by a
story that says he was placed in charge of the
Academy during Plato’s ill-fated attempt to train a
philosopher-king in Sicily. Heraclides taught a
form of atomic theory in which the particles were
held together by a kind of Empedoclean attraction
in an infinite universe.
Several accounts mention that Heraclides
suggested the daily rotation of the Earth on
* *
* *
Polar axis
Ecliptic axis
Celestial sphere
30 year ecliptic
revolution axis of Saturn
One retrograde
per year
Daily rotation of
stars & Saturn

Figure 2.7 Concentric Spheres of Eudoxus for Planetary Motions
The concentric sphere model of Eudoxus required four spheres for each of
the planets to show all their motions about the Earth. In the case of Saturn,
the outermost sphere revolves once every 30 years parallel to the ecliptic to
account for motion around the zodiac; the next sphere rotates once each
day to carry Saturn in its daily motion; and the two innermost spheres give
a smaller variation within the zodiac to reproduce Saturn’s retrograde
motion about once each year.
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 36

its axis. For example, in the first century AD
Aetius of Antioch wrote that “Heraclides of Pontus
and Ecphantos the Pythagorean let the Earth move,
not progressively but in a turning manner like a
wheel fitted with an axis, from west to east round
its own center.” According to some sources, he
also suggested that the motions of Mercury and
Venus could be accounted for by having them
revolve around the Sun as it moves around the
Earth, an idea mistakenly referred to for centuries
as the Egyptian system. These ideas could have
eliminated nearly half of the spheres of Eudoxus,
but instead it became much more complicated with
the additions of Callippus and Aristotle.

Aristotle and the Lyceum
Aristotle (384-322 BC) was the greatest
scientist of antiquity, both in the breadth of his
synthesis of Greek knowledge and in the depth of
his focus on natural phenomena. He was born in
the city of Stagira on the northern coast of the
Aegean Sea, near the border between Ionia and
Macedonia. His father Nichomachus belonged to
an Asclepiad family in the Ionian tradition of
empirical medicine and was physician to Amyntas
II, king of the semi-Greek region of Macedonia
and grandfather of Alexander the Great. After the
death of his parents, his guardian sent him to
Athens at the age of seventeen to study at the
Academy, where Plato called him “the intelligence
of the school.” Aristotle remained in Athens for
twenty years and his early writings were in the
Platonic tradition.
After the death of Plato in 347 BC,
Aristotle joined a school at Assos in Ionia, where
he also studied marine life around the island of
Lesbos and married Pythias, adopted daughter of
the director of the school. In 343 BC Philip of
Macedonia invited him to become tutor for his son
Alexander. After Philip defeated his adversaries,
he established the Hellenic League of Greek states
in 338 BC. Alexander succeeded him two years
later, after his assassination. Aristotle then
returned to Athens and established his own school
east of the city walls, calling it the Lyceum since it
was at the sacred grove of the wolf-god Apollon
Lyceios. Alexander provided support for the
school, including many kinds of natural specimens
for its museum, brought back from his far-flung
conquests. These were especially important for
Aristotle’s empirical emphasis as compared to the
idealistic emphasis of the Academy.
Although Aristotle agreed with Plato that
sense experience does not give unchangeable
knowledge, he preferred to accept the evidence of
the senses and the complexity of nature as the
starting point of any explanation. Since form never
appears without matter, the two should not be
separated. Thus Aristotle viewed forms as
immanent in matter, rather than existing in a
transcendent realm of eternal Ideas beyond the
Although the forms are fully real, they
serve more as abstract categories that aid in the
process of defining and classifying. This led to the
first truly systematic study of logic in his Organon
as the proper method of rational science, based on
the faith that nature conforms to logical analysis. It
also led to a qualitative emphasis on classification
rather than a quantitative emphasis on math-
ematics, which Aristotle thought could be too
easily separated from the changing world of
physical things. He didn’t even give speed a
quantitative definition, since dividing distance by
time would not be a commensurable ratio.
To account for change, Aristotle identi-
fies matter with potentiality and form with actual-
ity. An acorn has the potential within it to become
an actual tree. It grows toward the goal or telos of
its form or essence. This kind of purposeful
change from potential to actual is called teleology
and pervades all of Aristotelian science.
In his treatise entitled Physics, Aristotle
divided the causes of change into four classes,
reflecting a synthesis of Greek thought. The
material cause of any change was its elemental
substance (Ionian contribution); formal cause was
its ideal essence (Pythagorean-Platonic approach);
efficient cause was its source of motion (atomist
emphasis); and the final cause was its goal
(religious tradition). The material cause of a statue
is the marble used to make it; the formal cause is
the figure it portrays; the efficient cause is the
action of the sculptor; and most important is the
final cause or purpose, perhaps to serve as an idol
to honor a god.
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 37

Aristotle’s geocentric cosmology extends
from the ever-changing Earth to the unchanging
heavens. Each of the four elements has a tendency
to occupy its natural place: Earth and water have
natural downward motions (gravity), with earth
seeking the center of the universe surrounded by
water; air and fire move upward (levity), with air
surrounding the water and fire extending to the
sphere of the Moon. Left to themselves in the sub-
lunar world, the elements seek their natural places
and their natural state of rest unless disturbed by
some outside force.
Motion that is not natural requires a
mover or efficient cause that produces “violent
motion” by direct contact. Qualitative changes
occur with mixing of the elements as in heating,
which adds fire and causes the upward motion of
smoke or steam. When clouds lose heat they
change to rain which falls to its natural place.
Since comets and meteors involve change, Aris-
totle explained them as sublunar exhalations of fire
and classified them with meteorology rather than
as celestial phenomena.
The idea that violent motion requires a
mover included the effect of resistance to motion
caused by the surrounding medium. Aristotle
viewed the speed of an object as proportional to
the force of the mover and inversely proportional
to the resistance of the medium (v = F/R). The
smaller the resistance the faster an object would
move, leading to the conclusion that a void or
vacuum is impossible since it would have no resis-
tance and therefore allow infinite speed. Consid-
ering the resistance of media such as air, water, or
honey, it is easy to see why Aristotle believed that
heavy objects fall faster than light objects. He
faced a more difficult problem in the violent
motion of a projectile after it leaves the original
mover. Here he developed the dubious doctrine of
antiperistasis, which taught that air pushed out
from the front of a projectile rushes around to the
back to prevent a vacuum, and thus acts as a
mover (Figure 2.8). As the circulating air
diminishes, natural motion takes over causing the
projectile to fall to the ground.
Aristotle gave several arguments for the
spherical shape of the Earth, both theoretical and
empirical. Objects fall vertically toward their
natural place at the center, thus forming a sphere.
During a lunar eclipse the shadow of the Earth on
the Moon always has a convex circular curvature.
Traveling north or south changes the elevation of
the stars, with new stars appearing on the horizon.
He even recognized that this observation implies
that the Earth “is of no great size,” but quotes an
estimate that is about double the actual size as
measured in the following century. This led him to
accept the idea of continuous oceans to the west of
the Pillars of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar) all the
way to India (Asia).
In contrast to the change and imperfection
of the sub-lunar region of the four elements,
Aristotle viewed the heavens as changeless and
perfect, partaking of the “divine nature.” In De
Caelo (On the Heavens he argues that “motion in
a circle is perfect, having neither beginning nor
end, nor ceasing in infinite time,” so the natural
motion of the heavens is circular. The corre-
sponding perfection of the sphere leads to the
spherical shape of the heavens with the Earth at
the center. It also implies their finite size, since no
infinite body can have a center; so there is “neither
body nor space nor vacuum” beyond the outermost
sphere. A fifth element (quintessence in Latin)
called aether fills the celestial region. It was an
incorruptible substance with an intrinsic circular

Figure 2.8 Aristotle’s Antiperistasis Concept
Aristotle explained the violent motion of a
projectile in terms of the circulation of air
pushed from the front of a moving object,
rushing to the back to prevent a void behind
the object. This air circulation, called antiperi-
stasis, pushes the object until it weakens
enough to allow natural motion to prevail.
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 38

motion. This material conception of the heavens
required a more physical construction than that of
the abstract geometrical spheres of Eudoxus and
Callippus (ca. 370-300 BC) was born in
Cyzicos (on the Sea of Marmara), where Eudoxus
had earlier conducted a school. Some thirty years
after Eudoxus published his system, Callippus
recognized its limitations and tried to correct them
by adding seven more spheres to the 26 of
Eudoxus, making a total of 33 planetary spheres.
He was able to account for the retrograde motion
of Mars, Venus and Mercury by adding one more
sphere to each; and he added two more spheres to
both the Moon and the Sun to correct for their
variable speeds, having made better measurements
of the lengths of the seasons (beginning with the
vernal equinox: 94, 92, 89, and 90 days). This is
one of the first examples of direct interaction be-
tween theory and observation. When he went to
Athens, he stayed with Aristotle and helped him to
correct and complete the system of Eudoxus.
In seeking a more physical explanation of
planetary motions, Aristotle added unnecessary
complications to the elegant mathematical system
of Eudoxus and Callippus. By linking all the
spheres into a single mechanical system, he had to
add “unrolling” spheres between each set of plane-
tary spheres to keep them from interfering with
each other. Inside the four spheres of Saturn, for
instance, he added three spheres with the opposite
motions of the inner three of Saturn’s spheres, thus
cancelling their motion and leaving only the daily
motion of its outer sphere to connect with the outer
sphere of Jupiter. He also added three such spheres
inside the spheres of Jupiter and four each inside
those of Mars, Venus, Mercury and the Sun. The
Moon required no new spheres, leaving 22 spheres
to be added. This made a total of 55 planetary
spheres plus the celestial sphere as the highest of
the celestial gods.
In his Metaphysics Aristotle introduced
an unmoved mover of the spheres and everything
else in the universe. This is as close as he comes to
a transcendent God, the Prime Mover beyond the
celestial sphere who is eternal and incorruptible,
pure actuality and form, unencumbered by matter,
and of perfect goodness. As pure form God moves
things as a Final Cause rather than by physical
contact. He is the object of love and desire toward
whom all things strive and whose only action is
self contemplation. In Aristotle’s universal system
God is at the pinnacle of a hierarchy of being that
links every level of nature. Everything below God
suffers from a degree of privation so that each
species, while having its own form, is inferior to
those above it and can be classified by the form to
which it strives.
This hierarchical cosmology (Figure 2.9),
later called the “Great Chain of Being,” had a
strong influence on the Medieval world view of
both Islam and Christianity. Descending from God
and the planets to the sub-lunar region and the
inanimate world, everything had its place and
purpose in nature, distinguished by different as-
pects of its soul (form of its body). In view of their
reasoning abilities or rational soul, Aristotle de-
fined humans as “rational animals,” linking the
celestial and terrestrial realms. All animals have
both a sensitive soul and a nutritive soul, but plants
have only a nutritive soul. Aristotle classified
plants and animals as static species, in which he
viewed mutations as failures to realize their form.
He gave special attention to biology, classifying
over 500 species in categories approximating
modern taxonomy, including some discoveries not
confirmed until the nineteenth century. He also be-
lieved in spontaneous generation, and thought that
the heart was the central organ of perception with
the brain serving to cool its action.
Although Aristotle lacked the concepts of
creation and personal immortality, his ideas were
still a major influence on Western religions. His
conception of immortality, in which only the ac-
tive reason is eternal, is bleak and impersonal; but
the logic and breadth of his ideas were too power-
ful to ignore and his scientific system lasted longer
than any other in history. After Alexander the
Great died in 323 BC, reaction against
Macedonian subjugation led to a charge of impiety
against Aristotle, forcing him to leave Athens. He
died a year later at the age of 63.
Aristotle’s ideas received further devel-
opment by his friend and successor in the Lyceum
for 35 years, Theophrastus (ca 371-287 BC) of
Lesbos. He became famous as the founder of
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 39

botany for his work on plant life, including the
classification of about 500 species, and he wrote the
first treatise on mineralogy. Theophrastus did not
hesitate to criticize his master, rejecting final causes
in many aspects of nature, questioning the idea of
spontaneous generation, and suggesting the brain as
the seat of intelligence. He also recognized the
nature of sexual reproduction in higher plants.
Succeeding Theophrastus in the Lyceum
for 19 years was Strato of Lampsacus (ca. 340- 268
BC) known as the physicist, who had earlier helped
establish the Museum in Alexandria. Strato
developed and criticized Aristotle’s physics. He
replaced the concept of levity in the upward
tendency of air and fire with the idea of
displacement caused by the downward movement
of heavy bodies. He also introduced the idea of
acceleration for falling objects, their faster motion
resulting from closer approach to their natural place,
later referred to as a kind of jubilation as they
neared home.
After the death of Strato, interest in sci-
ence declined at the Lyceum, shifting from Athens
to Alexandria in Egypt. In Athens Epicurus revived
atomism at his school mainly to combat religion and
superstition. For example, understanding the source
of light from the Moon was not as important as
denying its divinity. Holding an opposing view was
Zeno of Cition on the island of Cyprus, (b. ca. 350
BC), who founded the Stoics, so named after the
porch (stoa) where he taught in Athens. He em-
phasized the divinity of the celestial bodies and their
control over the destinies of humans, who are at the
mercy of arbitrary fate. The Sun was the ruling
power of the universe even as the heart ruled the
body. These ideas provided an intellectual basis for
divination and astrology, as well as the new
imperialisms of the Greeks and Romans.
* *
Ecliptic axis
Polar axis
Prime Mover
Celestial sphere
Great Chain of Being
God (Prime Mover)
Angels (Planets)
Lunar Sphere
(Rational animals)

Figure 2.9 Aristotle’s Geocentric Cosmology & Great Chain of Being
Aristotle replaced the 26 mathematical concentric spheres of Eudoxus with 55 solid planetary
spheres to transmit motion from the Prime Mover through the celestial region to the terrestrial
region with its four sub-lunar spheres of fire, air, water, and earth at the center. This hierarchical
cosmology featured the dualism of an unchanging celestial region of perfection and the imperfect
changing terrestrial region, linked by the Great Chain of Being with humans as the central link
between the celestial and terrestrial reflected in their rational and animal characteristics.
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 40


Hellenistic Trends
The main center of Greek science after
Aristotle shifted from Athens to Alexandria during
the Hellenistic and Greco-Roman periods. After
being defeated by the Spartans in 404 BC and
subjugated by Philip of Macedon in 338 BC, the
Athenians turned increasingly toward superstition or
cynicism as developed by the Stoics and Epicu-
reans. Alexander the Great founded the city of
Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt in
332 BC. His subsequent conquest of Mesopotamia
provided access to Babylonian astronomy and
mathematics, but it also exposed Greece to new
inroads of Babylonian astrology. The Alexandrian
conquests ended the old Hellenism and inaugurated
the Hellenistic age with more of an international
character. It was also an age of greater special-
ization in the sciences and a retreat from the grander
systems of Athenian philosophy. It followed the
more realistic emphases of Aristotle, but also led to
some of the greatest achievements in Greek
mathematics and astronomy. Rational science
continued to develop with increasing rigor, but
without probing many new questions.
Following the death of Alexander at
Babylon in 323 BC, his empire fell apart and
Egypt came under the rule of one of his generals,
Ptolemy I (Soter), who like Alexander was a stu-
dent of Aristotle. He founded the Museum and
Library at Alexandria about 300 BC with the help
of Strato. They were expanded after 285 BC by his
son Ptolemy II, who was a student of Strato before
his return to Athens to head the Lyceum. The
Museum, or Temple to the Muses, the mythical
nine daughters of Zeus, was a teaching and
research center modeled on the Lyceum, but much
larger. More than a hundred state-paid teachers
staffed the Museum, which included an astro-
nomical observatory, a botanical garden, a zoo and
dissecting rooms. The Library of about half a
million scrolls was the largest in the ancient world.
This new international cosmopolis attracted many
mathematicians and scientists by its relative peace
and stability and the patronage of the Ptolemies.
The Museum was the chief center for Greek
science for about 700 years, though its contri-
butions declined in the later centuries.

Alexandrian Mathematics
One of the earliest and most famous of
the Alexandrian mathematicians was Euclid (fl.
300 BC), called “the father of geometry” although
little is known about his life. He probably studied
at the Academy in Athens and went to Alexandria
in the early years of the Museum. Euclid’s
Elements of Geometry is the most successful
textbook in the history of mathematics and one of
the most important mathematical treatises ever
written. When asked by King Ptolemy I if there
was any easier way to learn mathematics, Euclid
replied that “there is no royal road to geometry.”
Another story tells of a student who wanted to
know what he would get from learning geometry.
Euclid called his slave and said, “Give him a coin,
since he must gain from what he learns.” Little of
the thirteen books in the Elements appears to be
original, but his achievement was to gather to-
gether the propositions and proofs from widely
scattered sources and put them into a strong logical
order forming a consistent deductive system. This
synthesis of Greek mathematics became the model
for mathematical rigor and axiomatic systems for
more than two thousand years.
Euclid’s Elements begins with 23 defini-
tions, such as the intuitive ideas that points have
no parts, lines have length without breadth, and
parallel lines never meet. Next are five geometric
postulates followed by five general notions similar
to Aristotle’s logical axioms, such as number
three: equals subtracted from equals are equal. The
five unproven postulates are: (1) a straight line
may be drawn between any two points; (2) a
straight line may be continuously extended; (3) a
circle may be constructed about any point; (4) all
right angles are equal; (5) through a point not on a
given line, one and only one line can be drawn
parallel to a given line. The fifth is the famous
parallel postulate. Euclid recognized that it had no
proof and thus treated it as a postulate. Non-
Euclidean geometries first appeared in the
nineteenth century. These assumed that either no
parallel lines or that more than one could be drawn
through a point parallel to another line, which later
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 41

led to important applications in cosmology such as
the concept of space curvature.
The Elements contain 467 propositions
established by various methods of proof. Most are
straight forward, but they also include the method
of exhaustion introduced by Eudoxus, and reduc-
tion to the absurd. The first six books cover plane
geometry, and the last three books deal with solid
geometry, including the five regular solids. Books
VII-IX cover arithmetic and number theory, in-
cluding prime numbers. Book X is Euclid’s
masterpiece on irrationals treated geometrically,
but practically obsolete in terms of modern
algebra. He also wrote a book on Optics, which
applied geometry to the Greek theory that vision
results from emissions coming out of the eye
(extramission theory).
Proposition 20 of Book IX is an elegant
illustration of reduction to the absurd to show that
the number of primes is infinite. Euclid assumes
the contrary: a finite series of primes 2, 3, 5, 7,
11,..., k, where k is the largest. Their product plus
1, that is P = 2
k+1, is either prime or
not. If P is prime it is larger than k. If P is not
prime it must be divisible by some prime p, which
cannot be 2, 3, 5, 7,..., or k because it would then
leave a remainder of 1. In either case there is a
new prime greater than any prime k, contrary to
the original assumption, and thus there must be an
infinite number of primes.
Perhaps the greatest mathematician of
antiquity was Archimedes (ca. 287-212 BC) of
Syracuse in Sicily, although he was best known for
his mechanical inventions. He studied in Alexandria
and maintained his contacts there after returning to
Syracuse. Among his reputed inventions were
compound pulleys, the hydraulic screw still used in
Egypt for raising water, catapults for defensive
purposes, and concave mirrors to deflect rays from
the Sun and reputedly set Roman ships on fire.
According to Plutarch, however, Ar-
chimedes regarded “as ignoble and sordid the
business of mechanics and every sort of art that is
directed to use and profit,” typical of Greek ra-
tionalism. He was killed in the sack of Syracuse
under the Roman general Marcellus in 212 BC.
Legend says that a soldier came upon him while he
was contemplating geometric figures drawn in the
sand, and killed him when Archimedes shouted to
keep off.
Most of the dozen surviving books by
Archimedes are on geometry. These are not as
encyclopedic as Euclid, but they are highly origi-
nal. In his Measurement of the Circle he shows
that the area of a circle is equal to that of a triangle
whose base is the circumference and whose height
is the radius of the circle (2πr × r/2), equivalent to
the formula A = πr² (Figure 2.10). He also uses
Eudoxus’ method of exhaustion with polygons of
96 sides inscribed and circumscribed about a circle
to estimate the value of π between 3.141 and
In the Sphere and Cylinder, Archimedes

Figure 2.10 Archimedes’ Method of Limits
Archimedes obtained the formula for the area of
a circle by inscribing it in a regular polygon
whose area could be calculated by breaking it up
into isosceles triangles of area br/2, where b is
the length of the sides of the polygon and r is the
radius of the circle. Then the area of the circle is
found to any desired approximation by
increasing the number of sides n on the polygon
to any desired limit. In the largest possible limit,
the perimeter of the polygon n×b is equal to the
circumference of the circle C, giving the area of
the circle in the limit as:
A = n×br/2 = C(r/2) = 2πr(r/2) = πr².
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 42

uses the method of exhaustion to find the surface
of a sphere (4πr²) and its volume (4πr³/3). His
book, The Method, discovered at Constantinople in
1906, reveals that he often used a method of
mechanical intuition to obtain his results before
proving them. His approach anticipated the calcu-
lus, but he never passed to the limit of an infinite
Archimedes also created two branches of
theoretical mechanics, statics and hydrostatics. In
his Equilibrium of Planes and at least one lost
treatise, he developed the laws of the lever and
calculated centers of gravity for various figures.
According to legend he boasted to King Hieron of
Syracuse: “Give me a point of support and I shall
move the world.” He then demonstrated his claim
by moving a fully laden ship with a compound
In his book On Floating Bodies, Ar-
chimedes established the principle of buoyancy
according to which a body immersed in a fluid
loses an amount of weight (or gains a buoyant
force opposing its weight) equal to the fluid it
displaces. Legend says that he made this discovery
when he noticed his loss of weight in water, and
that he ran out of the bath shouting Eureka! (I
found it!). This enabled him to show that King
Hieron’s crown was not pure gold by finding that
it weighed less in water than an equal weight of
gold, and therefore that its volume was greater
than the gold. In a curious book called the Sand
Reckoner he developed a method for representing
large quantities to estimate the number of grains of
sand that would fill the universe as estimated by
The only other Greek mathemetician
comparable with Archimedes was Apollonius (ca.
262-190 BC), born in Perga on the southern coast
of Asia Minor. He studied in Alexandria about 25
years after Archimedes and flourished there under
Ptolemy III and Ptolemy IV. His most famous
work was the Conic Sections, analyzing the
intersections of a plane and a right circular cone.
About half is a systematic survey of earlier results
and the other half is a new method of analyzing
conics. He showed that the cone generates three
kinds of conics (Figure 2.11), and gave the names
for them that are still used today: the ellipse,
parabola, and hyperbola, all of which have
important applications in science. The Conics
comprise eight books with 487 propositions that
describe the construction of conics and their prop-
Apollonius also developed an analysis of
a looping geometric curve known as an epicycle,
produced by a point rotating on a small circle as
the center of this circle rotates around a large cir-
cle. This led to new ways of representing the
motions of the planets. He recognized in the sys-
tem of Heraclides that the motions of Mercury and
Venus around the Sun corresponded to epicycles
that traced a series of loops as the Sun moves
around the Earth. He developed a generalized
theory of planetary motion on an epicycle circle
whose center moves around the circumference of
another circle (deferent) centered on the Earth

Figure 2.11 Conic Sections of Apollonius
Apollonius analyzed the conic sections
formed by the intersection of a cone with
various planes. A plane parallel to the axis of
the cone intersects it in the two branches of
the hyperbola. A plane perpendicular to the
axis intersects the cone in a circle. A plane
oblique to the axis of the cone intersects it in
an ellipse. A plane parallel to a side
(generator) of the cone intersects it in a
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 43

(Figure 2.12), and showed that it could be applied
to Mars, Jupiter and Saturn to account for their ret-
rograde motions. He also developed a theory of
eccentrics, in which the center of a planet’s motion
is displaced from the Earth and allowed to rotate
around it to account for apparent planetary
motions. Hipparchus and Ptolemy developed these
devices further, and applied them as a substitute
for concentric spheres to account for the motions
and changing brightness of the planets.

Alexandrian Astronomy and Geography
The first important astronomer associated
with Alexandria was Aristarchus (ca 310-230 BC)
of Samos. Little is known about his life, but he
probably came to the Alexandrian Museum in his
youth and was a student of Strato. He is sometimes
called the “Copernicus of Antiquity” for his
suggestion of a complete heliocentric theory of the
planets, as reported by Archimedes in his Sand
His hypotheses are that the fixed stars and
the Sun remain unmoved, that the Earth
revolves about the Sun in the circumference
of a circle, the Sun lying in the middle of the
orbit, and that the sphere of the fixed stars
situated about the same center as the Sun, is
so great that the circle in which he supposes
the Earth to revolve bears such a proportion
to the distance of the fixed stars as the center
of the sphere bears to its surface.
Not only is this heliocentric, but it assumes an
immense distance to the stars to account for the
lack of any apparent shift in the angles of the stars
due to the motion of the Earth (stellar parallax).
Aristarchus suffered criticism for his
ideas from Cleanthes the Stoic, whose ethical zeal
led him to suggest a charge of impiety “for moving
the hearth of the universe (the Earth) and trying to
save the phenomena by the assumption that the
heaven is at rest.” About a century later, Seleucus
the Babylonian (fl. 150s BC) strongly supported
the theory, but Hipparchus and Ptolemy both
rejected it. The only surviving book by Aris-
tarchus, On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and
Moon, does not mention the theory, but its
conclusions on the vast size of the Sun compared
to the Moon give a hint of its origin, and
Archimedes gives some additional details.
Aristarchus recognized that when the
Moon is exactly half illuminated by light from the
Sun (half Moon), the triangle formed by the Sun,
Moon and Earth is a right triangle with its right
angle at the Moon. He estimated the angle at the
Earth to be 29/30 of a right angle or 87°, giving an
angle of 3° at the Sun and an Earth-Sun distance of
about 19 times the Earth-Moon distance. Since the
apparent sizes of the Sun and Moon are about
equal, he concluded that the diameter of the Sun is
about 19 times that of the Moon. By timing how
long the Moon is in the Earth’s shadow during a
lunar eclipse, he estimated its diameter to be that
of two Moons, hence the Sun’s diameter would be
almost 10 times the diameter of the Earth. Thus it
would seem reasonable for the Earth to revolve

Deferent circle

Figure 2.12 The Epicycle of Apollonius
Apollonius analyzed the epicycle formed by a
point P rotating on a small circle whose center
rotates on a larger circle called the deferent.
This looping curve was used to represent the
apparent path of a planet (at P) with their
periodic retrograde motions.
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 44

around the much larger Sun and the immense
sphere of the stars to remain stationary as the Earth
rotates (Figure 2.13).
Modern measurements reinforce this he-
liocentric conclusion with an angle at the Earth of
about 89°51’, giving an Earth-Sun distance of
about 400 times the Earth-Moon distance, an Earth
diameter of nearly four Moons, and thus a solar
diameter of about 100 times the diameter of the
Earth. The difficulty for Aristarchus was in de-
termining when the Moon was exactly half illumi-
nated and its exact path during an eclipse.
Eratosthenes (ca 275-194 BC) of Cyrene
(west of Alexandria) used similar geometric rea-
soning to measure the size of the Earth. Educated
in Athens, he had broader interests than most
Hellenistic scholars, including history, poetry, as-
tronomy, mathematics and geography. He became
the librarian of the Alexandrian Museum and the
founder of mathematical geography. On a visit to
Syene (modern Aswan), 500 miles south of
Alexandria on the Nile, he observed the reflection
of the Sun from the bottom of a deep well at noon
on the summer solstice (day when the Sun reaches
the extreme of its northward motion). Since the
Sun was directly overhead, he knew that Syene
was on (or near) the Tropic of Cancer (about 24°
Measurements of the Sun’s shadow at
noon on the summer solstice in Alexandria showed
that it inclines toward the south about 1/50 of a
great circle or about 7° (24° + 7° = 31° latitude). In
view of the Sun’s great distance, its rays at
Alexandria and Syene may be considered parallel;
so perpendiculars to the surface of the Earth from
these two locations extended to the center of the
Earth will intersect at the same angle, giving their
separation as 1/50 of the Earth’s circumference.

For a 3° Triangle: ES = 20 EM
So Sun's Diameter: S = 20 M
From Eclipse Timing: M = E/2
So Sun's Diameter is: S = 10 E
(Modern values: S = 400 M = 100 E)
Moon's Orbit

Figure 2.13 Aristarchus’ Determination of the Distance and Size of the Sun
Aristarchus estimated an angle of 87° between the Sun and the Moon at the time of a half Moon when
the Earth-Moon line (EM) is at right angles to the Sun-Moon line. Thus the remaining angle of the
Earth-Sun-Moon triangle is only 3°, giving an Earth-Sun distance of about 20 times the Earth-Moon
distance (ES = 20 EM). Since the apparent (angular) size of the Sun and Moon are nearly equal
(0.5°), the diameter of the Sun must be about 20 times larger than that of the Moon (S = 20 M).
By timing a lunar eclipse, Aristarchus estimated that the diameter of the Moon is half that of the Sun
(M = E/2). Thus the diameter of the Sun is about 10 times larger than that of the Earth, and he
concluded that it is more reasonable that the Earth rotates around the Sun.
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 45

The circumference of the Earth then follows by
multiplying their separation of 500 miles by 50 to
get 25,000 miles (Figure 2.12). This is a fairly
accurate result, but Eratosthenes’ value of 250,000
stadia is difficult to compare since the 5000 stadia
distance between Alexandria and Syene came from
counting paces, and the length of stadia differed
among Romans and Egyptians.
In his Geographical Memoirs, Eratosth-
enes established the five geographic zones: the
tropics within 24° of the equator, the polar regions
within 24° of the poles, and the temperate zones in
between. His map of the known Earth shows lines
of latitude and longitude, with an estimate of
78,000 stadia of land (about 8000 miles) from the
Atlantic to the eastern end of the Indian Ocean. He
believed that there was a connection between these
oceans because of similar tides.
About a century after Eratosthenes, the
Stoic Posidonius (ca. 135-50 BC) of Apamea (in
Syria) was the first to correlate variations in the
tides (spring and neap) with the positions of both
the Sun and Moon. He attempted a new de-
termination of the size of the Earth from the lati-
tudes and distances between Rhodes and Alexan-
dria. He obtained a value of only 180,000 stadia
(18,000 miles) and suggested the possibility of
sailing west to reach India. This is the value used
by Ptolemy that eventually influenced Columbus
to think that India was only about 3000 miles west.
Syene (Aswan)
Summer solstice
at noon
of obelisk
at Syene

Figure 2.14 Eratosthenes’ Measurement of the Circumference of the Earth
On a visit to Syene at the summer solstice, Eratosthenes observed that the rays of the noonday Sun
were reflected from the bottom of a well. He knew that the rays of the noonday Sun on the same day
at Alexandria cast a shadow of 7° from the vertical. By assuming that the Sun is far enough away
compared to the size of the Earth for its rays to be assumed parallel, it follows that the angle at the
center of the Earth between Syene and Alexandria is also 7°. Thus the circumference of the Earth is
360/7 or about 50 times the distance between these cities. Given a distance of 500 miles between
them, the circumference of the Earth is given by:
C = (360/7) × 500 miles = 50 × 500 miles = 25,000 miles.
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 46

The greatest astronomer of antiquity was
Hipparchus (ca 190-120 BC) of Nicea in Asia
Minor. Most of what is known about him comes
from Ptolemy some three centuries later, who
mentions his early observations from Alexandria
and later ones from the island of Rhodes. Hippar-
chus recognized the advantages of using the epi-
cycle and eccentric methods of Apollonius to
account for both the motions and changing
brightness of the planets. He was the first to apply
both methods to the planets in a new attempt to
solve Plato’s problem of explaining planetary
motions by combinations of circles.
Hipparchus used a fixed eccentric for the
Sun’s orbit (center shifted toward the summer sol-
stice) to account for the inequality of the seasons
(six days longer for spring and summer). For the
larger inequalities of the Moon, he used a deferent
inclined at 5° to the ecliptic and an epicycle whose
center moved eastward around the deferent. The
Moon rotated westward on the epicycle at nearly
the same rate to account for its changing speed at
syzygies (new and full Moon), faster when closer
to the Earth. He also began to apply the eccentrics
and epicycles of Apollonius to the planets, which
Ptolemy later completed.
The mathematical basis for the epicycle
system of the planets was an early form of trigo-
nometry invented by Hipparchus. He established
propositions and relations between arcs and chords
of spherical triangles, adopted the Babylonian
division of the circle into 360°, and compiled a
table of chords to compute positions on the
celestial sphere. These mathematical tools com-
bined with the most accurate observations of an-
tiquity gave measurements to within about 1/6 of a
degree (10’).
Hipparchus measured the distance of the
Moon (orbital radius r) from the fact that its 0.5°
angular size through a complete orbit of 360°
traverses 720 lunar diameters d, so the circumfer-
ence of its orbit 2πr = 720d and r = 115d. By
measuring the time of a lunar eclipse more accu-
rately than Aristarchus did, he deduced that the
diameter of the Earth is about 3.5 lunar diameters
d, so the distance of the Moon is about 33 Earth
diameters (115/3.5), slightly larger than the actual
value of 30.
Drawing on star records of earlier Alex-
andrian astronomers and ancient Babylonians,
Hipparchus discovered a slow westward shift of
the equinox points (where the celestial equator
intersects the ecliptic) of about 1.3° per century
(46”/year), causing the equinox to arrive slightly
earlier each year. The modern value for this
“precession of the equinoxes” is about 1.4° per
century or 50” per year, resulting in a shift of the
equinox points around the entire ecliptic in about
26,000 years (360°/50”), nearly 2000 years in each
constellation of the zodiac. Thus the vernal
equinox had been in the constellation Taurus in
Sumerian times, had shifted to Aries by the time of
Greek science, moving on to Pisces in the
Christian era (reaching Aquarius in about 2300).
Hipparchus also compared his observa-
tions of the summer solstice with those of Aristar-
chus 145 years earlier and found the tropical year
(time between the Sun’s return to the precessing
equinox) to be 365 days 5 hours 55 minutes, about
6 minutes in excess of the modern value. His de-
termination of the mean lunar month (29.531 days)
using ancient Babylonian records was correct
within one second, making more accurate eclipse
predictions possible. In 134 BC Hipparchus
discovered a new star in Scorpio, also recorded by
the Chinese. According to Pliny, this led him to
compile a catalog of some 850 stars. He was the
first to give their ecliptic coordinates of latitude
and longitude, and to divide them into six orders of
magnitude according to their relative brightness,
the 20 brightest being of first order.
For 300 years after Hipparchus, little fur-
ther work occurred in theoretical astronomy until
his work was extended and finished by Claudius
Ptolemy (ca AD 100-170). He produced the first
complete treatise on astronomical science based on
epicycles, and was the last notable astronomer of
antiquity. Little is known about Ptolemy, but his
recorded observations at Alexandria are from AD
127 to 151, and he may have been Egyptian rather
than Greek. Although his observations were less
accurate than those of Hipparchus, he estimated
the average distance of the Moon more accurately
by a parallax method involving the shift in the
apparent position of the Moon relative to the stars
as they appear to circle the Earth each day.
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 47

Ptolemy’s fame rests on his major trea-
tise, Mathematike Syntaxis, known as the Almagest
from Arab translations that prefixed the article al
to the Greek megiste, meaning “The Greatest.”
The first nine of thirteen books are a
mathematical introduction, since for
Ptolemy astronomy is a math-
ematical science in which circular
motions are proper to the nature of
divine things. Book I includes a
Table of Chords and Books VII and
VIII contain an expanded Star
Catalog. The last four books apply
the epicycle and eccentric methods
of Apollonius and Hipparchus to the
Ptolemy discovered a sec-
ond inequality in the motion of the
Moon near quadratures (half Moon),
which he accounted for by a mov-
able eccentric with the center of the
lunar orbit rotating on a small circle
around the center of the Earth. This
caused the distance of the Moon
from the Earth to vary from as much
as 65 to 34 Earth diameters (actual
32 to 28.5), making its apparent di-
ameter vary to a maximum of nearly
twice the observed value and show-
ing his priority of mathematics over
physical appearances.
By applying epicycles,
eccentrics, movable eccentrics, and
combinations of these to the planets,
Ptolemy was able to account for all
their various motions with a total of some 40 cir-
cles. These included small circles perpendicular to
the deferent circles, revolving with the periods of
each planet to account for the inclination of their
orbits. Epicycles for Mercury and Venus had their
centers fixed on a line from the Earth to the Sun to
account for their observed proximity to the Sun.
In the spirit of Plato, Ptolemy still had
concern about the non-uniform speeds of the plan-
ets about either the Earth or the center of their def-
erents. Thus he added one more device, the equant,
to an already complicated system. This was a point
at the same distance as the Earth from the center of
the deferent, but on the opposite side from the
center, about which the centers of the planetary
epicycles moved uniformly with equal angles in
equal times (Figure 2.15).
Ptolemy wrote several other books, but
his sole authorship of them raises questions. This
is especially true of the Geography, which
includes eight books, unprecedented in their scope
and influence. Unfortunately his work suffers from
the choice of Posidonius’ incorrect value of
180,000 stadia for the circumference of the Earth,
and 500 stadia to the degree instead of 600. His
book on Optics followed the extramission theory
of vision, and states the law of equal angles for
incidence and reflection. It included measurements
of refraction and the incorrect suggestion that
refracted angles are proportional to incident
• •


• Earth

Figure 2.15 Ptolemy’s Epicycle, Eccentric and Equant
Ptolemy followed Hipparchus in using the epicycle to explain
retrograde motion, and the eccentric position of the Earth to
account for the inequality of the seasons. He introduced the
equant to obtain uniform motion of the center of the epicycle
as required by Plato. About the equant, he showed that the
center of the epicycle moves through equal angles (α) in equal
times if it is equi-distant from the center of the deferent circle
as the eccentric but on the opposite side.
Chapter 2 • A Rational Universe 48

angles. Unfortunately, one of his most influential
books was the Tetrabiblos, a kind of bible of Hel-
lenistic astrology.
The Museum of Alexandria produced
very little original science after Ptolemy. One last
contribution in mathematics was a step toward
algebra by Diophantus who flourished around AD
250 in Alexandria. Only six of the original 13
books of his Arithmetica have survived, but these
are enough to show both his Babylonian
indebtedness and his own originality. He worked
with rudimentary equations with one unknown of
powers up to 6, having only positive rational so-
lutions. His best known work is with equations
requiring integer solutions, which were often in-
determinate with no single set of solutions or even
an infinite set, still known as Diophantine equa-
One of the last men of science at the Mu-
seum was Theon of Alexandria, who wrote several
commentaries including a valuable one on
Ptolemy. But he was the last to make full use of
the Library, since a part of it housed in the Sera-
peum (Temple of the bull god Serapis) was largely
destroyed in his lifetime by a monk-led Christian
mob in AD 390. His daughter Hypatia, the only
noted woman scholar of ancient times, lectured at
the Museum and wrote useful commentaries on
several earlier scholars such as Apollonius,
Ptolemy and Diophantus. Although several
Christian bishops were among her students, an-
other anti-pagan mob of Christian zealots killed
her in AD 415, marking the virtual end of Greek
science in Alexandria. A thirteenth-century ac-
count, and therefore somewhat unreliable, claims
that the Museum was destroyed after the Muslim
conquest of AD 640.


Archimedes. The Works of Archimedes Including
the Method. trans. Thomas L. Heath. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1952.
Aristarchus of Samos. Distances of the Sun and
Moon. trans. Ivor Thomas. Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1980.
Aristotle. The Complete Works of Aristotle. ed.
Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton
University Press, 1984.
Clagett, Marshall. Greek Science in Antiquity.
New York: Collier, 1963.
Cornford, Francis M. From Religion to Philoso-
phy: A Study in the Origins of Western Specu-
lation. New York: Longmans, Green, 1912.
Dreyer, J. L. E. A History of Astronomy from
Thales to Kepler. New York: Dover, 1953.
Eratosthenes. Measurement of the Earth. trans.
Ivor Thomas. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1980.
Euclid. The Elements. ed. and trans. Thomas L.
Heath. 3 vols. New York: Dover, 1956.
Heath, Sir Thomas. Aristarchus of Samos: The
Ancient Copernicus. New York: Dover, 1981.
Lindberg, David C. The Beginnings of Western
Science: The European Scientific Tradition in
Philosophical, Religious & Institutional Con-
text, 600 BC to AD1450. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1992.
Lloyd, G. E. R. Early Greek Science: Thales to
Aristotle. New York: Norton, 1970.
Lloyd, G. E. R. Greek Science after Aristotle.
London: Chatts and Windus, 1973.
Lloyd, G. E. R. Magic, Reason, and Experience:
Studies in the Origin and Development of
Greek Science. New York: Cambridge Uni-
versity Press, 1979.
Lloyd, G. S. and Raven, J. E. The Pre-Socratic
Philosophers: A Critical History with Selection
of the Texts. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge
University Press, 1957.
Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1936.
Newton, Robert. The Crime of Claudius Ptolemy.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1977.
Ptolemy. Almagest. trans. R. Catesby Taliaferro.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948.
Sambursky, S. The Physical World of the Greeks.
London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1956.
Santillana, Giorgio. The Origins of Scientific
Thought. New York: New American Library,
Toulmin, Stephen and June Goodfield. The Fabric
of the Heavens. New York: Harper, 1961.



The Roman, Christian, and Islamic civi-
lizations that inherited ancient Greek science
inclined more toward practical and religious goals
than the Greeks. They valued science more for its
usefulness, its moral lessons, or as a “handmaiden”
to theology, than for its own sake. With some
notable exceptions, this attitude tended to inhibit
the development of science, although it did aid in
its transmission and eventual resurgence. It also
led to a more purposeful view of the universe, in
the traditions of Plato and Aristotle, as compared
with its “enlightened” modern successors.
The Romans came to civilization under
the tutelage of the Etruscans, adopting the system
of astrology and liver divination the Etruscans
brought from their original home in Asia Minor.
The Romans became increasingly aware of the su-
periority of Greek culture as they subjugated the
dynasties that had emerged from the Greek colo-
nies established by Alexander the Great. The trans-
mission of Greek science to Rome took place
during the period that included some of the highest
attainments of Hellenistic science, culminating in
the work of Ptolemy. Science then slowly
declined, with few additional contributions by the
Romans, nearly disappearing completely for
almost 500 years after the fall of the Roman
Empire in the fifth century AD. The seeds of this
decline are apparent in the Roman attitude toward
Greek science.

Encyclopedia Tradition.
The Roman genius was in the field of or-
ganization, engineering and law, but they created
little original science. They greatly admired Greek
learning, but valued its practical applications more
than its rational methods of inquiry. This led to an
emphasis on encyclopedias and handbooks of
Greek knowledge, encompassing content rather
than method. An early encyclopedia by Marcus
Terentius Varro (116-27 BC) included nine books
covering grammar, dialectics, rhetoric, geometry,
arithmetic, astronomy, music, medicine and
architecture. Martianus Capella in the fifth century
and Flavius Cassiodorus (ca AD 490-580) in the
sixth century adopted all but the last two of these
as the basis for the seven liberal arts studied in the
Middle Ages.
Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) compiled a
more comprehensive and empirical encyclopedia
than that of Varro. Like many Roman writers,
Pliny was a Stoic who viewed the Sun as the soul
of the universe, which itself was eternal and di-
vine. His Natural History consisted of 37 books of
facts and fantasies (unicorn, mermaids, phoenix,
etc.) derived somewhat uncritically from some
2000 sources written by 146 Roman and 326
Greek authors. He also recorded many of his own


A Purposeful Universe

Transmission and Transformation of Greek Science

Chapter 3 • A Purposeful Universe 50

observations, leading to his death while observing
an eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

The Romans assimilated Greek medicine
more successfully than mathematics or astronomy,
perhaps because of its obvious utility. Aurelius
Celsus wrote an important encyclopedia On Medi-
cal Matters about AD 30, which included an
excellent compilation of Alexandrian Greek
sources. Celsus gave a complete account of the
skeleton and many surgical procedures, including
removal of cataracts and tonsils. He also summa-
rized the work of Herophilus and Erasistratus (3rd
Century BC) at Alexandria. Herophilus was the
first to perform public dissections, including some
on live criminals (vivisection) provided by the
state. He recognized the brain as the seat of
intelligence and distinguished arteries from veins
by their pulsations. Erasistratus followed his
teacher Strato in using mechanical concepts and
the idea of a vacuum to describe digestion and the
operation of the heart valves, but he thought the
arteries were filled with air.
The last important medical philosopher in
the Greek tradition was Galen of Pergamum (AD
129-199) in Asia Minor. Galen served as a surgeon
to gladiators in Pergamum and traveled widely in
the Roman world. At Rome he became court
physician to the emperors Marcus Aurelius and
Lucius Verus. He was a prolific writer, including
some 131 medical volumes of which 83 have
survived. He based his anatomical studies on
dissection of Barbary apes, causing some con-
fusion due to differences in human anatomy. He
demonstrated that the arteries were filled with
blood rather than air, but thought that the heart was
responsible for respiration. He also failed to
recognize the circulation of the blood, leading him
to the incorrect idea that blood flows through in-
visible pores in the dividing wall (septum) of the
Galen’s theories dominated medicine
throughout the Middle Ages, partly due to their
connection with religious and mystical ideas. He
followed Plato and Aristotle in his concern with
the cosmic purposes to explain the nature of or-
ganisms. He combined Aristotle’s hierarchy of
rational, animal and vegetable souls with the three-
fluid theory of Erasistratus by suggesting that the
brain was the source of rational spirits distributed
by the nervous system, the heart was the source of
animal spirits in the respiratory system, and the
liver is the central organ of the digestive system,
distributing vegetable spirits through the veins. He
accepted the Stoic idea that air was the breath and
soul of the universe, and that respiration connected
humans (the microcosm) with the cosmic spirit
(macrocosm) through the pneuma, which was half
air and half fire.

Astrology and Alchemy.
Beginning about the second century BC,
several mystery religions entered Rome from the
east, offering mysterious methods of purification
and the ideas of immortality and union with God.
The cult of Isis from Egypt combined with Greek
influences to promise moral purification. Chaldean
astrology led to the cult of the “Invincible Sun”
and the idea that the soul lives after death among
the divine stars. Persian Zoroastrianism
contributed the cult of Mithra with its perpetual
struggle between the spirits of light and darkness.
These beliefs combined with Stoicism and the
mystical trends of Pythagoreanism and Platonism
to support the development of astrology and al-
Both Posidonius (d. 50 BC) and Ptolemy
(d. AD 170) embraced astrology and contributed to
its grip on the Roman mind. The influence of
Posidonius was spread by his widely read
handbooks and especially his commentary on
Plato’s Timaeus. His lunar theory of the tides
demonstrated his Stoic conviction of the sympathy
between celestial and terrestrial phenomena.
Ptolemy’s astrological convictions were the
stimulus for his study of mathematical astronomy,
whose results he felt confirmed the power of the
stars over Earthly events. Although his Tetrabiblos
avoided excesses, it gave scientific support to
astrology, which increasingly associated the seven
planets with human activities, such as Mars with
war and Venus with love.
Spiritual concepts also stimulated interest
in chemical processes in what the Arabs later
called alchemy. Starting about AD 100, the early
Chapter 3 • A Purposeful Universe 51

alchemists found support in the Stoic idea that all
objects in nature were alive and growing in
harmony with the universal spirit of nature. They
combined this with theories concerning the
transformations of the four elements to suggest the
possibility of transmuting base metals into silver
and gold. Secret knowledge of this type informed
the Gnostic sect, who viewed transmutation as a
symbol of death and resurrection.
Alchemy received further credence from
the Neoplatonic philosophy of Plotinus (ca. AD
205-270) in the third century AD, who elaborated
the ideas of Plato into a spiritual hierarchy of
being that began with God and flowed down
through the Forms to the lowest levels of material
being. Near the end of the third century at
Alexandria, Zosimos combined these Greek
theoretical and mystical ideas with Egyptian
practical techniques in an encyclopedia consisting
of 28 books; but the mystical side prevailed with
his successors as the Roman empire crumbled and


The Birth of Christianity.
The Hellenistic age and the decline of
Rome were also the setting in which a new civili-
zation began to emerge with new religious aspira-
tions that eventually transformed the Greek heri-
tage. The birth of Christianity gave rise to a new
emphasis on the reality of the transcendent world
revealed in the Bible, with the natural world
viewed as contingent on the supernatural realm.
The first Christians were Jews in Palestine, and
Christianity first spread beyond its homeland to
Hellenized Jews living in the Roman empire.
With its roots in Jewish history and the
teachings of Jesus, Christianity became a universal
religion through the work of the Apostle Paul,
using the Greek language as a vehicle. The Bible
recounts Paul’s visit to Athens (Acts 17) where he
debated with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers
about the Unseen God of the Greek poets. His
letters establishing the first churches infused
Christianity with Greek reason. Thus the problem
of reconciling revelation and reason began with
the birth of Christianity as a world religion, and
the question of the relationship between science
and Scripture was unavoidable.
Even before the spread of Christianity,
the relation between revelation and rationalism
engaged Hellenized Jews such as Philo (30 BC -
AD 50) of Alexandria. Philo recognized that Greek
philosophy was not necessarily a threat to Judaism,
and that one and the same reason could speak in
philosophers like Plato and in the revealed truths
of Moses and the Prophets. He was able to
reinterpret biblical cosmology in terms of
Platonism and Stoicism by means of the allegori-
cal method in common use at Alexandria. For
example, he interpreted references in Scripture to a
first man Adam as symbolizing spirit or mind, and
he took Eve to represent sensuality.
Philo used the Stoic conception of the
Divine Logos (Greek: Word) to describe the
wisdom and goodness of God, and the Jewish
concept of creation and the fall to account for evil
as originating in matter. His goal was not to
explain nature, but to use science and philosophy
to understand spiritual truth in a manner similar to
Plato’s view of mathematics.

Early Christian Views.
The early Church Fathers of Alexandria
accepted the allegorizing of Scripture, but warned
against its excesses when divorced from faith. The
Gnostic heresy equated the Hebrew God with
Plato’s Demiurge, and claimed that special knowl-
edge or gnosis was necessary to recognize the true
source of Being. Some held that the essential as-
pect of humanity was spirit, denying the bodily
resurrection of Jesus and even his material exis-
tence. They practiced asceticism as a means of
escaping the bondage of sensuous matter, which
they equated with evil.
Clement of Alexandria, who died about
AD 215, taught that Greek science could protect
true faith from heresy if reasoning was accompa-
nied by faith. He accepted the geocentric cosmol-
ogy of the Greeks, but related the structure of the
world to the Jewish tabernacle. Thus the Ark of
God’s Covenant with Israel symbolized the eighth
sphere of the fixed stars as the dwelling place of
Chapter 3 • A Purposeful Universe 52

The greatest leader of the Alexandrian
catechetical school was the theologian Origen (ca.
185-284), who developed the first systematic ex-
position of Christian theology based on the whole
of Greek knowledge. He attempted to resolve the
classical dualism of form and matter by deriving
all reality as an emanation from a transcendent
God through the Divine Logos identified with
Christ, who “is of the same essence with God,
distinct but not separate, like the Sunbeam and the
Applying similar Neoplatonic ideas to the
Christian doctrine of creation led to a distinction
between the eternal world of spirit and the
temporal world of matter created by God. To avoid
conflict with the Greek theory of natural place,
Origen used the allegorical method to interpret the
Biblical reference to “waters...above the
firmament” (super celestial waters) created on the
second day of creation (Genesis 1:5-8). Thus he
suggested that these waters refer to the power of
the angels to which the celestial waters of our
spirits should seek to rise.
For three centuries, Christianity grew in
spite of sporadic persecution, culminating in the
conversion of the emperor Constantine early in the
fourth century, and the Council of Nicea in AD
325, which helped to establish the official doctrine
of the Church. Using a formulation derived from
Origen, but free from his Neoplatonic framework,
the Nicene Creed defined the relationship between
the divine and human natures of Christ. The
mystery of the Trinity provided a basis for the
source of the intelligibility of all other things. The
categories of Greek science no longer seemed so
persuasive, and the intelligibility of nature ap-
peared to rest on a higher level. Both the universe
and history depend on God and derive their
intelligibility from the Trinity. Explanation rises
above the context to be explained. A freely
creating God grants humans the freedom to sin,
and only by God becoming man in Christ can he
restore fallen human nature.
Christian writers now began to deal with
pagan science more confidently, even if not very
competently. The disagreement of the various
schools of Greek philosophy appeared to show the
weakness of reason as compared to the unity of
Biblical revelation. Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 331-
396) questioned the reality of the material world,
suggesting that qualities created by God are con-
cepts whose union are perceived as matter. But he
believed that the world provided signs and sym-
bols that would lead to God. His brother Basil (ca.
330-379), Bishop of Caesarea, defended the
Biblical account of creation in his Homilies on the
Hexaemeron (six days of creation) by attacking the
materialists who failed to see the beauty and
purpose of the creation as the work of an intelli-
gent Creator.
Basil rejected the allegorical interpreta-
tion of the super celestial waters and attempted to
give a realistic explanation in terms of a spherical
Earth surrounded by two heavens, with the waters
between them. He held that the inner “firmament”
was of a crystalline nature that was capable of
supporting the waters. His brother Gregory
suggested that the outer convex surface of this
sphere contains mountains and valleys that hold
the celestial waters. Ambrose of Milan (ca. 337-
397) also accepted the spherical heavens, adding
that the purpose of the celestial waters was to cool
the axis of the celestial spheres to prevent its
overheating from perpetual rotation!
Basil’s interpretation of these waters
eventually led to the medieval scheme of three
heavens: the firmament of fixed stars, surrounded
by the crystalline heavens composed of crystal-
lized water, and finally the empyrean sphere of
pure intellect where angels abide. Unfortunately,
lead- ers of the Syrian Church reverted to the flat-
Earth theory, including Cyril of Jerusalem (fl. ca.
360) and Diodorus, Bishop of Tarsus (died ca.
394), the latter condemning the Greek system of
the world as atheistic.

The Augustinian Synthesis.
A more reasoned defense of Christianity
emanated from Augustine (354-430), Bishop of
Hippo in North Africa, who was the greatest
thinker and teacher of the early Christian Church.
He received a broad education in all the liberal arts
before his conversion and discipling by Ambrose.
Plato and Neoplatonism were strong influences on
Augustine, and he used Greek philosophy more
than any of the Church Fathers. After the sacking
Chapter 3 • A Purposeful Universe 53

of Rome by the Visigoths in AD 410, Pagans
widely blamed the disaster on Christians for
having abandoned the old gods. In his greatest
work, The City of God, Augustine answered Pagan
critics by pointing to the contingency of the
material world and the fact that all worldly things
decay, including Rome and its Empire.
Like Plato, Augustine believed that ulti-
mate and eternal reality is spiritual, while material
nature is temporal and changing. Unlike Plato,
however, he rejected the Greek cyclical view of
time as antithetical to human purposes and
meaning, since the achievement of any goals
would only vanish again. He based his linear view
of history on both creation and redemption. God
created time with a beginning and an end, and sent
Christ into the world to save humanity for an
eternal destiny. Although he emphasized the
spiritual over the natural world, he began the
transformation of Western thinking that would
eventually free science from the recurring cycles
of Greek cosmology.
Although Augustine is typical of the en-
tire Christian age in viewing knowledge as a
search for eternal truth, which is ultimately God,
he also recognized the value of natural knowledge
for illuminating Christian doctrine, and worked to
develop a harmony between reason and faith.
Since God created humans in his image, self-
knowledge is a reflection of the divine light, and
even doubt demonstrates a consciousness of truth.
Reason is a divine gift to be cultivated. All truth,
scientific and religious, is God’s truth. All sciences
have value in so far as they contribute to the
knowledge of God, and error results from
reasoning without faith in this ultimate goal:
“Understand in order that you may believe, believe
in order that you may understand.”
Augustine often made use of natural
knowledge to interpret Scripture. For example, he
applied the doctrine of rationes seminales (seed-
like principles) to the problem of reconciling the
Biblical idea of an immediate creation with the
observational evidence of progressive develop-
ment of natural forms, especially in biology. This
Stoic concept that nature contains the seeds of its
own development made it possible to view God’s
creation as complete in the beginning without
ignoring developmental evidence. He thus sug-
gested that God created all things in the beginning,
but some he created potentially as seed-like
principles that subsequently develop into mature
organisms, an idea that he even applied to the
origin of Adam and Eve. It also led to a conception
of natural law described by Augustine in his
Literal Commentary on Genesis: “The ordinary
course of nature in the whole of creation has cer-
tain natural laws in accordance with which...The
elements of the physical world...have a fixed
power and quality determining for each thing what
it can do or not do.” In the same book, he warned
against using the Bible in a way that would
contradict the best science of his day:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows some-
thing about the Earth, the heavens, and the
other elements of the world, about the mo-
tion and orbit of the stars and even their size
and relative positions, about the predictable
eclipses of the Sun and Moon, the cycles of
the years and the seasons, about the kinds of
animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and
this knowledge he holds to as being certain
from reason and experience. Now, it is a
disgraceful and dangerous thing for an
infidel to hear a Christian, presumably
giving the meaning of Holy Scripture,
talking nonsense on these topics; and we
should take all means to prevent such an
embarrassing situation, in which people
show up vast ignorance in a Christian and
laugh it to scorn.
Augustine also used science and reason to
argue against false ideas and heresies. In the City
of God he attacked Stoic determinism and causal
astrology as contradicting reason and experience.
He repeatedly argues that twins “conceived in
precisely the same moment” often differ
dramatically in many aspects of their character and
life. Although he admits the possibility of stellar
influence on physical things such as the seasons
and the tides, such influences do not limit the
freedom of the human will. This is an important
point in Augustine’s theology, in which moral evil
springs from the human will without impugning
the goodness of God’s creation. Thus, he defined
Chapter 3 • A Purposeful Universe 54

evil as the privation or omission of the good, and it
has no independent status of its own. The
Augustinian view provides a positive basis for the
study of nature and an argument against the Greek
concept of terrestrial imperfection.

Decline of Science in the West.
The focus of Christian thought on theo-
logical issues combined with the continuing col-
lapse of the Roman Empire to accelerate the
decline of Greek science in the West. In AD 455
the Vandals sacked Rome again, and the last Ro-
man Emperor was deposed in 476, marking the
final fall of Rome. Anicius Boethius (ca. 480-524),
one of the last Latin Christians to have a thorough
knowledge of Greek, prepared translations and
commentaries on Aristotle’s logical treatises and
summaries of scientific subjects. He wrote
manuals on the “quadrivium” of arithmetic, music,
geometry and astronomy. His works together with
Roman commentaries and translated fragments
from Plato were virtually the only sources of
Greek science left to the West for over 500 years.
Befriended at first by the Ostrogothic ruler
Theodoric, he later imprisoned Boethius and
finally executed him on suspicion of treason. He
wrote his chief work On the Consolation of Phi-
losophy while in prison.
Two events marked the triumph of
Christianity in the year AD 529, the closing of the
Academy in Athens and the birth of the
Benedictine monastic order at Monte Cassino in
Italy. Christian monasticism began as an ascetic
movement of hermits in Egypt by Saint Anthony
in the third century, and independently as an
organized community of discipline and devotion in
Southern Egypt by Pachomios in the fourth
century. It reached into the Eastern Roman Empire
through Basil, Bishop of Caesarea, later in the
fourth century and took root in the West from the
work of Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480-543) and
Cassiodorus in the sixth century. The sisters of
Pachomios, Basil and Benedict also established
monasteries for women.
For about four centuries, monasticism
was the greatest civilizing power amidst periodic
anarchy and general corruption in Western Europe.
Monasteries preserved many of the literary
treasures of antiquity and of Christianity, and were
sanctuaries for men and women who transmitted
and increased that knowledge. The Benedictine
Rule, which became the primary form of
monasticism in the West, discouraged excessive
asceticism, established law and order, and encour-
aged useful work. Monks did both manual labor
and scholarly work, and each received equal dig-
nity. Thus began the breakdown of the classical
elitism that had hindered experimental work in
Greek science due to their low esteem for manual
work done by slaves and artisans.
Unfortunately, the sixth century saw fur-
ther revival of the flat-Earth theory from the work
of Cosmas of Alexandria, so called because of the
fame and influence of his geographic work. After
his conversion to Christianity about 548, he be-
came a monk at Mount Sinai and wrote his
Topographia Christiana, a 12 volume illustrated
treatise on geography and a “Christian” defense of
the flat-Earth view based on the Mosaic account of
the Tabernacle. Part of his defense was an attack
on the idea of the Antipodes, a place on the oppo-
site side of a spherical Earth where people would
be upside down with opposing (anti) feet (podes).
Even Augustine had questioned the rationality of a
populated Antipodes as contrary to the unity of the
human race, but now Cosmas argued that the idea
was both absurd and heretical since God made
only one “face” of the Earth for the descendants of
Early in the seventh century Isidore (ca.
560-636), Archbishop of Seville in Spain, tried to
salvage what was left of Greek learning in a
popular encyclopedia called the Etymologies. He
based it largely on Pliny, backed by the authority
of Scripture where possible. He recorded the
Greek theory of a geocentric spherical Earth and
suggested that the Antipodes was in Libya. He
tended to allegorize the material world for its
spiritual significance, especially animals and
fabulous creatures such as satyrs, Cyclops and
dog-headed men.
A century later in northern England, the
Venerable Bede (673-735), so called because of
his great reputation for learning, wrote a number
of scientific books based on Pliny and other Latin
authors. He maintained the sphericity of the Earth
Chapter 3 • A Purposeful Universe 55

and revived the lunar theory of the tides, being the
first to recognize the different times for high tides
at different locations. He had sufficient astro-
nomical skill to calculate the date of Easter from
AD 532 to 1063, and probably initiated the
Western dating of events from the birth of Christ
(Anno Domini). His student Alcuin brought
English learning to the court of the Frankish King
Charlemagne (Latin: Carolus) in Rome, who had
been crowned emperor by the pope in 800. Alcuin
later established a school at Tours that provided a
glimmer of learning in the Carolingian Renais-
sance of the ninth century.

Byzantine Science.
Although the Fathers of the western
Church lost much of Greek science, Eastern Chris-
tendom made a greater effort to preserve scientific
texts and to Christianize the systems of Aristotle
and Ptolemy. Germanic invasions in the West in-
creasingly separated the Latin half of the empire
from the Greek-speaking East. The Eastern or
Byzantine Empire preserved both Greek scientific
learning and Roman administrative structures sur-
rounding the eastern Mediterranean. At Athens the
Byzantine Emperor Justinian closed the Academy
of Plato in AD 529 due to its paganism, and many
of its scholars fled to Persia.
The last notable pagan philosopher of
Byzantium, centered at Constantinople, was the
Neoplatonist Proclus (ca. 410-485), who received
his education in Alexandria and became head of
the Academy in Athens. He wrote an introduction
to Hipparchus and Ptolemy that combined the
mathematical system of Ptolemy with elements of
Aristotle’s cosmology, including the seven plane-
tary spheres plus the celestial sphere and that of
the Prime Mover. Proclus suggested that the
separation of the spheres was determined in such a
way that the greatest distance of a planet on its
epicycle is equal to the smallest distance of the
planet immediately above it. Thus the greatest
distance of the Moon equalled the smallest
distance of Mercury, and so on, making it possible
to calculate the assumed dimensions of the
universe. He gave a proof of the geometric
equivalence of epicycles and eccentrics, but denied
the existence of the precession of the equinoxes.
Around the beginning of the sixth century
the Christian Neoplatonist Dionysius, perhaps a
student of Proclus, proposed in his Celestial
Hierarchy that the angelic beings mentioned in
Scripture formed a nine-fold hierarchy consistent
with the Neoplatonic idea of a hierarchy of spirits
in the heavens. He arranged them into three sub-
sidiary hierarchies, which subsequently served as
the movers of the nine celestial spheres. Starting
with the Primum Mobile, these included the
Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones, then Dom-
inations, Virtues, and Powers, and finally Prin-
cipalities, Archangels, and the Angels who moved
the Moon. Dionysius further arranged each order
of angelic beings by rank similar to the hierarchy
of the church with its Patriarch, bishops, and so on.
Above this hierarchy was the abode of
God in a tenth empyrean (Greek: fiery) heaven,
and below was a descending hierarchy of man,
animals, plants and so on down to the inhabitants
of hell at the center of the Earth, forming a con-
tinuous chain of being. This system had consider-
able influence in the later Middle Ages when
Dionysius was mistaken for the Athenian convert
of the Apostle Paul, Dionysius the Areopagite. The
Byzantine Emperor Michael sent a copy of the
works of this “pseudo-Dionysius” to the western
emperor Louis the Pious in 827. The Irish phil-
osopher John Scotus (Erigena) translated them
from Greek to Latin before he died about AD 870.
In the first half of the sixth century at Al-
exandria, John Philoponus (d. ca. 575) opposed
many aspects of this view. He was a philosopher,
grammarian and professional teacher, who later
converted to Christianity and wrote commentaries
on the works of Aristotle, criticizing many of his
scientific ideas. John’s conversion led to bitter
debates with his intellectual rival Simplicius, one
of the last Neoplatonists, who later left Alexandria
for Athens and then moved on to Persia for four
years after the Academy was closed in 529. Phi-
loponus rejected Aristotle’s dichotomy between
the terrestrial and celestial regions and the
immutability of the heavens. However, this
important step was not widely accepted, and it
prompted the unconverted Simplicius to
sarcastically ask how he reconciled that view with
his Christian faith.
Chapter 3 • A Purposeful Universe 56

Philoponus noted the different colors of
the stars and argued that this was evidence for
differing compositions and thus the possibility of
decay. He suggested that the Sun consisted of the
terrestrial element fire and that the planets did not
move in simple circles about the Earth. These
ideas led to the conclusion that the heavens are not
divine and that God is separate from his creation
and transcends the heavens as well as Earth. This
early triumph of Christian doctrine over Ar-
istotelian teaching was a major contribution to the
later development of cosmology. In support of
creation, Philoponus also attacked Aristotle’s doc-
trine of the eternity of the world. He distinguished
between the heavens created on the first day of
creation and the firmament of the stars on the
second day, the former constituting a ninth sphere
beyond the firmament to account for precession of
the equinoxes. He explained the celestial waters of
the creation account as being in a solid state to
form the transparent crystalline spheres.
The ideas of Philoponus on motion were
especially significant, anticipating modern views
of momentum and free fall. He denied that angelic
beings moved the planets, suggesting instead that
God gave the celestial bodies a “motive power” of
their own, not unlike the natural tendency of
terrestrial objects to fall towards the Earth. He
refused to accept any limit on God’s ability to
produce a void, or that the speed v of an object
would be infinite in a void (R = 0), replacing
Aristotle’s force ratio v = F/R with v = F – R. Ar-
guing purely from reason and experience centuries
before Galileo, he denied that bodies fall with
speeds proportional to their weights: “For if you
let two bodies fall from the same height, one of
them being many times as heavy as the other, you
will see that...the actual difference in time is very
Philoponus also questioned Aristotle’s
antiperistasis concept of projectile motion: air
pushed from the front of an object and rushing to
the rear to keep it moving gives air the conflicting
roles of both resisting and causing motion. Instead
he suggested that a force could impart an
immaterial motive power to a projectile to keep it
moving. Simplicius added that when such a motive
power dissipates, the body slows and its natural
tendency to fall increases. Initially these ideas in-
fluenced the West only indirectly through the
Arabs, especially since the Church declared
Philoponus a heretic after his death, but they
eventually reappeared in the fourteenth-century
impetus concept leading to the idea of inertia. His
book Physica was transated into Latin in 1535, in-
fluencing Galileo as seen in his early notebooks.
Unfortunately Byzantium became preoc-
cupied with politics and theology, and its treasure
of Greek books and manuscripts gathered dust in
its libraries. The state became identified with the
Eastern Christian Church, turning intellectual de-
bates into ideological ones that stifled natural
philosophy. However, some scholarship continued
in the monasteries of the eastern Byzantine
provinces of Armenia and Syria, where Greek sci-
ence and philosophy were translated into Syriac.
Some of their work spread into Persia, especially
at Jundishapur east of the Tigris River, where the
Persian king had established a school of astronomy
and medicine. Its doctors and teachers were largely
Syriac-speaking Jews and Nestorian Christians.
After the Arabs conquered this region, many of
these Greek works were translated from Syriac
versions or directly from Greek into Arabic.
Although early Christianity concerned
itself primarily with spiritual goals and made few
direct contributions to science, it had an important
transforming effect on the Greek tradition. It
challenged the eternity of the world and the cyclic
view of time, replacing it with a linear view of
history in which real progress was possible. It
introduced a new respect for manual labor and a
positive view of the goodness of all of creation. It
denied the divinity of the heavens and the Greek
dualism between the celestial and terrestrial
realms, recognizing unity and purpose in the uni-
verse. In the meantime the flame of science was
kept alive in the Islamic tradition until it could be
revived again in the West.


Origins of Islam.
Inspired by Muhammad the Prophet (ca.
570-632) in the seventh century, the inhabitants of
Arabia conquered the Middle East and within a
Chapter 3 • A Purposeful Universe 57

few decades had established an empire that in-
cluded all of Persia, Egypt, the North African
coast, and Southern Spain. Even before the rise of
Islam, Arab tribes bordering the eastern Roman
empire had learned something of Byzantine cul-
ture, including some converts to Christianity. This
together with the religious tolerance of early Islam
aided in the Muslim assimilation of Greek science.
One of these Hellenized border tribes, the
Omayyads, founded the first Muslim Caliphate
(“successors” of Muhammad) at Damascus in AD
661 and set up an astronomical observatory there
about 700.
The Arab Empire fragmented when the
Abbasids conquered the Omayyad dynasty of
Damascus in 749 and established their own Ca-
liphate at Baghdad, assimilating much of Persian
culture. The science they produced was a synthesis
of Greek science with Persian, Hindu and other
influences. The Omayyads continued to rule in
Spain and produced an important scientific center
at Cordoba, which eventually became one of the
main points of contact with the West. These di-
verse Muslim cultures were united by their belief
in the sacredness and infallibility of the Koran
(“Recital”), which established the Arabic language
in a permanent form as one of the main vehicles of
knowledge and culture. The Koran, with its basic
theme of the omnipotence and oneness of God
(Allah) and submission (Islam) to His will,
encourages the study of nature as an example of
the unity and greatness of Allah:
Verily, in the creation of the heavens and of
the Earth, and in the succession of the night
and of the day, are marvels and signs for
men of understanding heart. (Sura III: 190)
As the creation of Allah, nature is the visible sign
of the Godhead, stimulating many Muslims to
study science as a religious duty.

Islamic Science before AD 1000.
Starting from AD 754, the great patrons
of science were the Caliphs of Baghdad. Al-
Mansur, the second Abbasid Caliph and founder of
Baghdad, engaged Indian scholars to translate
Hindu works into Arabic and brought Nestorian
Christians from Jandishapur to translate Greek
scientific works, some already in Syriac versions.
Harun Al-Rashid, the fifth Caliph from 786 to 809,
hero of the Thousand and One Nights, collected
many Greek manuscripts and encouraged original
scientific work. The most famous Arabic alchemist
worked under his patronage: Jabir ibn Hayyan (ca.
AD 720-815), called Geber in the West, who was
from the mystical Sufi sect of Islam. He wrote
numerous books on alchemy based on his theory
that the four Greek elements combined to form
mercury and sulfur, which then combine in various
proportions to form the metals. Although Jabir
based these proportions on a mystical numerology,
he did emphasize careful measurements with a
balance scale.
In about 815 Al-Ma’mun, the seventh and
greatest Abbasid Caliph (813-833), set up a study
center called the Bayt al-Hikma (House of
Wisdom), which included a library and an obser-
vatory. He was a Mu’tazil (seceder), who opposed
the Sunni Muslim orthodoxy in his emphasis on
reason, believing in the relative freedom of the
will and that the Koran is not “uncreated and
eternal.” He combined free thought with intoler-
ance for his Sunni opponents, but welcomed Jews
and Christians in his court. Here the Nestorian
Christian physician Hunain ibn Ishaq (ca 809-873)
translated much of Galen and other Greek
scientific works with the assistance of about ninety
pupils, including his son Ishaq ibn Hunain, who
translated the Elements of Euclid and the Almagest
of Ptolemy among others.
The greatest scientist of this period was
Al-Khwarizmi (ca 800-850), who synthesized
Greek and Hindu knowledge. His book on arith-
metic made known the Hindu positional system of
decimal numbers, including the zero, miscalled
“Arabic numerals” by Latin translators, who also
distorted his name to “algorithm” for rules of cal-
culating. His book on algebra, Al-jabr w’al
Muqabala, introduced analytical and geometrical
methods of solving linear and quadratic equations
(ax² + bx + c = 0). The word Al-jabr refers to
“transposition” or “restoration” of an unknown
quantity, giving the word “algebra” in Latin
transliteration, while muqabala refers to
“equalization” or “simplification” of an equation.
Al-Khwarizmi also produced astronomical and
Chapter 3 • A Purposeful Universe 58

trigonometric tables that contained both
sine and tangent functions instead of
The astronomer Al-Farghani
(820-861) was a younger contemporary of
Al-Khwarizmi at Baghdad in the ninth
century. They probably worked together
in trying to improve geographic meas-
urements of the degree of latitude, as
requested by the Caliph Al-Ma’mun to
determine the size of the Earth. Al-
Farghani accepted the Ptolemaic system
and determined the greatest distances and
diameters of the planets based on the as-
sumption of Proclus that there is no radial
separation between the epicycles of adja-
cent planets (Figure 3.1). After persecu-
tion in the Orthodox reaction against the
Mu’tazila, he moved to Egypt to work on
a nilometer to measure Nile flooding. His
contemporary, Al-Kindi (ca. 801-866),
was an encyclopedic scientist and phi-
losopher, who developed a Neoplatonic
view of Aristotle and criticized alchemy.
He wrote four books on Hindu numerals,
and produced an influential treatise on
optics based on Euclid and Ptolemy.
The leading astronomer of the
late ninth and early tenth centuries was
Al-Battani (ca. AD 858-929), known by
Albategnius in Latin, who extended the
work of Al-Farghani at Baghdad. Al-
though a Muslim, Al-Battani came from Harran in
Mesopotamia, where the Sabian sect had com-
bined Babylonian astrology with Neoplatonism.
The accuracy of his measurements may have been
aided by the work of his father, who by some ac-
counts was the inventor of the spherical astrolabe
for determining star positions. He accepted the
Ptolemaic system, but made more accurate meas-
urements of the inclination of the ecliptic as
23°35΄ from the celestial equator, the precession of
the equinoxes as 54.5˝ per year (4.5˝ too large),
and the time of equinox to within an hour or two.
He discovered the motion of the solar apsides: a
slow variation of the position of the Sun when it
has its smallest apparent size (aphelion), having
shifted by 16°47΄ along the ecliptic since Ptolemy.
One of the first Muslim writers on medi-
cine was the Persian Al-Razi (ca. 854-925), known
in Latin by Rhazes, a contemporary of Al-Battani
and chief physician at Baghdad’s largest hospital.
He followed the theories of Galen, but applied new
techniques and chemical ideas to medicine, such as
the use of plaster of Paris to set broken bones. He
appears to have been the first to classify
substances into animal, vegetable and mineral, and
modified Jabir’s mercury and sulfur theory of
solids to include salt. He made important
contributions to obstetrics and ophthalmic surgery,
but is best known as the first to correctly
distinguish between measles and smallpox.
By the tenth century Muslim science ap-
pears to increasingly spread out from Baghdad,


Orbit of the sun
and outer limit
of epicycle
for Venus

Figure 3.1 Al-Farghani’s Planetary Distance Estimate
Al-Farghani based his estimate of planetary distances on
the assumption that the epicycles of the planets just fit
between their respective deferent circles. Thus he
assumed that the greatest distance of the Moon from the
Earth is equal to the least distance of Mercury. The least
distance of Venus is then equal to the least distance of
Mercury plus the diameter of its epicycle. In the
Ptolemaic system the centers of the epicycles of Mercury
and Venus are on the line from the Earth to the Sun to
account for the fact that these planets only appear near
the Sun.
Chapter 3 • A Purposeful Universe 59

which was the center of Sunni orthodoxy. Al-
Mas’udi was a Mu’tazilite Arab who left Baghdad
for Syria and Egypt after writing an encyclopedic
work on science and geography in 947, including
the first description of windmills. Abu Kamil (fl.
900), the Egyptian calculator (al-hasib al-Misri),
improved al-Khwarizmi’s algebra, including meth-
ods to find both the roots of quadratic equations.
The Turkish philosopher Al-Farabi (ca.
870-950) studied in Baghdad but settled in
Damascus where he developed a synthesis of
Neoplatonism, Aristotelianism and Sufism, at-
tempting to harmonize Islamic and Greek philoso-
phy in much the same way as Augustine had done
with Christianity. To weaken Aristotle’s idea of an
eternal universe, he suggested that creation is an
actualization of forms in matter. His encyclopedic
works embraced all of science, including an
oriental treatise on music that recognized major
and minor thirds (ratios of 4:5 and 5:6) as har-
monic consonances.
Sunni orthodoxy reasserted its position
against Mu’tazilite rationalism in the theology of
al-Ashari (873-935) at Baghdad . The Asharites
opposed the Aristotelian conception of an imper-
sonal God and eternal universe. They preferred a
modified form of atomism which viewed atoms as
a continuous creation of God. They discarded the
concepts of causation and the uniformity of nature
in favor of the absolute and arbitrary power of God
and allowance for His miraculous intervention.
Although they established the unity and orthodoxy
of Islam, they inhibited the free thought and
research required in science.
One reaction to Sunni orthodoxy was the
formation of a secret association south of Baghdad
at Basra in 983 called the “Brethren of Purity”
(Ikhwan al-safa). They believed in the purifying
power of knowledge and developed a mystical
synthesis of various religious and Greek sources,
especially Pythagorean, Neoplatonic and Sufi. For
them knowledge formed a hierarchy from natural
philosophy to theology, but the highest is a
knowledge of God and his purposes. They wrote
an encyclopedic work of 52 volumes, including 17
books on science that combined the alchemy of
Jabir with astrology and numerology. But the
orthodox Sunni of Baghdad declared it heretical.
The end of the ninth century witnessed
the rise of Islamic centers of science in Cordoba
and Cairo. Al-Hakam II, the ninth Omayyad
Caliph of Cordoba in Spain, ruled from 961 to 976
in the greatest city of that time after Constan-
tinople. He was a great patron of science who built
up a university of some 400,000 volumes, the chief
Islamic center of learning at the time.
Some of the earliest scientific influences
on Europe date from this period, such as writings
by Gerbert of Aurillac (France, ca 940-1003) on
the astrolabe and Arabic numerals (without zero).
After studying Arabic mathematics and astronomy
in Barcelona, Gerbert returned to Rheims and later
became Pope Sylvester II in 999.
In 969 the Fatimids conquered Egypt and
established the city of Cairo. They were members
of the radical Shi’ite sect that believed their leaders
were direct descendants of Muhammad through his
daughter Fatima. The third Fatimid caliph at Cairo,
al-Hakim, ruled from 996 to 1020. Although he
was mentally disturbed and issued many out-
rageous laws, al-Hakim recognized the value of
science and established the Dar al-’ilm (Hall of
Knowledge), which lasted until the end of Fatimid
rule in 1171, including a library and an
observatory similar to the earlier Bayt al-Hikma at
Baghdad. Meanwhile, Baghdad continued to
decline as the mercenary Seljuk Turks took over
increasing control of the Eastern Caliphate.

Islamic Science after AD 1000.
The greatest astronomer at Cairo, and
perhaps of all the Muslims, was the Egyptian Ibn
Yunis (died in 1009). He used the well-equipped
observatory of al-Hakim’s Dar al’ilm to improve
on earlier observations in preparing the Hakemite
astronomical tables named after his patron. They
contain records of old and new eclipses, conjunc-
tions and astronomical constants, including some
of the most accurate Muslim measurements, such
as a value of 51.2˝ per year for precession of the
equinoxes (1˝ off). He was also the leading
mathematician of his time, making many contri-
butions to spherical trigonometry.
Also working at Cairo in the time of al-
Hakim was al-Haytham (ca. 965-1039) from
Basra, known in Latin as Alhazen. He was the
Chapter 3 • A Purposeful Universe 60

greatest Muslim physicist, but also an astronomer
and mathematician. His Optics showed a great ad-
vance in both theory and experimental method,
strongly influencing later Western scientists such
as Roger Bacon and Kepler. He studied both
spherical and parabolic mirrors, and determined
the magnifying power of a lens. He showed that
Ptolemy was wrong in assuming that the angles of
refraction and incidence were proportional, except
for small angles. He opposed the Greek extra-
mission theory of vision, which taught that the eye
emits rays, correctly suggesting the intromission
theory that light comes from objects into the eye.
However, he wrongly thought that the lens of the
eye was its sensitive part where images form.
As in his optics, al-Haytham’s contribu-
tions in astronomy were both observational and
theoretical. He studied the effect of atmospheric
refraction on light (Figure 3.2), showing that
twilight lasts as long as the Sun is less than 19°

below the horizon. This led him to an estimate of
the height of the atmosphere of only about 10
miles, in contrast with Aristotle’s belief that it
extended to the sphere of the Moon.
Al-Haytham rejected the purely geomet-
ric view of the Ptolemaic system, and proceeded to
solidify the heavens in accordance with the more
realistic Muslim emphasis on a created physical
universe. Each planet moved between two solid
concentric spherical surfaces, eccentric with re-
spect to the Earth, with a solid epicycle sphere
carrying the planet and revolving like a ball
bearing in its casing (Figure 3.3). These eccentric
surfaces were between two other concentric
spherical surfaces centered on the Earth. Al-
Haytham added a ninth sphere to account for daily
rotation of the heavens, while the sphere of the
stars accounted for precession.
Two physicians of note who practiced at
the court of al-Hakim in Cairo near the beginning
of the eleventh century were Masawaih al-Mardini
and ‘Ammar al-Mawsili. Masawaih was a Jacobite
(Syriac) Christian who wrote a book on the
remedies for various diseases, and a treatise on
Local horizon
Local zenith
Setting sun
Sun seen
below horizon
Apparent star
Actual position

Figure 3.2 Al-Haytham’s Consideration of the Effects of Atmospheric Refraction

Al-Haytham recognized that light rays from the Sun or a star are bent by atmospheric refraction so
that they appear higher than they actually are. The effect is larger when the Sun is near the horizon
due to the longer path of light through the atmosphere, allowing the Sun to be seen on the horizon
even when it is actually below the horizon.
Chapter 3 • A Purposeful Universe 61

pharmacology based on Muslim knowledge that
became the standard text on pharmacy in the West
for several centuries. ‘Ammar was the most origi-
nal of Muslim oculists, whose book on treatment
of the eye includes six operations for cataract sur-
gery, although surgery was only used as a last
resort in Islamic medicine.
Some of the most important Islamic sci-
ence continued east of Baghdad by Arabic speak-
ing Persians. Al-Biruni (973-1051) was a Shi’ite
Muslim and encyclopedic scientist, who traveled
widely in India but settled in Sijistan (Af-
ghanistan). He gave the best medieval account of
Hindu numerals. His geographical works rec-
ognized geological changes even before the crea-
tion of Adam, such as the existence of prehistoric
seas in the Arabian Steppe and Indus Valley, and
fossil evidence for the extinction of species. This
suggested a temporal succession in the Great
Chain of Being, but it did not lead to any concept
of evolution. He made measurements of latitudes
and longitudes, and discussed the possibility that
the Earth rotates on its axis.
The most famous Islamic scientist was
the Persian philosopher and physician Ibn Sina
(980-1037), called Avicenna in Latin, who was
from near Bukhara in Uzbekistan. He was a
prodigy who memorized the Koran by age ten and
mastered the science of his day by the age of six-
teen. His philosophy was an Islamic synthesis of
Aristotle and Neoplatonism that viewed all beings
as rad- iations from the source of Being in God.
Ibn Sina’s medical works were a vast
compilation of ancient and Muslim sources, based
largely on Galen and his own observations, which
remained supreme for six centuries. He sometimes
differed with Aristotle, as in his development of
the ideas of Philoponus on projectile motion to
allow for an impressed force that would continue
indefinitely in a void. This “inclination” or
“tendency” (maiyil) of an object is similar to
inertia, but is more closely connected to Aristotle’s
final cause, linking motion to the love of God as
the Prime Mover in the universe.
Two other Persian scientists made impor-
tant contributions at the beginning of the twelfth
century, a time that marked the beginning of
decline in Islamic science. ‘Omar Khayyam (ca
1050-1123) was a tentmaker, astronomer, mathe-
matician and poet, best known for his poem the
Inner eccentric sphere
Outer eccentric sphere
Inner surrounding sphere
Outer surrounding sphere
Center of eccentric sphere
Center of the world
Epicycle sphere
Planet revolving on epicycle

Figure 3.3 Al-Haytham’s Use of Crystalline Spheres in the Ptolemaic System
Al-Haytham developed a physical model of the Ptolemaic System by introducing eccentric
crystalline spheres between which a small revolving sphere could carry a planet on its
circumference to produce the epicycle path that accounts for its retrograde motion.
Chapter 3 • A Purposeful Universe 62

Ruba’iyat, paraphrased in English translation by
Edward FitzGerald. Known variously as a sufi
mystic and an agnostic, he wrote in Persian rather
than Arabic. He was one of the greatest of medie-
val mathematicians, marking the climax of Muslim
algebra. His study of cubic equations classified 13
different forms, including partial geometric
solutions of most of them (no negative roots). He
prepared improved astronomical tables and
devised a highly accurate reform of the Persian
A contemporary of ‘Omar Khayyam, the
physicist and astronomer al-Khazini was a Greek
slave whose Persian master provided him with a
good education. He compiled the Sinjaric astro-
nomical tables, named after Sultan Sinjar of
Khurasan. His Book of the Balance of Wisdom
(1122) summarized and extended Greek and
Muslim work on mechanics, including applications
of the balance, laws of the lever, a theory of
gravity applied even to the atmosphere, and ob-
servations on capillary action. He gave the first
quantitative definition of average speed as distance
divided by time (v = x/t), a ratio the Greeks had
thought incommensurable, but it made possible
simple algebraic solutions such as distance given
by rate times time (x=vt).
By the twelfth century, the main center of
Islamic science had shifted to the western Cal-
iphate at Cordoba. Al-Zarkali (ca. 1029-1087) of
Cordoba established astronomy in southern Spain
during the eleventh century. The leading observer
of his time, he invented an improved astrolabe and
edited the Toledan Tables of 1080 based on obser-
vations at Toledo with other Muslim and Jewish
astronomers. In the twelfth century Jabir ibn Aflah
of Seville (known as Geber in Latin, not to be
confused with the 8th century alchemist Jabir ibn
Hayyan) began a movement against the Ptolemaic
system. This was carried on by Ibn Bajja of
Saragossa (Avempace in Latin, died ca. 1139),
who criticized epicycles for their lack of physical
reality. The astronomer al-Bitruji (Alpetrugius in
Latin) attempted to work out a planetary system
based on the concentric spheres of Eudoxus and
Aristotle involving spiral motions, but could not
account for the many observational complexities
known to the Muslims.
Aristotelian influence on Islamic thought
reached its peak with the last great Muslim phi-
losopher, the Cordovan physician Ibn Rushd
(Averroes in Latin, 1125-1198), who wrote three
commentaries on Aristotle’s works in Arabic
translations corrupted by Neoplatonism. He tried
to reconcile Aristotle with Muslim theology, as in
his suggestion that the eternity of the world might
be understood as the perpetual creative activity of
God, but he denied personal immortality.
Jewish scholars also attempted to inte-
grate Aristotle with the Old Testament. Their lead-
er was the Jewish philosopher-physician Moses
Maimonides (1135-1204), also from Cordoba, who
wrote his Guide for the Perplexed in Arabic. In
1165 he settled in Cairo where he became
physician to the Ayubbid Sultan Salah al-Din
(Saladin), who had restored Sunni orthodoxy in
Egypt. The efforts by Ibn Rushd and Maimonides
to interpret Aristotle, known as Averroism, caused
orthodox revulsions among the Muslims of Spain,
and later among Jewish Talmudists and Christian
leaders as well.
Muslim orthodoxy was established earlier
in the twelfth century by the work of the great
Islamic theologian al-Ghazzali (died 1111), who
was able to reconcile his Sufi tendencies with strict
orthodoxy and absolute divine determinism in his
Destruction (or Vanity) of Philosophy. Ibn Rushd
wrote his chief philosophical work as a reply to al-
Ghazzali’s attack on rationalism (Destruction of
the Destruction), but the orthodox Muslim reaction
was to reaffirm the weakness of human under-
standing and the strength of faith, silencing
philosophers and burning their books.
Some scholars suggest that this orthodox
reaction was the beginning of the end of inde-
pendent research and scientific inquiry in Islam.
Others suggest that Muslim awareness of their
intellectual superiority may have led to a lack of
initiative, just as Christian awareness of inferiority
initiated renewed progress. Whatever the causes,
they were reinforced by Christian invasions in
Spain plus Turkish and Mongol attacks in the east.
By the thirteenth century, European awakenings
largely eclipsed Islamic science.
Only in the present century did the work
of Ibn al-Nafis (1210-88) at the Nasiri hospital in
Chapter 3 • A Purposeful Universe 63

Cairo come to light. He recognized Galen’s
mistake in assuming that blood could pass through
the dividing wall (septum) of the heart, and stated
the theory of the lesser circulation of the blood
from the right ventricle of the heart to the left
through the lungs about 300 years before its
discovery in Europe.
Although the Arabs improved and ex-
panded the Greek tradition of science, they seemed
to have little motivation to significantly revise it.
Their primary concern was to see how existing
science could contribute to their goal for all
knowledge: a better understanding of the purposes
and greatness of God. As with Christianity, their
belief in a single divine law governing the universe
helped to unify the terrestrial and celestial realms
that remained separate in Greek thought,
recognizing all of nature as dependent on one God.
The rise of Islamic orthodoxy and the decline of
Arabic science was evident by the twelfth century,
but its transmission to the West was the spark that
reignited learning in Europe.


The Translators.
Medieval Christian contacts with Islamic
culture began with hostile relations. After their
conquests in Spain, the Arabs conquered Sicily in
902 where they ruled until the Norman invasions
of 1077. In southern Italy at Salerno, an ancient
health-resort in a region that still spoke a dialect of
Greek, a medical school had slowly emerged
independent of ecclesiastical control, which now
became an important center of professional
learning under Norman influence. About 1077
Constantine the African, a Christian convert from
Carthage, began somewhat crude translations into
Latin of both Greek and Arabic medical texts he
had brought to Salerno. The school received fur-
ther stimulus from the first Crusade (1096-99), but
it did not receive an official charter as a university
until 1231.
The western Crusade against the Muslims
in Spain led to the fall of Toledo in 1085.
Christians then established a school of translators
at Toledo with bilingual Muslims and Christians,
attracting European scholars there to learn Muslim
science. John of Seville (ca. 1090-1165), a Jewish
convert to Christianity, was one of the early
translators at Toledo who translated many Arabic
works on science and philosophy into Castilian.
He was assisted by Domingo Gundisalvo, who
translated from Castilian into Latin, including a
book on al-Khwarizmi’s arithmetic in about 1140
that helped spread the positional decimal system of
“Arabic” numerals, including zero. Gerard of
Cremona (ca. 1114-87) was the most important of
the early translators at Toledo, completing a Latin
version of Ptolemy’s Almagest in 1175, and about
ninety additional works by other Greek authors,
including medical works by Hippocrates and
Other translators worked outside of
Toledo. Adelard of Bath (ca. 1090-1150), after
traveling to Salerno, Sicily and the Middle East,
returned to England and completed the first
translation of Euclid’s Elements and the
trigonometric tables of al-Khwarizmi from Arabic
to Latin. He also wrote some original works,
including an experimental demonstration of the
supposed impossibility of a vacuum. Another
Englishman, Robert of Chester, completed the first
translations of the Koran (1143) and of al-
Khwarizmi’s Algebra (1145 at Segovia), marking
the beginning of European algebra. He coined the
Latin word sinus (sine) for the corresponding
Arabic trigonometric function.
Because Christian translators showed a
preference for Roman and Greek authors already
known to them, they tended to overlook some
Persian and Arabic works, such as the discovery of
the lesser circulation of the blood by Ibn al-Nafis.
This tended to augment older sources with their
previously unavailable works, and thus were more
easily assimilated into the newly emerging
university curricula. This was especially true of the
works of Aristotle, which now were almost all
available and began to replace the earlier emphasis
of the Church Fathers on Plato with a Scholastic
emphasis on Aristotelian philosophy.

Medieval Universities.
The translation activity of the twelfth
century boosted the universities, which were
simultaneously replacing the monasteries and
Chapter 3 • A Purposeful Universe 64

cathedral schools. Students at the cathedral schools
began to form guild associations of masters and
students, using the term “university” by the
thirteenth century. The universities of Paris,
Oxford and Cambridge grew out of ecclesiastical
corporations of students and masters led by a
chancellor. They formed civic universities at
Bologna and Padua with a rector elected by the
students. State universities received charters from
monarchs such as Frederick II at Naples and
Salerno, and Ferdinand III at Salamanca in Spain.
As Arabic translations into Latin were
becoming available, a new emphasis on applica-
tion and even experimentation appeared in thir-
teenth century Europe. Leonardo Fibonacci of Pisa
(ca. 1170-1250) wrote some of the first original
books on Arabic arithmetic and algebra after
studying in North Africa where his father was a
Pisan commercial agent. His Liber Abaci (Book of
the Abacus, 1202) discusses operations and appli-
cations with both whole numbers and fractions
(using the line for division). In a problem on the
number of offspring of a pair of rabbits, he
introduces the so-called Fibonacci series 1, 1, 2, 3,
5, 8, 13,..., where each term is the sum of the two
preceding ones. Both John of Holywood (Sacro-
bosco) at Paris and Jordanus Nemorarius (died
1237), probably a Dominican from Saxony, wrote
works on Arabic mathematics. Jordanus used
letters to denote known and unknown quantities,
and began to apply mathematics to mechanical
problems, founding the medieval school of
mechanics in his book On Weights.
At Oxford University the Franciscan
School gave rise to a new emphasis on empiricism,
perhaps reflecting the delight of Francis of Assisi
in the natural world of God’s creation. Robert
Grosseteste (ca. 1168-1253) was a translator from
Greek and one of the first to introduce Aristotle at
Oxford, where he served as its first chancellor and
first reader to the Oxford Franciscans, becoming
Bishop of Lincoln in 1235. Although he believed
that truth came from divine illumination, he
recognized that knowledge of the material world
had to begin with the senses. He argued that
scientific propositions, in contrast with logic and
mathematics, must be verified or falsified from
experience. He had a special interest in light and
tried to explain the rainbow by refraction of
Sunlight in a cloud. He taught that light was the
origin of spatial extension and that the universe
originated with light.
The most famous student of Grosseteste
at Oxford was Roger Bacon (ca. 1219-92). After
teaching at Paris for several years, he returned to
Oxford about 1250, where he became a Franciscan
friar and advocate of experimental science. His
most important writings were at the request of
Pope Clement IV in 1266-1267. He went beyond
Grosseteste in his work in optics, especially his
use of mathematics in the tradition of Alhazen.
Thus Bacon used geometric diagrams to describe
the action of a burning mirror and the magnifying
power of a lens, even suggesting combinations of
lenses to act as a telescope. He tried to combine
Aristotle’s ideas about the effect of light on the
surrounding medium with Alhazen’s intromission
theory of vision. He held that the Moon was the
source of its own light, which caused the tides.
Bacon also developed Alhazen’s solid
celestial spheres to reconcile Aristotle and
Ptolemy, accounting for the unusual motions of the
planets by the action of angels. He was one the
first to suggest circumnavigation of the Earth and
correction of the Julian calendar for the effect of
precession of the equinoxes. Even more than
Grosseteste, Bacon stressed the use of experiment
and observation to correct false authority and to
distinguish the true results of alchemy and magic;
but his activity with alchemy led to accusations of
practicing the “black arts.”
Bacon’s concept of the laboratory is close
to the original meaning of laboratorium, a combi-
nation of labor and prayer (oratorium). His attacks
on the pedantry and conceit of academic
authorities incurred the wrath of the schoolmen,
apparently leading to his imprisonment for some
fifteen years and the suppression of his works. He
predicted self-propelled ships, horseless carriages,
and flying machines, but shared the widespread
belief in astrology and that every detail of nature
corresponded with the Creator’s special purpose.
Bacon speaks of Petrus Peregrinus (Peter
the Stranger), a French Crusader from Maricourt,
as the greatest experimenter of his time. He wrote
a book on magnetism about 1269, in which he
Chapter 3 • A Purposeful Universe 65

describes magnetic poles, how to magnetize iron,
and experiments with a spherical lodestone. He
describes both floating and pivoted compasses,
probably as developed from Chinese and Muslim
sources. He incorrectly believed that the compass
points to the pole star rather than the Earth’s pole,
and thought that a spherical magnet would rotate
spontaneously. He suggested the idea of a mag-
netic clock-drive for a planetarium about the time
the first mechanical clocks were appearing in

The Medieval Synthesis.
After the appearance of Aristotle’s Phys-
ics and Metaphysics in Latin with the comments of
Averroes (Ibn Rushd), a reaction set in at Paris
leading to the forbidding of these works in 1210
and 1215. Although an attempt was made to rein-
force this ban in 1231, the work of reconciling
Aristotelian natural philosophy with Christian
doctrine was begun about 1245 by Albert the Great
(Albertus Magnus, ca. 1200-1280). Albert studied
medicine in Italy before joining the Dominican
Order and taking a theology degree at Paris, where
he taught before moving to Cologne. He was the
greatest naturalist of the Middle Ages, writing
extensive commentaries on Latin versions of
Aristotle with many of his own observations
added. His best works were on botany and min-
eralogy, but he closely followed the theories of
Aristotle, except where they clashed with his faith.
He insisted on the importance of observation and
experiment, and attempted to explain alchemy in
terms of natural causes.
Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-1274) devel-
oped the most complete synthesis of Christian
thought with Aristotelian science and philosophy.
He studied at Monte Cassino and Naples before
joining the Dominican Order against the protests
of his father. He then studied at Paris and Cologne
under Albertus Magnus and recognized the power
of Aristotelian thought uncorrupted by Neo-
platonism. He taught at Cologne, Paris, Bologna,
Rome and Naples, while devoting himself to the
construction of his comprehensive system of
scholastic philosophy entitled Summa Theologiae.
His basic goal was to demonstrate the rationality
of the universe as a revelation of God. He accepted
much of Augustinian thought, but adopted
Aristotelian methods and cosmology. He
distinguished between reason and faith, but sought
to show that faith in revealed truth is not contrary
to reason.
Like Albert, but unlike Averroes who ac-
cepted all of Aristotle, Aquinas felt free to criticize
specific points in conflict with the Bible. He
agreed with Maimonides in accepting the
Ptolemaic system as a working hypothesis, but he
distinguished three heavens: the Empyrean (abode
of God), the crystalline (firmament of Genesis 1),
and the sidereal sphere of the stars and planets.
The nine orders of angels included three in the
outermost Empyrean, three on Earth, and three in
the intervening region. God created the world,
both matter and form, out of nothing, since as pure
spirit matter could not have emanated from Him,
as in Neoplatonism.
According to Thomas God’s creation is
continuous, dependent upon Him for its existence
at every moment of time. His purpose in creation
is to reveal himself in all possible ways, so he cre-
ates all possible grades of being from the lowest
creatures on Earth to the highest order of angels.
These ideas led to his five “proofs” for the exis-
tence of God as inferences from His creation,
drawing on earlier ideas from Aristotelian,
Augustinian and Islamic thought: (1) Motion
requires a mover, so there must ultimately be an
Unmoved Mover (Aristotle). (2) Every effect has a
cause, so there must ultimately be a First Cause
(Augustine). (3) Natural objects are not necessary,
but are merely contingent (possible), so there must
be a Necessary Being as the ground or basis of the
contingent (al-Farabi). (4) The chain of being
forms a scale of perfection, so there must be a
perfect or Highest Being (Augustine). (5) All
things in nature have an end or purpose, implying
a design, so there must be an Intelligent Designer.
Although Church authorities at first cen-
sured the gigantic achievement of Thomas Aqui-
nas, it eventually became the basis for much of the
late medieval world view. In 1277 Bishop Tempier
of Paris, with the backing of the university,
condemned many of the views of Aristotle, espe-
cially in their more extreme Averroistic form. In
spite of this condemnation, Thomism became the
Chapter 3 • A Purposeful Universe 66

official doctrine of the Dominican Order in 1278,
and by 1325 the articles directed specifically
against Aquinas were nullified. The theism of
Aquinas transformed Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover
into the Supreme Good of the universe. Aristotle’s
final causes became God’s purposes in a unified
hierarchical pattern of order with everything
playing its part and striving to achieve its purpose
The medieval world view based on
Thomistic ideas received its most sublime expres-
sion by the poet Dante (1265-1321) in The Divine
Comedy, the greatest of medieval poems. This epic
journey moves down through the circles of Hell
and then up again to the Earth and purgatory, and
finally through the celestial spheres to the
Empyrean. It uses the Aristotelian cosmology as a
symbolic structure to convey the importance of
spiritual truth, reflecting the Christian drama of
existence with human beings on the center stage.
Though corrupt, the Earth was a place of possible
redemption where meaning and purpose infused all
life, and social structures were in accord with the

Reactions to Thomism.
In spite of the growing influence of the
Thomistic synthesis, a skeptical reaction devel-
oped at both Oxford and Paris that led to some
important scientific ideas. This was partly in re-
sponse to the Condemnation of 1277, which
attacked any limits on the absolute power of God,
such as His ability to make several worlds or to
produce a vacuum by moving the world in a
straight line. The resulting critique of knowledge
led to new possibilities for human imagination.
The phenomena of nature began to receive more
attention than grand syntheses of knowledge. The
nominalist movement of the fourteenth century
held that only particular objects of experience are
real. Since science can only study such objects,
nominalists argued that the general concepts or
universals of scholastic philosophy are not real,
but mere abstractions.
The Oxford Franciscans were generally
more inclined toward Augustinian Platonism than
Thomistic theology, preferring more specialized
studies such as light. John Peckham, who carried
on Roger Bacon’s optical studies at Oxford before
becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 1279,
condemned Thomism in 1284 and 1286. One of
the most important medieval works on optics was
completed in 1304 by Theodoric of Freiberg (ca.
1250-1310), a German Dominican who managed
to combine Thomism with Neoplatonism. He used
geometry to show how both refraction and
reflection of Sunlight inside individual water
droplets can form a rainbow, as suggested by
Albertus Magnus. He went on to verify his results
experimentally by measuring the deviation of light
in translucent spherical crystals.
One of the leaders in this nominalist
reaction was the English Franciscan William of
Ockham (ca. 1285-1349), who studied at Oxford
and taught at Paris, dying of the plague. Since for
him only particulars exist, all our knowledge must
begin with them. By a process he called intuition,
or perception, we abstract from particular objects
the qualities common to them to form universal
concepts, which only exist as ideas expressed in
words or signs. Since universals have no existence
outside the mind, they should be recognized as
abstractions and not unnecessarily multiplied,
lead- ing to the suggestion that the simplest expla-
nation is the best: “It is vain to do with more as-
sumptions what can be done with fewer.” This
principle is known as Ockham’s razor since it
shaves off superfluous universals.
Nominalism led to new emphases in the
fourteenth century. Since complete certainty was
not possible with even the simplest explanation,
experience and human reason were inadequate for
acquiring knowledge about God and the world
apart from faith and revelation. Thirteenth century
confidence in reason gave way to a belief in the
fourteenth century that only probable knowledge
was possible, giving rise to a tendency to
formulate problems hypothetically “according to
the imagination.” Instead of claiming to know
about essences, scientific discussions shifted to an
emphasis on changing qualities and intensities,
leading to increased analysis and quantification of
change and motion.
A group of scholastics at Merton College,
Oxford, known as the Mertonians, began to apply
this new analytical approach to the changing
Chapter 3 • A Purposeful Universe 67

intensities of motion. In 1328 Thomas Brad-
wardine (ca. 1290-1349) criticized Aristotle’s idea
of velocity as a ratio of impressed force F to resis-
tance R (v = F/R), since this ratio is positive even
when R is equal to or greater than F, permitting
motion under conditions that should prevent it.
Instead he suggested an exponential relationship
equivalent to v = log(F/R) in modern notation. He
also considered the possibility of a void (R = 0) by
suggesting that light elements in a body constitute
a quality of “internal resistance” that would
prevent infinite speed in a vacuum. He also
suggested the possibility of an infinite void space
beyond our world.
In the course of distinguishing different
qualities of motion, the Mertonians developed
their most important result, the Mean Speed Rule.
They defined motion with uniform intensity as a
constant speed with equal distances traversed in
equal times. Non-uniform or difform motion has a
varying speed, and uniformly difform motion
varies at a uniform rate, constantly increasing or
decreasing in speed (constant acceleration).
Having made these logical distinctions, William
Heytesbury in 1335 states that a body with uni-
formly increasing speed from 0 to V during a
given period of time will travel the same distance
as it would have at a constant mean speed of V/2.
Although these logical possibilities were “ac-
cording to imagination” and not applied to actual
events, they later provided the basis for Galileo’s
analysis of falling objects.
Ideas of motion received further devel-
opment in the nominalist tradition at Paris by Jean
Buridan (ca. 1295-1358), who became rector of
the university in 1327. He applied Ockham’s razor
to Aristotle’s doctrine of antiperistasis, which
explained projectile motion by the push of air
rushing to prevent a void behind a moving object.
Buridan attempted to give a simpler explanation
that would also account for the motion of a spear
pointed at both ends with nothing for air to push
against, or the rotation of a top that spins without
changing its position. In his theory the initial force
on a projectile imparts an internal quality of
“impetus” to an object that sustains its motion with
an intensity proportional to its speed and quantity
of matter.
Buridan’s impetus is similar to the con-
cept of motive power suggested by Philoponus in
the sixth century, except that the latter was
impressed externally on an object rather than an
internal quality. However, Philoponus had little
influence on scholastic thought except possibley
through Arabic sources. Impetus was also similar
to Galileo’s later concept of inertia: the natural
tendency of an object is to remain at rest or in
motion. But unlike inertia, impetus is a continually
active cause of projectile motion, only diminished
by external resistance, and does not apply to an
object at rest.
Buridan applied his impetus idea to
simplify medieval concepts of celestial motion that
introduced intelligences or angels to move the
planets. Thus he suggested the possibility that God
gave the celestial spheres an impetus that keeps
them moving, since there is no resistance in the
heavens to slow them. As with the similar ideas of
Philoponus, Buridan contributed to a breakdown
of the absolute distinction between the celestial
and terrestrial regions.
The analysis of motion received further
development at Paris by Buridan’s student, Nicole
Oresme (ca. 1320-1382), who became Bishop of
Lisieux in 1377. He recognized that all motion is
relative in the sense that the speed of a body will
differ with respect to other bodies that have dif-
fering speeds. From this relativity of motion,
Oresme pointed out that the daily rotation of the
heavens is observationally equivalent to daily ro-
tation of the Earth on its axis. While not suggest-
ing that such rotation of the Earth was a fact, he at
least considered it as a rational possibility. He
reinforced this idea by his suggestion that the air
and objects on the Earth would share in the Earth’s
rotation, initiated and sustained by impetus con-
ferred at the time of creation. While rejecting the
idea of a rotating Earth as a reality, he demon-
strated the possibility that two equally rational
conclusions can be mutually contradictory, thus
showing the inadequacy of reason in contrast with
In about 1350, Oresme published the first
graphical representation of motion nearly 300
years before Galileo in his treatise On the Con-
figurations of Qualities and Motions. He plotted
Chapter 3 • A Purposeful Universe 68

the intensity of speed vertically against the
time of travel horizontally, giving a rec-
tangle of constant height for a body with
constant speed and a triangle with sloping
height for uniformly increasing speed
(Figure 3.4). The area of these figures
(velocity × time) thus gives the distance
travelled. He was then able to use this
result to prove the Mertonian Mean Speed
Rule for uniformly increasing speed
(Figure 3.4). He showed that in a given
time t a body travels the same distance at a
uniformly increasing speed to a final
velocity V (triangle area Vt/2) as the same
body travels at a constant speed v (rec-
tangle area vt) if v = V/2 (mean speed).

Renaissance Awakenings.
By the fifteenth century, nominal-
ist thought and humanist stirrings began to
open up new possibilities in Western
Europe. The formation of National
monarchies and princely city-states began
to challenge the universality of the
Church. Commercial wealth was begin-
ning to rival feudal power based on own-
ership of land. About eight Crusades
during the period from about 1090 to 1290
had expanded mental horizons, if not spiritual. The
Mongol conquests had opened the East to
adventurers like Marco Polo (1254-1324), and the
age of exploration was dawning in the West. The
artist-engineers of the Renaissance were beginning
to assimilate the learning of scholars into the craft
The last great philosopher of the Middle
Ages, Nicolas of Cusa (1401-1464), a German
Cardinal and Bishop of Brixen in the Tyrol, ex-
plored the limits of nominalist thought concerning
the incompetence of reason and reached some
surprising conclusions. Influenced by Neoplaton-
ism and German mysticism, he tried to describe
the relation between finite experience and the
infinite God in his book Learned Ignorance, pub-
lished in 1440. This led to the modern-sounding
conclusions that the universe has no unique center
nor circumference (except God), and that there is
no state of absolute rest. Thus the Earth moves and
cannot be the center of the universe, and other
worlds may exist and be inhabited. Unfortunately,
his astronomical ideas were too speculative and
undeveloped to contribute to scientific progress.
Several events in 1453 accelerated the
process of change. The fall of Constantinople to
Islamic Turks increased the flow of Byzantine
scholars to Italy, bringing many original Greek
manuscripts with them. Arabic translations could
now be corrected, and additional classics of Greek
science became available. The French finally
drove out the English, ending the Hundred Years
War in which cannon had begun to replace the
catapult. This led to improvements in mining,
metallurgy, and the construction of fortifications,
with new challenges for engineers and artisans.
About the same year, the appearance of the
Gutenberg Bible marked the invention of the
printing press, ensuring the preservation,
distribution and multiplication of knowledge.
Uniformly Increasing Velocity
t 0
Velocity v

Figure 3.4 Oresme’s Velocity Graph and the
Mean-Speed Rule
Oresme represented a uniformly increasing velocity by a
straight line of constantly increasing height, producing a
triangle of maximum height equal to the final velocity V
attained at a time t. He represented a constant velocity v
by a horizontal line of constant height v above zero. The
distance travelled in either case is given by the area
under the graph (velocity × time). The rectangular area
under the constant velocity graph (vt) is equal to the
triangular area (Vt/2) if the constant velocity v = V/2.
Thus the mean speed of a uniformly increasing velocity
is half of its final value.
Chapter 3 • A Purposeful Universe 69

The practical needs of navigation and
calendar reform in the fifteenth century led to the
revival of observational and mathematical astron-
omy. After working with astronomer George
Peurbach (1423-61) at the University of Vienna,
John Muller (1436-76), known as Regiomontanus
(Latin for Konigsberg in Franconia), studied
original Greek versions of Ptolemy’s Syntaxis in
Italy before starting his own observations in
Nuremberg. Regiomontanus was the first to use
the mechanical clock in astronomy and to correct
his observations for atmospheric refraction. He
made the first scientific study of a comet in 1472,
later identified as Halley’s comet. He published his
planetary tables in 1475, including a list of
predicted eclipses up to 1530. He also published
the first complete book on trigonometry, including
a table of sines for every minute of arc. On a trip
to Rome to help reform the Julian calendar, he
died of plague before the project could proceed.
The tables and nautical almanacs of
Regiomontanus were important in the discovery
voyages of Christopher Columbus in 1492 and of
Vasco da Gama, who circled Africa to reach India
in 1498. Columbus learned of Roger Bacon’s
inferences based on Ptolemy’s incorrect estimate
of the circumference of the Earth (recorded in
Cardinal d’Ailly’s Imago Mundi, written in 1410
and printed in 1490). He was further encouraged in
the feasibility of reaching India by sailing west
after seeing a map of the Florentine physician-
cosmographer Paolo Toscanelli (1397-1482), who
had used Marco Polo’s report of the vast eastward
extent of Asia to conclude that only about 3000
miles of ocean separated it from Europe. When
Portuguese geographers rejected his “Indies
Enterprise” on the basis of what they properly
considered a gross underestimate, Columbus re-
ceived support from Spain. The fortunate coinci-
dence of finding unknown continents that were
about 3000 miles distant rewarded his ill-founded
faith. Although his discoveries showed the
insufficiency of ancient knowledge, he died
probably unaware of his great discovery.
Some shifts away from the ancients and
the scholastics appears in the artist-engineers of
the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
is noteworthy for his emphasis on experiment and
mathematical empiricism, even though his ideas
had little effect on science. As an artist he pene-
trated beneath outward appearances to the inner
anatomy and mechanics of the body. As an engi-
neer he went beyond the impetus theorists in
quantitative measurements and experiments, if not
in theory. He correlated projectile range with the
angle and force (amount of gunpowder) of a can-
non and determined the basic laws of friction. His
belief in human creativity led to notebooks full of
inventive ideas, such as flying machines, subma-
rines, and all sorts of mechanical devices. Al-
though none of this led to new scientific theories,
he symbolizes the beginning of a new way of
viewing nature.
Although science seemed to make little
progress in the medieval period, scholars did
establish some important prerequisites for scien-
tific advance. They recovered, extended and
transformed much of the Greek scientific tradition.
Both Arabic translations and original Greek
sources became increasingly available, and the all
important arithmetic and algebraic achievements
of the Arabs began to enter European thought. The
Thomistic synthesis and other scholastic move-
ments demonstrated the importance of reason and
the rational order of the universe, as well as the
intelligibility of God’s creation to human rational-
ity created in the image of God. Medieval theology
altered the Greek heritage and showed the poten-
tial of compatibility between scienctific
knowledge and Christian faith.
Monasticism kept the desire for learning
alive, and the emergence of universities expanded
knowledge, reinforcing new attitudes and values.
The Benedictine order exhibited a new respect for
manual labor and the goodness of creation, while
the Franciscans led the way in a new appreciation
of nature leading to an emphasis on observation
and experiment. Even the condemnation of 1277
opened up new possibilities for human imagina-
tion, leading to suggestions of a moving Earth, a
vacuum in space, and the existence of other
worlds. A new analysis of motion emerged, chal-
lenging the divinity of the heavens. The linear
view of history and the concept of purpose in the
universe culminated in a new confidence in human
creativity and the possibility of progress. The stage
Chapter 3 • A Purposeful Universe 70

was set for the emergence of a new view of the
universe that historians would call the Scientific


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Daniel J. Sullivan and the Fathers of the Eng-
lish Dominican Province. 2 vols. Chicago,
University of Chicago Press, 1952.
Augustine of Hippo. City of God. trans. Henry
Bettenson. London: Pelican, 1972.
Clagett, Marshall. The Science of Mechanics in the
Middle Ages. Madison: University of Wis-
consin Press, 1959.
Crombie, A. C. Medieval and Early Modern Sci-
ence, vol. 1 and 2. Garden City, N.Y.: Dou-
bleday, 1959.
Grant, Edward, ed. A Sourcebook in Medieval
Science. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University
Press, 1974.

Grant, Edward. Physical Science in the Middle
Ages. Cambridge, England: Cambridge Uni-
versity Press, 1977.
Grant, Michael. Dawn of the Middle Ages. New
York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.
Lindberg, David C. The Beginnings of Western
Science: The European Scientific Tradition in
Philosophical, Religious and Institutional Con-
text, 600 BC to AD 1450. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1992.
Lindberg, David C. Theories of Vision from Al-
Kindi to Kepler. Chicago: University of Chi-
cago Press, 1976.
Mason, Stephen F. A History of the Sciences. New
York: Collier Books, 1962.
Nasr, Seyyed Hassein. An Introduction to Islamic
Cosmological Doctrines. Boulder, Colo.:
Shambhala, 1978.
Peters, F. E. Aristotle and the Arabs: The Aristo-
telian Tradition in Islam. New York: New
York University Press, 1968.

The heliocentric theory of a moving Earth
revolving around the Sun was conceived and
developed in a sixteenth century world still domi-
nated by Medieval Scholasticism, but being
reshaped by the Renaissance and Reformation.
The slow reception of this theory suggests that it
was a revolution only in the original sense of the
word: a return to an earlier position, as in the
revolution of the planets to their original places in
the zodiac, or the Reformation attempt to return to
the purity of the early Church. The Renaissance
revival of Plato and other Greek classics was a
stimulus to a renewed emphasis on geometry and
the harmony of the heavens as an alternative to
Aristotelian cosmology and Ptolemaic complex-
ities that had dominated Medieval science.
One aspect of this Platonic revival was
the mathematical mysticism of Pythagoras and the
Hermetic tradition. Hermetic literature included
some fifteen works of popular Greek philosophy
along with Jewish and Persian elements. These
were written between A.D. 100 and 300 and as-
cribed to the Egyptian god Hermes Trismegistus.
The Renaissance viewed Hermes as a real Egyp-
tian priest whose teachings were the source of the
ideas of Pythagoras, Plato and Neoplatonism. To-
gether with astrology and alchemy, Hermeticism
saw the universe as filled with a cosmic spirit
which orders and maintains the universe. Humans
fit into this cosmology by exercising creative
power over nature, unlocking the mysteries of its
harmony with the keys of mathematics.
The Copernican revolution involved a
vast expansion of space that eventually exploded
into an infinite universe. This resulted in the de-
struction of the medieval cosmos and the dis-
placement of humans from their central place in
the world, or perhaps more correctly, the loss of
the very world in which they were living. Thus the
finite and well-ordered world in which the very
structure of space embodied a hierarchy of
perfection and purpose gave way to an indetermi-
nate world of infinite space bound together only by
impersonal mathematical laws. But the initial steps
in this revolution were of a much more conserva-
tive and traditional nature.
Background and Sources
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was
born in the town of Torun on the Vistula in what is
now northern Poland. He was the son of a local
merchant, but his father died when he was ten years
old. His maternal uncle adopted him, and then in
1489 became Bishop of Ermland, a nearly
independent principality under the protection of the
King of Poland. Through his uncle’s patronage,
Copernicus was able to begin study in 1491 at the
University of Cracow, where he learned about


An Infinite Universe

The Copernican Revolution and its Reception

Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 72

Ptolemaic astronomy. From 1497 to 1506 he
studied Greek, canon law, mathematics, and
medicine in Italy at the universities of Bologna and
Padua. Meanwhile, he continued to pursue his
interests in astronomy, assisting the astronomer
Domenico Maria da Novara (1454-1504) in making
observations. Platonic and Pythagorean influences
are evident in 1500 from his presenta-tion of a
series of lectures on “mathematics” (probably
astronomy) at Rome.
When Copernicus returned home to
Ermland, he spent six years as secretary, legal
advisor and personal physician to his uncle at
Heilsberg Castle until he died in 1512. He then
assumed the position his uncle had secured for him
as canon at the Cathedral of Frauenberg on the
Baltic. His administrative duties included finances,
politics and ecclesiastical affairs, but he never took
holy orders to become a priest and had enough
spare time to develop his heliocentric system in
detail. His reputation in astronomy was already
sufficient to earn him an invitation to give his
opinion on calendar reform at a church council in
1514, but he declined due to the lack of accurate
enough information.
Copernicus was a conservative reformer
who insisted on the Platonic principle that the
planets move in uniform circular motions or
combinations of such motions. His goal was to
purify the Ptolemaic System by returning to the
original concepts of Pythagorean harmony, much
like Martin Luther wanted to return to the original
purity of the Church. Most of his astronomical work
was of a theoretical nature to develop a heliocentric
system of the planets as complete as the geocentric
system of Ptolemy, using many of Ptolemy’s
methods and observations. His own observations
were limited to measurements of the inclination of
the ecliptic, and a few conjunctions and oppositions
of planets in order to check some of the elements of
planetary orbits. His most radical innovation was to
allow for the motion of the Earth based on
geometric arguments instead of the physical
arguments required by the traditional Aristotelian
hierarchy of the disciplines.
In 1514 Copernicus circulated among his
friends a manuscript called the Commentariolus,
giving a short description of his heliocentric system
without mathematical demonstrations. To explain the
non-uniform motions of the planets around the Sun
in terms of uniform circular motions, Copernicus
used 34 circles and claimed that Ptolemy had
required some 80 circles (actually about 40 in the
Ptolemaic System). By the time his complete system
was published, the number of circles had increased to
48 to achieve an accuracy equivalent to that of
Ptolemy (see Koestler p. 193). The work was printed
shortly before his death in 1543 under the title De
Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (The Revolutions
of the Celestial Orbs). In the preface Copernicus
dedicated De Revolutionibus to Pope Paul III and
quoted from Plutarch to indicate some of the sources
of his new system:
Some say that the Earth is at rest, but Phi-
lolaus the Pythagorean says that it is carried in
a circle round the fire, slantwise, in the same
way as the Sun and Moon. Heraclides of
Pontus and Ecphantus the Pythagorean give
the Earth motion, not indeed translatory, but
like a wheel on its axis, from west to east,
about its own centre.
He makes no mention of Aristarchus in connection
with the heliocentric idea, but his original
manuscript does include a passage struck out by
black lines stating that “Philolaus perceived the
mobility of the Earth, which also some say was the
opinion of Aristarchus of Samos.” Of course, there
is no evidence of a complete heliocentric system
worked out before Copernicus.

Objections and Innovations
Although Copernicus followed many of
Ptolemy’s methods and assumptions about uniform
circular motions, he objected to the lack of
geometric harmony and consistency. In the
Commentariolus he wrote that “a system of this sort
seemed neither sufficiently absolute nor sufficiently
pleasing to the mind.” For example, the centers of
the Ptolemaic epicycles for Mercury and Venus
were confined on a line from the Earth to the Sun to
account for the fact that they only appear in the
morning or evening (near the Sun), while the other
planets may appear at any time of the night. Most
objectionable to Copernicus was Ptolemy’s use of
the equant to account for the non-uniform motion of
Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 73

planets relative to the centers of their circles.
Finally, he recognized that he could eliminate
three of Ptolemy’s circles for each of the planets
by ascribing three motions to the Earth instead.
For the three motions of the Earth,
Copernicus included the daily rotation of the Earth
on its axis, the annual revolution in its orbit, and a
conical wobbling of its axis at a rate that accounts
for the precession of the equinoxes (Figure 4.1).
Instead of impetus or some other physical cause,
he argues that the Earth’s rotation is the natural
motion of a sphere. With its annual revolution, the
Earth moved in the same direction as all the
planets around the Sun, without requiring the dual
plane-tary motions of daily rotation plus opposing
motion through the zodiac. Precessional wobbling
of the Earth avoided the imperfect shifting of the
heavens, which was even more problematic due to
Copernicus’ belief that the rate of precession had
varied since the time of Hipparchus.
In arguing for the central position of the
Sun, Copernicus draws on the mystical Neopy-
26000 y
Pisces (VE)
Virgo (AE)
Gemini (SS)
(15000 AD)

Figure 4.1 Earth Motions and Apparent Motions in the Heliocentric System
The heliocentric system requires three motions of the Earth: (1) daily rotation on its axis pointing
toward Polaris; (2) annual revolution in its orbit around the Sun; (3) a 26,000 year precession or
wobble of the axis of the Earth at about a 23° inclination to account for the precession of the equi-
noxes. This inclination of the Earth’s axis explains the seasons, with the axis inclining toward the
Sun at the summer solstice (SS) and away from the Sun at the winter solstice (WS) in the northern
hemisphere. The apparent motion of the Sun through the constellations of the zodiac is due to the
Earth’s annual orbit on the ecliptic plane. Thus the Sun appears to be in the constellation Pisces at
the vernal equinox (VE) and in Virgo at the autumnal equinox (AE). After 13,000 years the Earth’s
axis will point toward Vega, so the seasons will be shifted in relation to the stars. As the Earth ap-
proaches Mars, it appears to move from star 1 to 2, then backward to star 3 as it passes Mars, and
finally forward to star 4 as it leaves Mars, causing an apparent retrograde motion.
Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 74

thagorean language and Hermetic tradition of the
late Renaissance:
In the center of all rests the Sun. For who
would place this lamp of a very beautiful
temple in another or better place than this
wherefrom it can illuminate everything at
the same time? As a matter of fact, not un-
happily do some call it a lantern; others, the
mind and still others, the pilot of the world.
Tresmegistus calls it a “visible god;”
Sophocles’ Electra, “that which gazes upon
all things.”
As the source of heat, light and life, the Sun ought
to rest in the center of the universe. Stability is
more appropriate to a nobler body like the Sun
rather than the Earth. He answers Ptolemy’s
objection that a rotating Earth would fly apart by
suggesting that the Earth, as well as other heavenly
bodies, holds together by its own gravity, acting on
aggregates of matter rather than across space.
Furthermore, it is more likely that gravity would
tear apart the immense celestial sphere if the stars
rotated around the Earth every day. In short,
Copernicus defies the ancient division between
celestial perfection and terrestrial imperfection.
The harmony of the Copernican system is
especially evident in its ordering of the planets by
their distances, which could be correctly calculated
for the first time from heliocentric assumptions.
The Ptolemaic system arbitrarily based this
ordering on uncertain periods, especially for Mer-
cury and Venus, and on erroneous distances from
the assumption that no space should lie between
the epicycles of adjacent planets. Copernicus cal-
culated the actual periods of the planets around the
Sun from a combination of the Earth’s annual
motion and the apparent motion of the planet
through the zodiac, giving 88 days for Mercury
and 225 days for Venus.
For the first time, Copernicus calculated
the relative distances of the planets from the Sun
correctly by measuring angles in the triangle
formed by the Sun, Earth, and a given planet
(Figure 4.2), based on the radius of the Earth’s or-
bit about the Sun as one astronomical unit (1 AU).
This method gave 0.4 AU for Mercury and 0.7 AU
for Venus. This reveals that distances increase
* *
1 2

Figure 4.2 Planet Distances and Stellar Parallax in the Copernican System
In the heliocentric system, Copernicus used the orbital radius of the Earth ES = 1 AU (astronom-
ical unit) as a base line for calculating the relative distances of the planets. Thus the orbital radius
VS of Venus is found from its largest observed angle from the Sun, which is its maximum elongation
e = 46°. Since EV is tangent to the orbit of Venus, EVS is a right triangle with VS = 0.72 AU.
As the Earth moves in its orbit, the directions of the stars should change. Maximum change should
occur over six months, and half of the resulting angle is the stellar parallax angle p. If a star has a
parallax p
, then a more distant star would have a smaller parallax p
< p
. Since Copernicus could
detect no parallax, he assumed the stars must be so far away that p is too small to measure.
Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 75

with increasing period, providing for the first time
a definite basis for the order of the planets.

Advantages and Problems
The Copernican system gives simple ex-
planations of several phenomena, rather than mere
representations or “saving of appearances.” This is
quite evident in regard to the proximity of Mercury
and Venus to the Sun, which is simply due to their
orbits being nearer the Sun, rather than an
accidental restriction of their epicycles on an
Earth-Sun line. Copernicus explained seasonal
variations more directly as resulting from the in-
clination of the Earth’s axis toward Polaris, tilting
toward the Sun in summer and away from the Sun
in winter instead of the apparent motion of the Sun
on the ecliptic (see Figure 4.1).
One of the clearest advantages
of the Copernican system is in
explaining planetary retrograde motion,
which turns out to be an optical illusion
instead of an actual epicycle looping
motion. For example, as the faster-
moving Earth passes Mars it appears to
stop and retrogress against the back-
ground of the fixed stars (see Figure
4.1), much like pedestrians appear to go
backward relative to passengers in a
moving bus. The moving Earth also
accounts for variations in the brightness
of the planets, as with Mars, Jupiter and
Saturn, which are always nearest the
Earth when they rise in the evening
since the Earth is then directly between
them and the Sun (in opposition).
Unfortunately, the harmony
revealed by Copernicus did not include
an associated simplicity because of his
commitment to the Platonic ideal of
uniform speed and circular motions.
The inequality of the seasons (up to
four days) and the varying speeds of the
planets required the continued use of
eccentrics and epicycles, though not the
detested equant. A slowly changing
eccentricity in the Earth’s circular orbit
even required an eccentric point re-
volving on a tiny circle around another
point which in turn revolved around the Sun (Fig-
ure 4.3, greatly exaggerated for clarity). In fact,
none of the planetary orbits were truly helio-
Copernicus did not need epicycles to ac-
count for the retrograde motions of the planets, but
he did use them to account for varying speeds and
inclinations from the ecliptic. He used an in-
genious combination of epicycles to avoid large
changes in the apparent diameter of the Moon as
compared to the Ptolemaic system, in which the
lunar diameter changes by a factor of four. Al-
though Copernicus reduced the number of epi-
cycles by about half and eliminated the equant, the
system was still embarrassingly complex.
From the perspective of the prevailing
Aristotelian cosmology, the Copernican system


Figure 4.3 Copernicus’ Use of Circles for Planet Motions
Copernicus followed Ptolemy in using combinations of cir-
cles to account for observed variations in the orbits and
speeds of the planets, even though he reversed the positions
of the Earth and the Sun. His system was not truly he--
liocentric in that each planet had its own center offset from
the Sun, and in the case of the inner planets these centers
themselves rotated on tiny circles. He was able to eliminate
Ptolemy’s equant by referring the planetary motions to the
center (C) of the Earth’s orbit, which itself revolved on two
small circles (exaggerated here). Copernicus introduced a
unique treatment of Mercury by making it oscillate on the
diameter of its epicycle instead of revolving around it.
Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 76

faced many problems. Falling objects would no
longer fall toward their natural place at the center
of the universe, and should be quickly displaced to
the west by a rapidly moving Earth. Motion of the
Earth through space would seem to require the
forbidden void. No mover was evident to keep the
massive Earth moving. Contrary to Aristotelian
principles, which allowed only one proper motion
to a simple body, Copernicus assigned three to the
Earth. In effect, the Copernican system elevated
the lower discipline of geometry above physical
and even theological explanations, in violation of
the traditional hierarchy of the disciplines.
Copernicus made no attempt to address
the theological issues involved, especially in rela-
tion to Thomistic theology and its Aristotelian
basis. The Copernican system seemed to deny the
cosmic hierarchy of God and the angels, the cen-
trality of the human drama, and the chain-of-being
itself. A new set of values allowed the Sun to rule
over bodies of more or less equal status, the Earth
together with the planets equally possessing
gravity and circularity of motion. Moreover, the
helio-centric system seems to contradict a literal
interpretation of the Bible. For example, Psalm
93:1 states that “The world is firmly established, it
cannot be moved,” and Ecclesiastes l:5 reminds us
that “The Sun rises and the Sun sets, and hurries
back to where it rises.” No wonder that Coperni-
cus delayed publication of his work for several
years until shortly before he died.
Finally, the most important empirical
evidence for a moving Earth was missing. On an
orbiting Earth, an observer should be able to detect
a slight shift of the fixed stars over the course of
the six months that it takes to move from one side
of its huge orbit to another. Even the polar axis of
the Earth’s rotation should not point at the same
star over the course of the year. But Copernicus
was unable to detect any change in the directions
of the stars (stellar parallax), so he offered the
following argument:
That there are no such phenomena for the
fixed stars proves their immeasurable dis-
tance, because of which the outer sphere’s
(apparent) annual motion or its (parallactic)
image is invisible to the eyes.... So great is
this divine work of the Great and Noble
Although Copernicus does not assert infinite space,
the “immeasurable distance” of the stellar sphere
makes it impossible to detect stellar parallax. He
goes beyond Ptolemy’s argument that the Earth
compared to the skies is “as a point” in suggesting
the same for the whole circle of the Earth’s annual
motion around the Sun. His response to the lack of
this crucial empirical evidence was an act of faith
in a greatly expanded view of the universe and its
Creator. This faith would not be rewarded until
300 years later when Friedrich Bessel (1764-1846)
finally detected a tiny stellar parallax in 1838.


Early Lutheran Responses to Copernicus
The first published account of the
Copernican system was written in 1540 by Georg
Joachim Rheticus (1514-1574) with the permission
of Copernicus under the title Narratio Prima (First
Report). Rheticus was a Protestant mathematics
lecturer from the heart of the Lutheran
Reformation at the University of Wittenberg, who
learned about the work of Copernicus and became
his first major disciple in 1539. When he returned
to his teaching duties at Wittenberg in 1542, he
was enthusiastic about the new theory and
introduced it to many of his students. He es-
pecially appreciated the unity and order revealed
by its correlation of the distances and periods of
the planets about the Sun, ending his book with a
passage on the Pythagorean harmony of the soul. It
also appears that Rheticus wrote a recently dis-
covered (R. Hooykaas, 1984) anonymous treatise
published posthumously in 1651, entitled Letter on
the Motion of the Earth, arguing for the
compatibility of the Bible and heliocentric theory.
It was Rheticus who finally persuaded
Copernicus to publish his Revolutionibus. Because
of other duties, Rheticus lacked the time to over-
see the publication of De Revolutionibus and so
entrusted it to a fellow Lutheran, Andreas
Osiander (1498-1552). Without seeking any
permission, Osiander added an unsigned introduc-
Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 77

tory “Letter to the Reader” (Ad Lectorum), perhaps
in an attempt to save Copernicus from a hostile
reception. He appealed to the traditional hierarchy
of disciplines that Copernicus had defied, sug-
gesting that astronomy does not yield truth like
philosophy, but only hypotheses that provide “a
calculus consistent with the observations.” Such
hypotheses are of value if they lead to better
calculations even if they lack “the semblance of
the truth.” Thus De Revolutionibus was often read
as a convenient fiction until the author of the
preface was finally identified by Kepler.
Protestant reaction in general was some-
what ambiguous toward the Copernican theory. In
a vague statement recorded in his Table Talks,
Martin Luther said, “That fool wants to turn the
whole art of astronomy upside down,” but this was
in 1539 before the appearance of any published
account of the theory. There is no clear evidence
that John Calvin knew of the theory, or if he did,
he did not consider it important enough for public
Luther’s close associate, Philipp Mel-
anchthon (1497-1560), was initially hostile to the
theory, but later shifted his position to some
degree. In his sweeping educational reforms of
nearly a dozen German Protestant universities, he
gave mathematics a special place in the curricu-
lum, helping to give astronomy a greater respect-
ability. Although he rejected the Earth’s motion,
based on a literal reading of the Bible, Melanch-
thon encouraged the use of Copernican calculating
mechanisms involving uniformly revolving
spheres without the equant.
Melanchthon’s followers at Wittenberg
developed a strong tradition of mathematical
astronomy that spread through northern Europe.
Erasmus Reinhold (1511-1553) and his many dis-
ciples, with the notable exception of his colleague
Rheticus, accepted Melanchthon’s objections to a
moving Earth, but made extensive use of Coperni-
can calculations. In 1551 Reinhold completed his
Prussian Tables, named after his patron Albrecht,
Duke of Prussia, which later became the basis for
the calendar reform of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.
The Gregorian calendar corrected an error of ten
days that had accumulated in the Julian calendar
due to an erroneous length of the year that did not
account for precession of the equinoxes. It intro-
duced a new tropical year that corrected for pre-
cession by omitting centenary leap years divisible
by 400. Catholic states accepted it immediately,
but most Protestant nations waited for about 150
years before accepting the Gregorian calendar.

Developments in Other Sciences
The Copernican challenge to Aristotelian
and hierarchical views was matched in other sci-
ences during the sixteenth century, often with
similar mystical and religious overtones. The
Swiss physician and alchemist Theophrastus
Bombastus von Hohenheim (ca 1493-1541) at-
tempted a revolution in medicine and chemistry
called “iatrochemistry.” He took the name
Paracelsus, meaning “better than Celsus,” the
Roman physician whose mostly Hippocratic works
(ca A.D. 30) had been discovered and published in
1478. He began his career at the University of
Basel in 1527 by burning the books of Galen and
Avicenna (Ibn Sina) to show his opposition to
ancient authority in science and medicine.
Paracelsus emphasized the importance of
personal experience and a new view of alchemy as
the search for the invisible forces of life and
nature. Bodily changes are chemical processes
animated by unique spiritual entities, and alchemy
should yield medicines to treat specific diseases,
including minerals as well as plants. He rejected
the four-humor and four-element theories, replac-
ing them with the three spiritual essences of mer-
cury, sulphur and salt. In spite of these mystical
principles, he was a careful experimenter and was
the first to describe zinc. He viewed his system as
a religious reformation to restore Hippocratic pu-
rity, not unlike Luther’s Reformation, and began
the transition from alchemy to chemistry.
A similar reform of anatomy began with
the publication of Humani Corporis Fabrica in
1543 by the Flemish physician Andreas Vesalius
(1514-64), correcting Galen in the same year Co-
pernicus revised Ptolemy. Vesalius went from
Paris to Italy where he was free to do his own dis-
sections, and became a professor at Padua. He
followed much of Galenic theory, even as Coper-
nicus had used Ptolemaic methods; but in rejecting
the usual practice of using an uneducated barber
Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 78

surgeon to do dissections, he was able to correct
Galen by showing that he had actually based many
of his ideas on animal anatomy rather than human.
The most impressive pages of Vesalius’
book were the beautiful woodcut engravings that
accurately illustrated the muscles and other struc-
tures of the human body. Many of these were done
by Jan Stephen van Calcar, a pupil of the artist
Titian, and marked an important innovation over
the mostly verbal descriptions of earlier ana-
tomical books. In his study of the function of the
heart, Vesalius could not find evidence for the
pores in the septum that Galen claimed in saying
that blood flows between the chambers of the
heart, but he offered no alternative to his theory.
A former colleague of Vesalius at Paris,
Michael Servetus (1511-53), suggested the lesser
(pulmonary) circulation of the blood from the right
to the left chamber of the heart through the lungs,
apparently unaware of the similar proposal by Ibn
al-Nafis 300 years earlier. As a heretical religious
reformer, he based his theory on a Unitarian-type
theology that rejected the doctrine of the Trinity,
as well as Galen’s triadic hierarchy of brain, heart
and liver. In a small section of his book, The
Restoration of Christianity (1553), he argued that
the Holy Spirit was the all-pervading breath of
God, and that the blood contained only one kind of
spirit instead of both natural and vital spirits. He
claimed that “The soul itself is the blood,”
implying that it perished with the body. This was
one of the charges against him when he was
apprehended by Calvin at Geneva, tried for heresy
and burned at the stake.

Infinite Conceptions of the Universe
Reinhold’s Prussian Tables helped to
spread Copernican ideas to England where John
Field used them in 1556 as the basis for an alma-
nac in which he commends the writings of
Copernicus and Reinhold. In a preface to this
almanac, the mathematician and astrologer John
Dee (1527-1608) also subscribes to the Copernican
system. His student, Thomas Digges, joined Dee in
an unsuccessful attempt to measure the annual
parallax of a new star that appeared in 1572. The
immeasurable distance of the stars implied by this
lack of stellar parallax now led Digges to the
concept of an infinite universe.
The first English account of the Coperni-
can system appeared in 1576 by Thomas Digges
(ca 1546-1595), who was an Oxford mathemati-
cian with strong Puritan tendencies. He gave the
first description of an infinite Copernican universe
in a brief treatise entitled A Perfit Description of
the Celestiall Orbes, appended to an almanac (A
Prognostication Euerlasting) published by his
father, Leonard Digges. In a diagram Thomas
Digges gives a simplified representation of the
heliocentric system surrounded by stars spread
throughout space, instead of being confined in the
usual manner to a celestial sphere. He labeled the
spherical gap between the planets and the stars as
“the habitacle for the elect” above which “This
orbe of starres fixed infinitely up extendeth hit self
in altitude sphericallye...with per-petuall shininge
glorious lightes innumerable.” He labeled the
Earth’s orbit as “The great orbe carreinge this
globe of mortalitye” about the Sun. Digges seems
to be indicating a deeper symbolic meaning for
this new heliocentric view of the world.
An even more radical view of the infinite
universe was preached by Giordano Bruno (1548-
1600), a Dominican monk from Naples. In 1576 he
left his order in Naples and went to Geneva, where
the Calvinists ejected him. He traveled about
Europe teaching Hermetic philosophy until
Aristotelians rejected him in Paris. At Oxford in
1583 he defended the Copernican theory before a
hostile audience, publishing his ideas a year later
in a humanistic dialogue called The Ash Wednes-
day Supper. Bruno believed that the power of an
infinite God cannot be restricted to a finite world.
In De Monade he asserted not only that there was
an infinite number of stars in infinite space, but
each was a Sun with its own populated planets. For
Bruno the infinite presence of God united the
universe rather than a hierarchy of beings.
Not only did Bruno’s Hermetic tenden-
cies border on pantheism, but he also attacked
monks, miracles and established religion. After
spending some time in Wittenberg, he returned to
Italy where the Office of the Inquisition arrested
him at Venice in 1592 and charged him with
Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 79

heresies, though these charges did not relate
directly to the Copernican theory. In fact, the
Catholic church had not yet taken an official
position on the Copernican system. After a seven-
year trial, Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600.

Catholic and Protestant Reactions
Reactions by the Catholic Church to the
Copernican system were at first slow, but not
always unfavorable. The Council of Trent, meeting
from 1545 to 1563, initiated the Counter-
Reformation and the Congregation of the Inquisi-
tion, but their primary concern was with the Prot-
estant challenge and internal reform. A Spanish
monk, Diego de Zuñiga (1536-1597), even pub-
lished a commentary in 1584 on the Book of Job,
in which he interpreted a reference to God who
“shaketh the Earth out of her place” (Job 9:6)
according to the Copernican theory. But criticisms
of his view led him to revise his position before he
died, rejecting the Earth’s daily rotation. However,
sixteenth-century Catholic scientists worked under
no formal prohibitions from the Inquisition or the
Index of forbidden books.
In spite of the fact that neither Luther nor
Calvin supported the Copernican system, the
Protestant Reformation was generally more posi-
tive toward the development of the new science.
The Reformers taught that the authority of the
priests and the Catholic Church should be rejected
and that individuals should study Scripture and
seek to interpret it for themselves. In a similar
way, early scientists began to turn from ancient
authorities and interpret nature for themselves. A
new confidence began to emerge in the power of
mathematics and observations. Reformers recog-
nized both the Holy Scripture and the “Book of
Nature” as sources of evidence about God’s
Protestant Reformers also took exception
to the medieval hierarchical view of the world
expressed in the chain-of-being concept, as well as
the hierarchies of the Catholic Church. Calvin
minimized the role of angels and recognized a
more direct and absolute control of the world by
God. A similar transformation of values appears in
the Copernican system, which rejected the
celestial-terrestrial hierarchy and gave the Earth
the same status as the planets. In the Copernican
view, the Sun had absolute rule over the solar sys-
tem and events were subject to natural laws.
Some Protestants also began to emphasize
the utilization of science for “good works,”
especially among the English Puritans. Although
Luther taught that salvation is only by faith, and
Calvin stressed the election of those predestined to
salvation, their followers placed more emphasis on
good works as a sign of salvation. The Puritans
explicitly sanctioned scientific studies as a form of
good works, both for the glory of God and for the
welfare of human society. While Protestant anti-
authoritarianism and individual interpretation were
consistent with the new science, the Puritan
promotion of good works was a more positive
stimulus to scientific activity.


The Work of Tycho Brahe
The Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe
(1546-1601) provided the empirical basis for the
simplification of the Copernican system, even
though he couldn’t find the necessary evidence to
support it. He was the last and greatest of the pre-
telescopic observers, and the first to attempt a
more systematic and comprehensive program of
planetary observations. This was in contrast to the
usual astrological practice of only recording
special positions, such as conjunctions and
stationary points during retrograde. He recognized
the importance of comprehensive and accurate
data to establish the true planetary orbits.
From an aristocratic Protestant family,
Tycho studied liberal arts and astrology at the
Lutheran University of Copenhagen and then went
to Leipzig to study law. He became interested in
astronomy in 1560 when a predicted solar eclipse
occurred on the scheduled day. In 1563 he
observed that a close approach of Jupiter and Sat-
urn was about a month off of the predicted time in
the Alfonsine Tables (Toledo, 1252), and several
days off from the Prussian Tables, so he began to
obtain instruments for more precise observations.
At the age of 20 he fought a duel over a mathe-
matics argument and lost part of his nose, which
Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 80

he repaired with a gold and silver replacement held
in place with beeswax.
When a “new star” suddenly appeared in
the constellation Cassiopeia on November 11,
1572, Tycho was “astonished and stupefied.” He
made careful measurements, finding that its posi-
tion did not change from month to month as with
the planets, nor did it have any detectable parallax
(Figure 4.4a). He concluded that it was beyond the
planets, leading Tycho to question the unchanging
perfection of the heavens. His book De Nova
Stella (1573, Copenhagen) established both the
name “nova” for an exploding star and his own
reputation as an observer. Tycho’s star became
brighter than Venus before fading away after 16
months. Such visible novae occur about once
every 300 years, although a previous one,
observed by the Chinese in 1054, went unrecorded
in Europe, where observers must have either
ignored it or thought it unimportant.
Tycho’s reputation led King Frederick II
of Denmark to subsidize the building of an obser-
vatory, called Uraniborg (“Castle of the Heav-
ens”), on the island of Hven between Denmark and
Sweden. At Uraniborg from 1576 to 1597, Tycho
built many large instruments for measuring angles,
with brass scales subdivided to a fraction of a
degree (Figure 4.4b). By increasing the size of
* *
scale 1
scale 2
Nova star
p < p
c m
(a) Parallax Measurements (b) Angular Scales

Figure 4.4 Tycho Brahe’s Measurements of Celestial Distances and Angles
(a) Tycho Brahe used the angles of celestial objects from two widely separated positions A and B to
find the height of these objects from their parallax angles (p) and the distance between A and B. The
parallax of a new star, or “nova,” which appeared in the constellation Cassiopeia, was similar to
other stars in having no detectable parallax (p = 0). The parallax of a comet that appeared in 1577
had a smaller parallax p
than that of the Moon p
, and thus was beyond the Moon’s orbit.
(b) Tycho increased the accuracy of angular measurements by increasing the size of his instru-
ments. The size of an angular scale is increased in direct proportion to the length of the radii of that
scale. For example, the length of scale 1 is tripled by increasing the size of the instrument by a
factor of three, making the subdivisions of scale 2 three times longer.
Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 81

these instruments, they could have more precisely
graduated scales. One quadrant, among more than
20 astronomical instruments, had a radius of more
than 5 meters, but proved to be unwieldy. Using
various methods, he improved the accuracy of
measurements to the limits of unaided vision at
about 1 minute compared to the best accuracy of
the Greeks at about 10 minutes of arc, and
determined the length of the year to within about
one second. He also attempted to measure
planetary positions over most of their orbits and
precisely catalogued a thousand stars.
When a brilliant comet appeared over
Europe in 1577, Tycho was ready to make detailed
observations and measurements. By comparing his
observations with those made elsewhere in Europe,
he found that the comet had less parallax than the
Moon and estimated that it was at least six times
farther away than the Moon (Figure 4.4a). This
was contrary to Greek and Medieval opinion that
comets were atmospheric phenomena like meteors.
He attempted to compute its orbit and suggested
that it might be oval instead of circular, perhaps
even moving through the planetary spheres. These
results cast doubt on both the immutability of the
heavens and the existence of crystalline spheres.

The Tychonic System
Tycho recognized the relative simplicity
of the Copernican system compared to the
Ptolemaic system, but could not accept the idea of
a moving Earth. In addition to the usual physical
problems, he felt strongly that it conflicted with
certain passages of Scripture. In spite of the
greatly improved accuracy of his measurements,
he was still unable to find any trace of annual
parallax in the fixed stars. This empirical failure
was coupled with the fact that the brightest stars
appear to have a diameter of about 2 minutes to the
unaided eye. Unaware of diffraction effects due to
the spreading of light waves as they pass through
the pupil of the eye, he calculated that stars would
be larger than the annual orbit of the Earth if
stellar parallax was as great as one minute of arc.
Tycho described his heliocentric objec-
tions in a series of letters to Christopher Roth-
mann, one of about a dozen Copernican astrono-
mers in Europe at the time. He also explained his
rejection of the Ptolemaic system due to observa-
tions showing that Mars at opposition was closer
than the Sun, while Ptolemy had placed Mars
beyond the orbit of the Sun. Thus he was led to
devise a compromise theory, which he felt com-
bined the best features of Ptolemy and Copernicus.
In his 1588 book on the comet of 1577, he
described his geoheliocentric system without
working out its mathematical details.
In the Tychonic system, the Earth remains
stationary at the center of the universe, with the
Sun, Moon and stars revolving about it. But the
planets all revolve around the Sun, which carries
them in its annual motion around the Earth, so that
no epicycles are necessary to explain retrograde
motion (Figure 4.5). The daily revolution of the
celestial sphere carries the Sun, Moon and planets
to account for their daily motion. The orbital radii
of Mercury and Venus are smaller than the solar
orbit, while the orbits of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn
encircle the Earth. To account for Mars at oppo-
sition being closer than the Sun, its orbit intersects
the orbit of the Sun, so they cannot be on solid
The Tychonic system is geometrically

Figure 4.5 The Tychonic System
In the Tychonic system, the Sun moves around
a stationary Earth carrying the planets with it.
Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 82

equivalent to the Copernican system, except that
the heliocentric motions of the planets are referred
to a stationary Earth rather than the Sun. It had
some of the advantages of the Copernican calcu-
lations without requiring a moving Earth or stellar
parallax, but lacked the more complete symmetry
of the Copernican system. More conservative
astronomers accepted the Tychonic system, though
some preferred at least to allow the rotation of the
Earth to avoid the daily revolution of the celestial
spheres and keep open the possibility of an infinite
universe. The few convinced Copernicans were
persuaded more by aesthetic preferences than
scientific evidence.
The new king of Denmark, Christian IV,
did not continue the support his father had given to
Uraniborg, being alienated by Tycho’s extrava-
gance and exploitation of the Hven islanders. In
1597 Tycho packed many of his instruments and
left Denmark to become court astrologer to the
German Emperor, Rudolph II, near Prague. Three
years later he made his greatest discovery when he
hired a young German Copernican named Johan-
nes Kepler, to whom he gave the difficult problem
of calculating the orbit of Mars around the Sun,
albeit in the Tychonic system. When Tycho died in
1601 (from a strained bladder by Kepler’s account,
or perhaps from mercury poisoning) Kepler gained
control of his large collection of observations, but
not his instruments. As a mathematical
astronomer, Tycho’s data was all Kepler needed to
begin applying it to the Copernican system.

Early Work of Johannes Kepler
The mass of data assembled by Tycho
would have been useless without the commitment
to analysis and creative interpretation provided by
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). His lifelong passion
was to reveal the inner coherence and harmony of
the heliocentric system, and Tycho’s accurate and
comprehensive observations were just what he
needed. Kepler’s preoccupations were a curious
mixture of theology, mathematics and mysticism.
He had a Pythagorean conviction of the unity and
simplicity of the universe, revealing the mind of
God. The fabric of the heavens was woven with
patterns from the Great Designer.
Kepler was born in the south German
town of Weil der Stadt in the principality of
Wűrttenberg. His interest in astronomy began
when his mother showed him the comet of 1577.
As a passionate Lutheran, he began to prepare for
the ministry at the University of Tübingen. There
he was introduced to the heliocentric system of
astronomy by Michael Maestlin (1550-1631), one
of the few Copernican teachers of his day, who
convinced him of its truth and of the consistency
and order that it gave to the planetary periods in
relation to their distances. His desire to pursue the
ministry was interrupted by a request to begin
teaching mathematics at the Protestant high school
in the Austrian town of Graz.
Kepler supplemented his meager income
with astrological predictions, but was driven by a
Pythagorean urge to find a law governing the order
of the planets. While teaching at Graz in 1595, he
was struck by a grand inspiration of cosmic unity
between the planets and the five regular solids of
geometry. The number of the visible planets was
now six with a moving Earth included as a planet.
Perhaps he could account for the number of
planets as well as their distances by correlating the
five gaps between their orbits with the five regular
solids. In a Herculean effort of mathematical
mysticism, he showed that the relative distances of
the planets could be obtained by inscribing the
regular solids successively within the orbits of the
planets (Figure 4.6), starting with Saturn:
Day and night I was consumed by the com-
puting, to see whether this idea would agree
with the Copernican orbits, or if my joy
would be carried away by the wind. Within
a few days everything worked, and I
watched as one body after another fit pre-
cisely into its place among the planets.
By trial and error he found the solution to his cos-
mographic mystery. Thus, by inscribing the cube
within the sphere of Saturn’s orbit and just around
that of Jupiter, the tetrahedron between Jupiter and
Mars, the dodecahedron between Mars and the
Earth, the icosahedron between the Earth and
Venus, and the octahedron between Venus and
Mercury, he finally reached success.
Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 83

Kepler published his geometric fantasy in
1596 under the title Mysterium Cosmographicum,
with the conviction that, “Through my effort God
is being celebrated in astronomy.” By allowing
space for the eccentricity of the planetary orbits,
all the planets except Mercury fit within an aver-
age margin of about 5 percent. After some effort to
explain the astrological and other relations be-
tween the solids and the planets, Kepler turns to
“the proportions of the motions to the orbits.”
Here he makes the important suggestion that the
Sun is the cause of the planetary motions, sweep-
ing them along by what he calls the anima motrix.
Thus he insists that the motions must be referred to
the Sun rather than the eccentric center of the
Earth’s orbit, as Copernicus had done. But to carry
out such calculations, he needed better obser-
vations, so he began a correspondence with Tycho
that led to the momentous invitation to join his
staff in Prague.
Breaking of the Circle
When Kepler joined Tycho in February,
1600, he began to work on the orbit of Mars, for
which the most accurate data were available, but
also the greatest eccentricity. He conscientiously
tried to fit Tycho’s observations to each of the
three systems of Ptolemy, Tycho and Copernicus,
but finally established the latter system after some
five years of effort. Unlike Copernicus, he tried to
use the equant in place of any epicycles at all,
feeling that a physical cause for the motion of a
planet cannot act on the empty space at the center
of an epicycle. His conception of the Sun’s anima
motrix had the effect of a force acting directly on
the planet’s motion.
After more than 70 trials with various
combinations of eccentric and equant, Kepler
finally succeeded in fitting the radius of Mars’
orbit to Tycho’s data; but representing the orbit of
Mars in the plane of its motion (longitude) with a
Sun 8 20 12 4 6
icosahedron Saturn
(a) Construction of Orbits (b) Order of Regular Solids

Figure 4.6 Kepler’s Theory of Planetary Distances Using the Five Regular Solids
(a) Kepler tried to show that the relative planetary distances as measured by Copernicus were
determined by fitting the five regular solids between the six known planetary orbits in such a way
that a given orbit is incribed within one solid and circumscribed about the next (shown here in a
two- dimensional analog to Kepler’s three-dimensional model).
(b) He found a “pretty good fit” to the measured planetary distances by arranging the solids in the
order shown, starting with the octahedron between Mercury and Venus, followed by the icosa-
hedron, dodecahedron, tetrahedron and cube in order of increasing distances.
Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 84

circular orbit differed by 8 minutes of arc from
Tycho’s observed positions. This was less than the
10-minute accuracy of the Greeks, but he could
not ignore it in relation to Tycho’s maximum ob-
servational error of about 2 minutes. In his As-
tronomia Nova (1609) Kepler wrote:
Since divine kindness granted us Tycho
Brahe, the most diligent observer, by whose
observations an error of eight minutes in the
case of Mars is brought to light in this
Ptolemaic calculation, it is fitting that we
recognize and honor this favor of God with
gratitude of mind.... But as it is, because
they could not be ignored, these eight min-
utes alone have prepared the way for re-
shaping the whole of astronomy, and they
are the material which is made into a great
part of this work.
In addition to this small error, the observed po-
sitions of Mars perpendicular to the ecliptic
(latitude) diverged even more widely from his
theory, leading him finally to abandon the equant
model and its assumption of circular motions. He
would now have to start afresh with Mars to
determine the shape of its orbit and the variations
in its speed.
Since Tycho made his observations of
Mars from a moving Earth, Kepler set out to de-
termine more accurately the shape and timetable of
the Earth’s orbit. In the process he discovered that
the orbits of the planets were in planes passing
through the Sun at small inclinations relative to the
orbit of the Earth, eliminating the need for a
separate explanation for the motion of the planets
above and below the ecliptic. From the known
positions of the Earth about the Sun, he was able
to show from Tycho’s somewhat limited data that
the positions of Mars did not fit a circular orbit..
While studying the changing speed of
Mars, Kepler made the unexpected discovery that
a line drawn from the Sun to the moving planet
sweeps out equal areas in equal times (Figure 4.7).
Since Mars, like the Earth, moves faster when
nearer the Sun, it moves further in a given time
than when it is more distant from the Sun, but the
resulting sectors swept by a line from the Sun to
the moving planet have the same area.
Kepler continued with his analysis to find
the shape of the orbit. After establishing some
points on the orbit of Mars, he was able to see
“...that the planet’s path is not a circle–it curves
inward on both sides and outward again at
opposite ends. Such a curve is called an oval.” For
many months he tried to identify what type of oval
the orbit formed, but finally showed that it had the
shape of an ellipse as first described about 230
BCE by Apollonius. On such an orbit the sum of
the distances from the planet to each of two focal
points remains constant.
Kepler also showed that the Sun lies at
one focus of its elliptical orbit, with empty space at
the other (Figure 4.7). The two foci lie on the
longer or major axis of the ellipse, equidistant
from the center and perpendicular to the shorter or
minor axis. When the two foci converge to a single
point, the ellipse becomes a circle with major and
minor axes of equal length. Even in the case of
Mars, with its greater than usual eccentricity, the
axes differ by less than one percent.
By rejecting epicycles and respecting
Tycho’s empirical results, Kepler had finally bro-
ken the spell of the circle. Instead of imposing
forms upon nature, he sought to discover observ-
able patterns that could be described by simple
mathematical laws. The law of elliptical orbits is
now called Kepler’s first law, even though he dis-
covered it after the law of equal areas, now called
the second law. “Elliptical orbits with the Sun at
one focus” replaced Plato’s ideal of the circle,
making the eccentric irrelevant. “Equal areas
swept out in equal times” replaced Plato’s ideal of
uniform planetary speed, making the equant un-
necessary. Ten more years would pass before a
third law would emerge from his study of musical
harmony applied to planetary motion.

Harmony of the Universe
Kepler’s years in Prague came to an end
in 1612 after his patron Rudolph II was declared
insane and died. At the urging of his wife, he took
a teaching position in Linz, Austria. His wife and
son died in an epidemic before his departure. At
Linz he remarried and his wife, 17 years his junior,
bore him seven children, four of whom survived.
He also returned to his earlier obsession with the
Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 85

relationships among the various planetary orbits,
guided by the Pythagorean idea of the “Harmony
of the Spheres” based on musical ratios (1:2 for an
octave, 2:3 for a fifth, etc.). The planetary
distances derived from the five regular solids did
not correlate with elliptical orbits and agreed more
poorly with Tycho’s data, so Kepler came to see
them as only approximations of the divine
In his Harmonice Mundi (1619), Kepler
discussed harmonic ratios in great detail. He then
tried to find such ratios between the greatest and
smallest distances of the planets from the Sun, and
in their fastest and slowest speeds, often using
musical notation to represent these variations. This
led him to seek a relationship between the average
radii (R = semi-major axis) of the planets and their
average speeds or periods (T = time for one
revolution) of their orbits. His search was amply
rewarded in 1618 with the discovery of a constant
ratio T
= k, with each planet having the same
value for Kepler’s constant k. The third law can be
stated in words as, “The squares of the orbital
periods for each planet are proportional to the
cubes of their average distances from the Sun,” or
in symbols as T
= kR
, completing the celestial
harmony. It is possible to summarize Kepler’s
planetary laws as follows:
Law I. The planets move in elliptical orbits
with the Sun at one focus.
Law II. A line from the Sun to a planet
sweeps out equal areas in equal times.
Law III. The square of the period of each
planet is proportional to the cube of its
average orbital radius.
Although Kepler never achieved an actual
music of the spheres, he certainly demonstrated the
0 a

Figure 4.7 Kepler’s Three Laws of the Planets in the Copernican System
Kepler discovered three important laws of planetary motion for the “heliocentric” system:
I. Each planet travels in elliptical orbits with the Sun at one focus, the other being empty.
II. The line from the Sun to each planet sweeps out equal areas A in equal times.
III. The orbital period T is related to the average orbital radius R of each planet by T² = kR³.
An ellipse is defined as the curve along which the sum of the distances R
and R
from two focal
points to any point on the curve is constant. The law of equal areas shows that the planets have
maximum velocity at perihelion (nearest point to the Sun), and minimum velocity at aphelion
(furthest point from the Sun). In an elliptical orbit the average radius R = (R
)/2 is equal to the
semi-major axis a of the ellipse.
Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 86

Pythagorean belief that the universe is based on
numbers. His empirical laws accurately describe
the shapes and speeds of the planets and their
positions at any time. The third law relates all the
planets by a single numerical constant. If T is in
years and R is in astronomical units (T = 1 yr and R
= 1 AU for the Earth) then Kepler’s constant has
the value of k = 1 yr
for all the planets. Thus
for Jupiter with T = 11.87 years and R = 5.2AU,
squaring T gives T
= 141 and cubing R gives R
141, and their ratio is k = 1. Though he despaired
that his work might have to “wait a century for a
reader, as God has waited six thousand years for a
witness,” it was only some 50 years later that
Newton would use them as the basis for a complete
explanation of the heliocentric system.
In 1621 Kepler published his Epitome
Astronomiae Copernicanae, in which he suggested
that the Sun rotates and carries the planets along
by its anima motrix, adding that it would be better
“if the word soul (anima) is replaced by force
(vis).” He also suggested that the Sun exerts mag-
netic forces of attraction and repulsion on the
Earth’s magnetic poles, causing its non-circular
orbit. This idea came from a careful reading of De
Magnete, published in 1600 by William Gilbert
(1544-1603), who had suggested that the Earth’s
“magnetic soul” is the cause of its rotation, though
not committing himself on its orbital motion. Both
Gilbert’s magnetism and Kepler’s anima motrix
tend toward the kind of occult forces typical of
Renaissance naturalism. Gilbert rejected daily
revolution of the stars since they were at
“immeasurable” distances and “there can be no
movement of infinity.”
Although Kepler was the first to attempt a
mechanical explanation of planetary motions, even
suggesting that “the celestial machine is not so
much a divine organism but rather a clockwork,”
he did not reject his Neoplatonic and theological
tendencies. He based his theories on a sacred
foundation that compared the Sun with God the
Father, source of light and power; the fixed stars
stood for God the Son; and the all-pervading force
of the Sun in the space between was the Holy
Spirit. Because the world is a symbolic expression
of the Triune God, embodying in its structure a
mathematical order and harmony, Kepler rejected
infinite space. He believed that order and harmony
cannot be found in an infinite and therefore
formless universe. Thus he retains the celestial
sphere, even though he allows for stellar changes
based on his observation of the nova of 1604 in the
constellation Ophiucus (Serpentarius). It is re-
markable that Kepler’s star and Tycho’s star (both
were supernovae) appeared so near in time.
While Kepler was working out his har-
mony of the heavens, he was experiencing any-
thing but harmony on Earth. In the persecutions of
the Counter-Reformation, he was attacked and his
library was locked and sealed. His mother’s use of
various herbal remedies led to an accusation of
witchcraft by a neighbor, who became ill after
drinking one of her potions. After trials and
imprisonments, Kepler finally secured her acquit-
tal and release. In 1627 he published the Rudol-
phine Tables, in honor of Rudolph II, containing
the positions of 1005 stars and rules for predicting
planetary positions. These remained the most
accurate astronomical tables available for over a
century. In his calculations he made the first im-
portant use of the newly invented logarithms of
John Napier (1550-1617), appending a table of
logarithms to his work. Kepler died three years
later on a trip to recover one of the many debts
owed to him by former employers.


Galileo and the Telescope
Among the many scientists with whom
Kepler corresponded, the best known is Galileo
Galilei (1564-1642). He shared many of Kepler’s
heliocentric views, but never endorsed elliptical
orbits. Galileo is often portrayed as the first mod-
ern scientist, yet he retained a strong commitment
to the Platonic emphasis on circles. He preferred
the mathematics of Euclid and Archimedes to the
more qualitative approach of Aristotle, but sup-
ported his mathematical theories with experiment
and recognized the importance of observations. He
used the telescope and his study of motion to
support the Copernican system, but was unable to
provide definitive evidence or an adequate expla-
nation for the motion of the Earth. His work led to
Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 87

a wider acceptance of the heliocentric system,
providing a basis for the laws of Newton that fi-
nally explained it.
Galileo was born at Pisa, in northern It-
aly, in the same year that Michelangelo died and
Shakespeare was born. His father, Vincenzo
Galilei, was a musician from Florence whose
book, Dialogue of Ancient and Modern Music, was
used by Kepler in his study of Pythagorean
harmonies. In 1581 Galileo went to the University
of Pisa to study medicine, but after four years he
lost interest in medicine and dropped out. At home
he studied Latin poetry and Greek mathematics
with a tutor who introduced him to the works of
Archimedes. In 1586 he published a booklet on the
design of a hydrostatic balance. This led to a
recommendation from a family friend for an
appointment at the University of Pisa, and in 1589
he became professor of mathematics without a
university degree. Friction with Scholastic
colleagues led him to resign after three years.
In 1592 Galileo obtained an appointment
to the chair of mathematics at the University of
Padua in the Republic of Venice, where he re-
mained for 18 years. During these years he wrote
De Motu (On Motion), which included the usual
criticisms of Aristotle and unsuccessful efforts to
apply the impetus concept of Buridan to falling
bodies. His work differed from that of the impetus
theorists in his emphasis on experiments, leading
him to try to develop a mathematical description of
accelerated motion. His interest in the Copernican
theory was first expressed publically in a lecture
on the new star of 1604, but did not appear in print
until 1613 in his Letters on Sunspots.
Galileo interrupted his work on motion in
July of 1609, when word reached Venice about a
magnifying tube made with a combination of
lenses by a Dutch lens grinder. Hans Lippershey of
Middleburg submitted a petition for patent of such
an instrument, devised a few years earlier, to the
States General of the Netherlands on October 2,
1608, but they rejected his petition due to con-
flicting claims. As the device spread through
Europe, it was put to use as a spyglass for com-
merce and warfare. Upon hearing these reports,
Galileo ground lenses and tried several
arrangements before succeeding with a com-
bination of a concave and a convex lens to
magnify objects.
Galileo’s first telescope had a magnifica-
tion of about three, but he soon improved his
design to give a magnifying power of about thirty.
When he presented one of his telescopes to the
Venetian Senate in August of 1609, they renewed
his professorship for life and doubled his salary. In
the meantime, Kepler borrowed a telescope and
worked out the geometry of image formation by
two lenses in his Dioptrice of 1611, founding the
modern science of optics. Kepler also used al-
Haytham’s intromission theory of vision to show
how the eye focuses inverted images onto the ret-
ina. Ten years later (1621) the Dutch mathema-
tician Willebrord Snell (1580-1626) discovered the
law of refraction for the bending of light passing
from one medium to another.
The importance of Galileo’s telescope
was not in its construction or terrestrial applica-
tions, but in his use of it to look beyond the Earth
to the heavens, opening up new vistas of space.
Few of his contemporaries recognized how valu-
able this would be for astronomy, and many
doubted the validity of the device compared to
direct vision. It could even be argued at the time
that spying on God’s heavens was presumptuous,
and perhaps even blasphemous. The celestial
spheres were too majestic to submit them to such
dubious scrutiny. Galileo himself spent many
hours testing his telescopes for reliability. The
English astronomer and navigator Thomas Harriot
(ca. 1560-1621) made a similar effort, viewing the
Moon during the summer of 1609.
Galileo had no easy time trying to per-
suade others of the value of the telescope for
astronomy. The eminent Aristotelian Cesare
Cremonini would not waste his time just to see
what “no one but Galileo has seen...and besides,
looking through those spectacles gives me a head-
ache.” A colleague reported that Galileo went to
Bologna to demonstrate his telescope, “with which
he saw four feigned planets...but I tested this
instrument of Galileo’s in a thousand ways, both
on things here below and on those above. Below it
works wonderfully; in the sky it deceives one, as
some fixed stars are seen double.” The famous
Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius (1537-
Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 88

1612) said that he too could show the pretended
four moons of Jupiter if he were allowed “first to
build them into some glasses,” though he later was
one of the first to confirm their existence.

Galileo’s Telescopic Discoveries
When Galileo turned his telescope
heavenward, his amazement led him to quickly
publish a description of his observations, inti-
mating that he invented the telescope. The result
was a 60-page booklet called the Sidereus
Nuncius (Starry Messenger) published in
March of 1610. The Moon appeared to be full
of craters, valleys, and even dark areas that he
thought were water (later named maria, or
seas). Characteristically, he measured the
heights of lunar mountains from the distances
of their illuminated peaks into the dark half of
the half-moon, finding them to be as high as
mountains on the Earth. These Earth-like
features of the Moon contradicted the
Aristotelian view of celestial perfection,
which assumed that the Moon was a per-
fectly smooth sphere. Galileo also suggested
that the visibility of the “old Moon” was due
to reflected Sunlight from the Earth. This
“Earth-shine” would make the Earth appear
bright like a planet, contrary to arguments
against Copernican theory that the dark Earth
was unlike the planets.
When Galileo looked at the Milky
Way, he was able to show that Aristotle was
wrong again in assuming that it consisted of
“celestial exhalations.” His observations
revealed that, “The Galaxy is nothing else
but a mass of innumerable stars planted
together in clusters.” In the vicinity of the
Pleiades, he reported more than forty stars in
addition to the six or seven that are visible. He also
noted with the telescope that stars do not have
round discs like the planets and “are never seen to
increase their dimensions in the same proportions
in which other objects, and the Moon itself,
increase in size.” This implied that stars are at
indeterminate distances without necessarily being
much larger than our Sun, answering Tycho’s ob-
jections as well as the lack of observable stellar
parallax. Perhaps the universe was even infinite.
Galileo’s most dramatic discovery in-
volved the four largest moons of Jupiter. On
January 7, 1610, he noticed that,
beside the planet there were three starlets,
small indeed, but very bright. Though I be-
lieved them to be among the host of fixed
stars, they aroused my curiosity somewhat
by appearing to lie in an exact straight line,
parallel to the ecliptic...
On subsequent evenings he observed that they
were still aligned, but in different arrangements
relative to Jupiter (Figure 4.8). On January 13 he
saw all four and concluded that they were all
revolving around Jupiter in the same plane, but at
different distances and periods, which he also
determined. The Earth was not the only center of
motion in the universe! Surely, Galileo argued, if
four moons can keep pace with Jupiter in its orbit,
then our one Moon circling a moving Earth in a
heliocentric system is not so unreasonable.
January 7
* *
January 8
January 13
January 11

Figure 4.8 Galileo’s Discovery of Moons of Jupiter
Observations made by Galileo in his discovery of the
four largest moons of Jupiter are shown similar to
some of those he recorded. Beginning on January 7,
1610, Galileo noticed three starlets near Jupiter
through his telescope and was puzzled by their
apparent alignment east and west of Jupiter. The next
night all three were to the right of Jupiter. On the
next clear night only two were seen, the third
apparently hidden by the planet. Finally on the sixth
night, Galileo saw all four moons and realized that
they were revolving around Jupiter in nearly a flat
plane parallel to his line of sight.
Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 89

These discoveries of Galileo, and his first
published support of the Copernican system, led to
both positive and negative reactions. Kepler, in his
excitement, suggested that there should be two
“planets” around Mars, six or eight around Saturn,
and one each around Mercury and Venus for the
correct proportions. He also showed that the
periods and orbits of Jupiter’s moons fit his har-
monic law (T² = kR³). The Florentine astronomer
Francesco Sizzi objected that seven was the correct
number of planets, corresponding to the seven
days of the week, the seven “windows” in the
head, and the seven metals. He argued that the four
satellites “are invisible to the naked eye and
therefore can have no influence on the Earth, and
therefore would be useless, and therefore do not
exist.” These reactions did not deter Galileo, who
named the moons of Jupiter the “Medicean plan-
ets,” hoping for an appointment by the Grand
Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici of Florence.
His efforts were rewarded in June of 1610
when Galileo gained an appointment as “Chief
Mathematician of the University of Pisa and
Philosopher of the Grand Duke,” without obli-
gation to teach or reside at Pisa. With this
sinecure, he resigned his position at Padua and
moved to Florence. Responding to an invitation,
he visited Rome in April of 1611, where Pope Paul
V received him. The pioneer scientific society, the
Accademia dei Lincei (named for the keen
eyesight of the lynx), held a banquet in his honor
with several theologians and philosophers among
the guests. On this occasion, the Jesuits confirmed
his telescopic discoveries and suggested the name
“telescope,” beginning the custom of giving Greek
names to scientific instruments.
At Florence Galileo wrote his Letters on
Sunspots, published in 1613 under the sponsorship
of the Accademia dei Lincei, to which he had been
elected. He first observed sunspots in 1610 by
using a telescope to project an image of the Sun on
a screen, concluding that the Sun was imperfect
like the Moon. From the motions of these spots, he
concluded that the Sun rotated with a period of
about 27 days. This led to a controversy with the
Jesuit astronomer Christopher Scheiner, who had
also observed them but thought they were objects
orbiting the Sun rather than on its surface. They
were also observed independently with the tele-
scope by Thomas Harriot, and by the Dutchman
Johann Fabricius, who was the first to publish his
observations in 1611.
In his Letters on Sunspots, Galileo re-
ported on two other important observations. He
described bulges on either side of Saturn that he
thought were moons, not having sufficient power
to resolve the rings of Saturn. He also found that
Venus exhibits a full range of phases like the
Moon. He communicated this to Kepler in the
form of an anagram to protect the priority of his
discovery, later revealing its meaning to de’
Medici: “The mother of love (Venus) emulates the
shapes of Cynthia (the Moon).” This could be
explained in the Copernican system, in which Ve-
nus would reach gibbous phases (more than half
illuminated) on the opposite side of the Sun from
the Earth; but Venus could only have crescent
phases in the Ptolemaic system, since its epicycle
always remains between the Earth and Sun. This
did not constitute a proof of the Copernican sys-
tem, however, because it could also be explained
in the Tychonic system without motion of the
Earth (Figure 4.9).

Galileo and the Church
Galileo’s successes with the telescope led
him into a bolder polemic for the Copernican sys-
tem, bordering on propaganda. Although none of
his observations provided conclusive evidence for
a moving Earth, taken together they began to turn
the tide toward its wider acceptance. Here he met
resistance, especially from the Dominicans who
adhered to the Aristotelian ideas of Thomas
Aquinas. As a devout Catholic, anxious to pre-
serve his orthodoxy, he began an attempt to rec-
oncile the Bible with Copernican theory.
Galileo’s solution was to suggest that
God’s revelation is not only in Scripture, where it
is often in metaphorical language (as in the hand
or mouth of God), but also in nature where its
interpretation is often in mathematical language.
God cannot contradict himself, so when nature
appears to conflict with Scripture, it requires rein-
terpretation and the recognition that it often uses
observational language, as in the rising and setting
of the Sun.
Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 90

Galileo developed his clearest expression
of the relation between science and Scripture in his
Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, dedicated
to the mother of the grand duke Cosimo II and
published in 1615:
Holy Scripture and nature proceed alike
from the Divine Word, the former as the
dictate of the Holy Spirit and the latter as the
faithful executrix of God’s commands.
Furthermore, Scripture, adapting itself to the
understanding of the common man, is wont
to say many things that appear to differ from
absolute truth as far as the bare meaning of
the words is concerned.... It would seem,
therefore, that nothing physical that sense
experience sets before our eyes, or that
necessary demonstrations prove to us,
should be called in question, not to say
condemned, because of Biblical passages
that have an apparently different meaning.
Scriptural statements are not bound by rules
as strict as natural events, and God is not
less excellently revealed in these events than
in the sacred propositions of the Bible.
Galileo insisted that Scripture does not reveal what
can be known about nature by our reason and
senses, quoting Cardinal Baronius that, “The
intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one
goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.”
Meanwhile, resistance to Galileo’s ideas
was building, including a sermon by the Florentine
Dominican Tommaso Caccini in 1614 on the topic,
Gibbous Venus
Ptolemic System Copernican System Tychonic System
All Phases of Venus All Phases of Venus Crescent Phases only

Figure 4.9 The Phases of Venus in Three Planetary Systems
In the geocentric Ptolemaic System, the epicycle of Venus is on a line from the Earth to the Sun, so
Venus is always illuminated on the side away from the Earth and only crescent phases are possible.
In the heliocentric Copernican System, the orbit of Venus carries it from between the Earth and the
Sun (conjunction) to the opposite side of the Sun from the Earth (opposition), so all phases are pos-
sible, including both crescent and gibbous. In the geo-heliocentric Tychonic System, Venus also
moves to both sides of the Sun, so all phases are possible in this system as well. Thus Galileo’s ob-
servation of the gibbous phases of Venus does not prove the Copernican System since it is also
supported by the Tychonic system, but it weighs against the Ptolemaic System.
Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 91

“Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into
heaven?” Playing on the name Galilei, he sug-
gested that mathematics was of the devil. Although
Caccini was reprimanded, the matter was referred
to Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, who reiterated
Augustine’s argument that the literal meaning of
Scripture should be taken as correct unless the
contrary was “strictly demonstrated.” Galileo
thought he had found just such a demonstration for
the motion of the Earth in an argument from the
tides, which he erroneously believed were caused
by a combination of the Earth’s daily rotation and
annual revolution.
With his new “proof” in hand, Galileo
journeyed to Rome at the end of 1615 to defend
himself. During this visit, he was unable to per-
suade the Church authorities to approve his belief
that the Earth moved. The matter was referred to
the Holy Office with a warning to Galileo in 1616,
and the idea of the moving Earth was expressly
condemned. The Revolutionibus of Copernicus
was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books, but
Galileo and his works were spared condemnation
and he was even given a certificate by Cardinal
Bellarmine stating that he was not required to
recant any of his theories. Some positivists have
argued that Bellarmine’s view of Copernican the-
ory as a scientific hypothesis was more consistent
with the available empirical evidence.
After the election of the Florentine Car-
dinal Barberini in 1623 as Pope Urban VIII,
Galileo returned to Rome where he had several
audiences with the new pope and received per-
mission to write about the motion of the Earth as a
scientific hypothesis. During the next six years, he
worked on his masterpiece, the Dialogue on the
Two Chief World Systems. Supposedly an
evenhanded comparison of the Copernican and
Ptolemaic systems, it ended up as a highly per-
suasive book in favor of the heliocentric system.
To make matters worse, Galileo wrote it in ver-
nacular Italian, accessible to a wide audience, in-
stead of the usual scholarly Latin.
Using the dialectical form of Plato, Gali-
leo developed his arguments through the voices of
three persons: the Aristotelian Simplicio, the Co-
pernican Salviati, and the open-minded Sagredo.
On the first of four days, the dialogue compares
Simplicio’s arguments on celestial perfection with
telescopic evidence. The phases of Venus appear
as evidence for the Copernican system without
mention of the rival Tychonic system, which could
also account for them (Figure 4.9). The second and
third days include arguments on the rotation and
revolution of the Earth, indicating the failure to
detect stellar parallax as evidence for a greatly ex-
panded view of stellar distances. On the fourth
day, Salviati presents Galileo’s erroneous theory
of the tides as his conclusive evidence.
Galileo submitted his manuscript to the
chief censor at Rome in 1630. After several delays
and minor revisions, permission was finally
granted in both Rome and in Florence, where it
was published in 1632. The closing paragraph of
the Dialogue included a statement suggested by
Pope Urban that the Copernican theory was
“neither true nor conclusive” and that no one
should “limit the divine power and wisdom to one
particular fancy of his own.” Unfortunately,
Galileo put these words in the mouth of Simplicio,
leading to the accusation that all of his views rep-
resented those of the pope. Sale of the book was
stopped and Galileo was summoned to Rome.
In the winter of 1633, the gravely ill
Galileo was carried by litter to Rome. An investi-
gation of the licensing of the Dialogue had led to
the discovery of an unsigned and perhaps forged
memorandum of 1616, prohibiting Galileo from
defending or teaching the Earth’s motion “in any
way.” After trial by the Inquisition, in which he
vigorously denied that he had intended to teach the
truth of the heliocentric system, he was judged
guilty and the Dialogue was totally forbidden. On
June 22 at the age of seventy, he was required to
kneel before the tribunal and recant his belief in
the reality of the Copernican system. He was then
sentenced to life imprisonment at his country es-
tate near Florence, with no visitors allowed except
by special permission.
In the last years of his life, Galileo re-
turned to the study of matter and motion. His
eyesight failing, he had to dictate part of his Dis-
courses and Demonstrations Concerning Two New
Sciences, which friends smuggled out of Italy for
publication by the Elzevirs at Leyden in 1638.
Writing again in Italian as a Platonic dialogue, it
Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 92

includes a mathematical development of the laws
of free fall and projectile motion with experiments
added as verification. Although he avoids direct
consideration of the motion of the Earth, his con-
cepts of gravity and inertia provided the basis for
the work of Descartes, Huygens and Newton that
finally established a mechanical explanation for
the heliocentric system. His attachment to circular
motion prevented him from clearly accepting an
infinite universe, but in his final years of blindness
he wrote: “This universe that I have extended a
thousand times...has now shrunk to the narrow
confines of my own body.”

Responses and Reactions to Galileo’s Work
Although the condemnation of Galileo
inhibited science in Catholic countries, his disci-
ples and followers made some important contri-
butions. One of Galileo’s contemporaries, Marin
Mersenne (1588-1648), spread his experimental
emphasis to France. He was a Franciscan priest in
the ascetic order of the Minims, whose monastery
in Paris became a center of scientific life that
brought together many scientists of the day. He
published a French version of some of Galileo’s
unpublished works without endorsing the Coper-
nican system. He reported on Parisian telescope
experiments and repeated measurements of the rate
of free fall. In his Harmonie Universelle (1636), he
refined Galileo’s correlation between the pitch of
sound and the vibrational frequency of its source.
He also made the first measurement of the speed
of sound by timing echoes from a wall over known
Another contemporary of Galileo suffered
a similar condemnation for trying to develop the
iatrochemistry of Paracelsus. The Flemish phy-
sician Jan van Helmont (1579-1644) was one of
the first to use the new quantitative experimental
approach in biology, showing that the increasing
weight of a growing tree gains little from the soil.
He also was the first to distinguish different vapors
from air, giving them the name “gas” from the
phonetic sound of “chaos” in Flemish. He viewed
gases as a kind of union between matter and spirit,
suggesting that respiration exchanges gas in the
lungs. He believed in spontaneous generation,
even of mice from dirty wheat, and claimed to
have used the “philosophers’ stone.” Because of
the Paracelsian association with alchemy, magic
and Protestantism, Catholic authorities persecuted
Helmont and finally the Louvain theological fac-
ulty convicted him in 1630. As a result, very few
Catholics pursued the field of chemistry.
Galileo’s view of science was applied to
physiology and medicine by a young Englishman,
William Harvey (1578-1657), who went to study
at the University of Padua from 1599 to 1602
during the time Galileo taught there. After he re-
turned to England, Harvey developed his theory of
the general circulation of the blood, suggesting
that the venous valves prevent blood flowing from
the heart, and that the heart valves permitted blood
to flow only from the upper chambers (auricles) to
the lower chambers (ventricles). After calculating
that the heart pumped a quantity of blood three
times the weight of a man in one hour, Harvey
concluded that the blood circulated from the heart
to the arteries, then to the veins and back to the
heart, even though he could not find any
connection from the arteries to the veins.
Harvey described his theory in De Motu
Cordis et Sanguinis (On the Motions of the Heart
and Blood), published in 1628. He augmented his
quantitative and experimental approaches by his
belief that the heart is “the Sun of the microcosm,
even as the Sun in his turn might well be designated
the heart of the world.” He shared Galileo’s
obsession with circular motion: “I began to think
whether there might not be a motion as it were in a
circle, in the same way Aristotle says that the air
and the rain emulate the circular motion of the
superior bodies.” Although he recognized the
mechanical action of the heart, he also thought that
it manufactured vital spirit constituting the soul.
One of the last of Galileo’s disciples,
Evangelista Torricelli (1608-1647), worked on the
problem of the vacuum. Galileo agreed with
Scholastic thought that water was lifted by raising
a piston in a pipe because a vacuum could not
form between the water and the piston, but he
wondered why water could be lifted only about 10
meters by a piston pump. Torricelli suggested that
the weight of the air on the water outside the pump
pushed it up until it was balanced by the weight of
the 10-meter column of water. He demonstrated
Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 93

this “sea of air” hypothesis in 1643 by filling a
glass tube about one meter long with mercury and
inverting it in a dish of mercury, observing that the
mercury fell to a height of about 76 cm, with a
vacuum presumably in the gap at the top of this
“barometer” tube. The idea that air has weight
suggested that it was held near the Earth by gravity
and moves with it by its inertia through the
vacuum of space (Figure 4.10).
The vacuum received further considera-
tion from Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) in France. He
repeated Torricelli’s experiment with red wine in a
14-meter tube. If the gap at the top was due to
vapor instead of vacuum, then the volatile wine
should fall lower than water; but if it was a vac-
uum, the lower-density wine should fall less than
water to balance the weight of the air, as was
observed. He recognized that if air has weight, it
should diminish with altitude. In 1646 he engaged
his brother-in-law to climb the Puy-de-Dôme with
a mercury barometer, finding that the mercury
level dropped about 7 cm at a height of about one
mile. Together with the invention of this altimeter
concept, he suggested using the barometer to pre-
dict weather after noting that a falling air pressure
usually preceded stormy conditions. Pascal
believed that creation was in the image of God and
thus the universe was infinite, but the complexity
of nature filled him with a sense of dread:

The whole visible world is only an imper-
ceptible atom in the ample bosom of nature.
No idea approaches it. We may enlarge our
conceptions beyond all imaginable space;
we only produce atoms in comparison with
the reality of things. It is an infinite sphere,
the centre of which is everywhere, the cir-
cumference nowhere. In short it is the
76 cm
of air
Vacuum in Space?
Sea of Air

Figure 4.10 Torricelli’s Air Pressure Barometer and “Sea of Air” Hypothesis
Torricelli introduced the “sea of air” hypothesis to explain the height of the mercury column as
being balanced by the weight of the air. He used Galileo’s inertia concept to account for the motion
of the sea of air with the Earth through the assumed vacuum of space, and his gravity concept to
account for the weight of the air holding it around the Earth’s surface. From the height of the
mercury column, the weight of the air can be determined from the equivalent weight of the mercury
column of about 15 pounds on each square inch, or an air pressure of :
= 15 lb/in² x 144 in²/ft² = 2160 lb/ft².
This is more than a ton on every square foot at sea level!
Chapter 4 • An Infinite Universe 94

greatest sensible mark of the almighty
power of God, that imagination loses itself
in that thought. (Pensées 72)
Galileo’s new telescopic vision of the
world troubled many in Protestant countries as
well. Shortly after his Starry Messenger appeared,
the English poet John Donne, who admitted that
the new astronomy “may very well be true,” gave
classic expression in 1611 to concerns about
Copernican ideas in The First Anniversarie:
And new Philosophy calls all in doubt,
The Element of fire is quite put out;
The Sun is lost, and th’Earth, and no man’s
Can well direct him where to looke for it.
And freely men confesse that this world’s
‘Tis all in peeces, all cohaerence gone;
All just supply, and all Relation...
And in these Constellations then arise
New starres, and old doe vanish from our
The new cosmology was also troubling to
John Milton, who as a young man of thirty had
visited the blind Galileo and learned about the
vastness of space. Twenty five years later when he
wrote Paradise Lost, Milton described the two
world systems of Ptolemy and Copernicus without
choosing between them. But in his epic poem, his
universe remained geocentric and he warned about
...Heav’n is for thee too high
To know what passes there; be lowlie wise:
Think onely what concernes thee and thy
Dream not of other Worlds.
His warning was too late, however, and the dream
of the Earth moving through boundless space
would soon be established in the awakening idea
of a mechanical universe.

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The Scientific Revolution of the seven-
teenth century emerged from the development of a
mathematical physics confirmed by empirical
methods that could explain motion in the Coper-
nican system. From Kepler’s laws of the planets to
Galileo’s analysis of projectile motion, to Huy-
gen’s formula for centrifugal force and Newton’s
law of universal gravitation, the tools of mathe-
matics and measurement proved to be increasingly
successful. The application of mathematical
methods to the physical world was a reassertion of
Platonic idealism over the qualitative realism of
Aristotle that had dominated natural philosophy
for 300 years. Although Plato’s eternal ideas were
only imperfectly embodied in physical things, they
could be represented by a mathematical descrip-
tion that reduced physical reality to quantities and
Aristotle rejected Plato’s mathematical
emphasis because natural things changed as a
result of inherent tendencies that do not easily
reduce to mathematics. In replacing this Aristo-
telian conception with a mathematical approach,
the mystical ideas of Plato’s Timaeus faded in
favor of a mechanistic conception of nature based
on the assumption that matter is passive, possess-
ing no active internal forces. Matter had only the
passive qualities of size, shape and impenetrabil-
ity, and motion was explained by inertia and im-
pact rather than by inherent tendencies. Nature
now appeared as a collection of inert material par-
ticles controlled by external laws. This new view
of nature as a machine began to replace Aristotle’s
conception of nature as an organic being.

Free Fall and Gravity
After his condemnation, Galileo returned
to the study of motion that dominated his early
career, now applying the mathematical methods of
Archimedes. Even as a student at the University of
Pisa, his interest in motion was evident in his
observations of a swinging chandelier in the
cathedral of Pisa. Using his pulse rate for timing,
he noticed that the period of the swing did not
change when the amplitude of the swing increased
with the wind. Further experiments with a pendu-
lum confirmed this result, at least for small oscil-
lations, and also showed that the period of oscil-
lation changed in proportion to the square root of
the length of the pendulum. However, changing
the weight of a pendulum with fixed length did not
change its period, providing a clue that the rate of
free fall was independent of the weight of a falling


A Mechanical Universe

The Scientific Revolution and Newtonian Synthesis

Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 96

Galileo’s study of free fall began early in
his career, though not in the way suggested by the
legend of dropping different weights from the
Leaning Tower of Pisa. Such an experiment was
reported in 1586 by the Dutch scientist Simon
Stevin (1548-1620), in which he simultaneously
dropped two lead balls of differing weights from a
height of 30 feet onto a board, and heard no per-
ceptible difference when they hit the board.
Galileo began with a criticism of Aris-
totle’s distinction between light and heavy bodies
according to their natural tendencies to rise or fall.
Following Archimedes, he recognized that heavy
bodies that fall in air may rise in
water, and he agreed with his
predecessor at Pisa, Giovanni
Benedetti (1530-1590), that
bodies of the same material
falling in a vacuum would have
the same speed. Later he argued
that the difference in speed of
falling bodies of differing
materials would be less with
decreasing density of the
medium in which they fall, and
that in a vacuum all bodies
would fall at the same rate inde-
pendent of their weight or
Under the influence of
impetus theory, Galileo had as-
sumed that the speed of free fall
is proportional to the distance
fallen. Later he abandoned im-
petus theory at Padua and began
to develop the idea that the
speed of a falling object is pro-
portional to the time of fall,
giving a uniformly increasing
speed. In Discourses and Dem-
onstrations Concerning Two
New Sciences (1638), Galileo
used a graphical analysis like
that introduced by Nicole
Oresme (ca. 1320-82) to repre-
sent uniformly increasing veloc-
ity by the increasing height of a
triangle to time t along its base.
This constant rate of change from rest to velocity v
corresponds to a constant acceleration a = v/t as
the dynamic principle of free fall (Figure 5.1).
Thus, in modern notation, the uniformly
increasing velocity of a body accelerating from
rest is given by v = at. Like Oresme, Galileo used
this idea to show that during any time t in which
an object reaches velocity v = at, the average
velocity would be v/2. The distance d of motion in
a time t is then the area under the graph, or
d = v×t /2 = (at)×t/2 = at
Applied to free fall, this law is independent of
Graph of Velocity vs. Time on an Inclined Plane
d = 1
t = 1
d = 4
t = 2
d = 9
t = 3
d = at²/2
1s 2s 3s 4s
v = at
d = 1+3 = 4 d = 4+5 = 9 d = 9+7 = 16
v = 2
v = 4
v = 6

Figure 5.1 Galileo’s Analysis of Motion on an Inclined Plane
Using a graphical representation, Galileo assumed that uniformly
increasing velocity v = at with a constant acceleration a applies to
the motion of a ball rolling down an inclined plane under the in-
fluence of gravity. From the mean-speed rule, the average velocity
is half the final velocity (v/2) so the distance at any time t is
d = vt /2 = (at)t /2 = at²/2 .
Since vt /2 is the area under the graph to time t, the distance after
successive units of time is the sum of odd numbers 1, 3 ,5 ,7,... up
to that time, or d = 1, 4, 9, 16,... = 1², 2², 3², 4²,... as predicted and
subsequently confirmed by experiment. Thus in this case, d in feet
and t in seconds gives a constant acceleration:
a = 2d /t² = 2
1/1² = 2
4/2² = 2
9/3² = 2
16/4² = 2 ft/s².
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 97

weight as suggested by Galileo, at least in a
vacuum. It describes gravity in terms of a constant
acceleration, rather than as something acting on a
body. Galileo differs from his scholastic
predecessors in applying this law to a real physical
To test the law of constant acceleration,
Galileo slowed the effect of gravity by rolling balls
down inclined planes. He could predict that if a
ball rolled one foot in the first second, then in the
time intervals t = 1, 2, 3, 4, 5,...sec, the distances
traversed would be d = 1, 4, 9, 16, 25,...ft, which
are the squares of the corresponding time intervals.
His experimental results agreed “roughly” with
these values, confirming the law of constant
acceleration on an inclined plane. Using the above
distances and times, Galileo’s law gives a constant
acceleration of
a = 2d/t² = 2 ft/s².
In free fall, distance d is vertical and can be desig-
nated by a y-coordinate with a = g for the acceler-
ation of gravity, giving Galileo’s law as:
y = gt²/2.
Measurements give a value
for gravitational acceleration
of g = 32 ft/s², or in metric
units g = 9.8 m/s².

Projectile Motion and Inertia
Galileo applied his
law of free fall to the motion
of a projectile to show that it
would move along a parabolic
path (Figure 5.2). He assumed
that the vertical motion of a
cannon ball would have the
acceleration g of free fall,
independent of its horizontal
motion. He considered a ball
rolling on a horizontal surface
as the limiting case of an
“inclined plane” when it has
zero slope, and thus the
acceleration is zero, or con-
stant velocity, in the idealized
case of frictionless motion.
Calling this constant horizontal motion inertia,
Galileo tried to explain it as equivalent to constant
circular motion in the heavens, since horizontal
motion is along the horizon or circle of the Earth’s
A projectile whose horizontal distance
increases uniformly (constant horizontal velocity
) while its vertical distance changes with the
square of the time (constant vertical acceleration g)
has coordinates at any time given by:
x = v
t and y = gt²/2,
which combine with t = x/v
in the equation for y
to give the equation of a parabola:
y = gx²/2v

= cx²,
where the constants g/2v
² = c.
Using geometric reasoning, Galileo
showed that the angle of a cannon barrel that will
give the projectile its maximum range is 45° above
the horizontal. This agreed with the observations
of Niccolo Tartaglia in 1537, but now could be
explained by Galileo “without need of recourse to
experiments” from the principles of inertia
20 40 60
x = 20 t
y = 4.9 t²
Horizontal and Vertical Positions of Projectile and Free Fall
t = 1s
t = 2s
t = 3s
v = 20
v = gt
path y = cx²

Figure 5.2 Galileo’s Concepts of Projectile Motion and Free Fall
A constant horizontal velocity (v
= 20 m/s shown here) due to
inertia and a constant vertical acceleration (g = 9.8 m/s²) due to
gravity combine to produce a parabolic path (y = 4.9 x²). The
vertical positions of the projectile match those of an object in free
fall as shown during the first 3 seconds.
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 98

(constant v
) and gravity (constant g):
The knowledge of a single fact acquired
through a discovery of its causes, prepares
the mind to understand and ascertain other
facts, without need of recourse to experi-
ments, precisely as in the present case,
where by argumentation alone the author
proves with certainty that the maximum
range occurs when the elevation is 45 de-
Galileo’s recognition that theoretical predictions of
phenomena could provide an explanation of those
phenomena, and experimental discovery of the
predicted facts could verify that explanation,
marked the maturing of the mathematical-
experimental method of science.
In his Dialogues Concerning the Two
Chief World Systems (1632), Galileo used his
“circular” inertia concept to illustrate the possibil-
ity of a moving Earth without noticeable effects on
its inhabitants. In the case of a ship moving with
constant velocity at sea, observers on the ship
would have no way to detect their motion. Ac-
cording to Galileo, if an object falls from the top
of the mast it would fall to the base of the mast,
contrary to the Aristotelian answer provided by
Simplicio that it would fall behind the mast. The
falling body has an obvious vertical motion, but an
undetected horizontal motion since it is shared by
the ship and its observers. In the same way,
observers on a moving Earth will see the vertical
component in the motion of a falling body, but will
not detect its inertial motion with the Earth since
they share in it. Furthermore, Galileo explains the
rotational motions of the Earth in a Copernican
universe as the result of circular inertia, rejecting
Kepler’s discovery of elliptical orbits.

Gassendi’s Revival of Atomism
In trying to develop a mathematical basis
for mechanics in The Assayer (Saggiatore, 1623),
Galileo drew upon the distinction made by the
Greek atomists between qualities inherent in ob-
jects and those produced by them. Inherent
qualities, such as size, shape and speed, were
quantifiable and thus could be used in a
mathematical description of the reality behind
experience. Other qualities, such as taste, color,
heat and sound, were produced in the observer by
the activity of bits of matter impinging on the
sense organs. This radical distinction between
what Robert Boyle later called primary and
secondary qualities became the cornerstone of
mechanistic science.
The rediscovery in 1417 of the great Latin
poem De Rerum Natura of Lucretius, based on the
atomism of Epicurus, led to increasing interest in
atomism as an alternative to Aristotelian physics.
For the ancient Greeks, atoms were not created,
but eternal and subject to chance. Rationality and
purpose appeared to be impossible in a world of
randomness and materialism. The revival of
atomism in Christian Europe required the idea of
God as a cosmic lawgiver who imposed laws on
the atoms to create an orderly and purposeful
universe. This idea made it possible to establish a
mechanical world view consistent with Christian
In reacting against Scholastic philosophy,
as well as alchemy, the French Catholic priest
Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) recognized in
atomism the possibility of a thoroughly mechani-
cal philosophy of nature. But he also was aware of
the atheistic implications of atomism, so from
about 1625 he began to develop a Christian ver-
sion of atomism cleansed of atheism. For example,
he assumed only a finite number of atoms in the
universe, since he believed that the providence of
God is inconsistent with a universe in which an
infinite number of atoms would allow everything
possible to happen. His Philosophiae Epicuri
Syntagma (1649) recognized the existence of a
vacuum, demonstrated five years earlier by Tor-
ricelli, but rejected the Epicurean claim that mo-
tion was inherent in matter. By introducing God as
the source of motion, he helped to maintain the
Christian view of the dependence of nature on
Gassendi’s universe could be described
by nothing more than the size, arrangement, shape,
and motion of invisible and impenetrable atoms
moving in an infinite void. God impressed motion
on the atoms in the beginning and continues as a
“moving urge,” rectilinear and indestructible
except when acted upon by collisions with other
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 99

atoms. Gassendi made no greater attempt than
Galileo had to explain how atoms cause sensible
effects, but he believed that only such effects
could be observed, leading to a strict empiricism.
He especially opposed occult causes and effects,
but believed that the order and harmony of the uni-
verse demonstrated God’s goodness and purpose
in nature.

Borelli’s Development of Mechanics
Another follower of Galileo was
Giovanni Borelli (1608-1679), who began his ca-
reer as a professor of mathematics at the Univer-
sity of Pisa. He later befriended Galileo in
Florence, where he participated in the Accademia
del Cimento (Academy for Experiment) before
leaving Tuscany. Borelli corrected Galileo’s con-
servative emphasis on circles by publicizing
Kepler’s elliptical orbits. He disguised his
Copernican treatise, Theoricae Mediceorum
Planetareum (1666) as a study of the satellites of
Jupiter to avoid censure by the church.
Borelli added to Kepler’s idea of a tan-
gential force by the Sun on the planets, suggesting
that the Sun also exerts an attractive force on the
planets. He taught that Jupiter exerts a similar
force on its satellites, as later developed by New-
ton. He also suggested that the seemingly erratic
behavior of comets might be the result of parabolic
orbits, allowing them to pass around the Sun once
and then recede into space forever.
Borelli also applied the mechanical con-
cepts of Galileo to biology, and became a founder
of “iatrophysics” by applying physics to medicine.
In a two-volume book published after his death
entitled De Motu Animalium (On the Movement of
Animals), Borelli explained muscular action by
treating bones as levers acted upon by the pulling
force of the muscles. He showed how the same
laws of physics that governed the movement of the
arms and legs also governed the wings of birds and
the fins of fishes.
In his second volume, Borelli applied
mechanical laws to the movements of the muscles
of the heart and to the process of respiration in the
lungs. Carrying mechanical principles too far, he
suggested that the stomach was a grinding device.
His contemporary, the Flemish physician Francis-
cus Sylvius (1614-1672), followed the ideas of
Paracelsus in showing that digestion was a chemi-
cal process.


Bacon’s Empiricist Philosophy
In England the new emphasis on experi-
ment and observation began to mature with the
appearance of William Gilbert’s (1544-1603) pio-
neering book De Magnete (1600). Gilbert was
president of the College of Physicians of London
and became court physician to Queen Elizabeth I
in 1601. He rejected much of scholasticism and
favored a union between the craft tradition and
scholarly knowledge. By his experiments he
refuted many superstitions, but in his study of
attractive forces he speculated that the movement
of a lodestone was analogous to the soul in a body,
and that the great magnet of the Earth “turns her-
self about by magnetic and primary virtue,” which
some viewed as an “occult” explanation.
Among the first to recognize the histori-
cal significance and importance of scientific
experimentation and applications was Francis
Bacon (1561-1626), who became Attorney Gen-
eral and then Lord Chancellor of England under
James I. More a philosopher than a scientist, he
argued against mysticism and magic in his first
book, The Advancement of Learning (1605), and
recommended study of the “book of nature” by the
methods of direct observation and experiment. His
influential analysis of scientific method appeared
in 1620 with the title Novum Organum (New
Instrument), in contrast to Aristotle’s Organon
with its emphasis on deductive reasoning in
Bacon argued for the method of induction
in science, which induces the laws of nature as
generalizations from a large number of specific
observations. Well-planned experiments can shed
light on true causes if they proceed carefully from
particulars to general laws. He contrasted the
growth of the mechanical arts and crafts with the
decline of rationalistic philosophy:
The best explanation of these opposite for-
tunes is that, in the mechanical arts, the tal-
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 100

ents of many individuals combine to pro-
duce a single result, but in philosophy one
individual talent destroys many... For when
philosophy is severed from its roots in ex-
perience, whence it first sprouted and grew,
it becomes a dead thing.

Bacon recognized that collecting data must not be
haphazard. Observation and experimentation
should be organized in a systematic way. His
opposition to merely heaping up experimental data
is evident in his famous parable of the ant, spider
and bee:
The men of experiment are like the ant; they
only collect and use; the reasoners resemble
spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own
substance. But the bee takes a middle
course, it gathers its material from the
flowers of the garden and of the field, but
transforms and digests it by a power of its
Like the bee, the scientist must be both industrious
and imaginative to be truly creative and effective.
Bacon’s method depended on collecting a
large body of facts. He thought that an encyclo-
pedia about six times as large as Pliny’s monu-
mental Natural History (37 books) might suffice to
explain all natural phenomena. Study of a given
phenomenon should begin by classifying together
all facts relating to it, including a list of “positive
instances” involving the phenomenon, a list of
“negative instances” where it was absent, and
“degrees of comparison” to indicate variations.
Scientific knowledge could then be obtained from
such lists by inducing hypotheses, excluding the
weaker ones and testing further the stronger ones.
Not surprisingly, he did not think there was
sufficient evidence for either the Copernican or the
Ptolemaic system, but favored the Tychonic
system since it required neither a moving Earth nor
epicycle complexities.
Bacon illustrated his method with the
example of heat, in which positive instances
included the Sun’s rays, putrefaction, and flames.
Negative instances included the Moon’s rays, air,
and water, while degrees of comparison included
the variation of animal heat with exercise, or fric-
tional heat with the speed of rubbing. In this way
he reached the hypothesis that motion hidden
beneath the surface of phenomena produced the
sensations of heat. He believed that this invisible
level was atomic in nature and that heat was a
motion of particles. Ironically, one of his few
actual experiments was an impulsive act of stuff-
ing a chicken with snow to see if it would delay
putrefaction, which led to a chill and fever that
ended in his death.
Bacon emphasized that knowledge should
be “for the glory of the Creator and the relief of
man’s estate.” One year after he died, Bacon’s
ideas about organizing and applying science
appeared in his posthumous book The New
Atlantis (1627). In this utopian version of science,
he described an organization of scholars called the
“House of Salomon.” A team of these scholars
was responsible to gather information and collect
books, study these books and report on
developments in the mechanical and liberal arts.
Another team was to perform experiments, record
and classify their results, and try to draw practical
conclusions. A final team would devise new
experiments from these results, and formulate the
most general laws about nature. These ideas about
organizing scientific research had considerable
influence on the later development of scientific
societies, especially the Royal Society.

Descartes and Mechanistic Philosophy
The French philosopher and mathemati-
cian, René Descartes (1596-1650) developed a
contrasting approach to science. Like Bacon,
Descartes was not a professional scientist, but his
ideas were equally influential, especially on the
continent. Both tried to eliminate magical prin-
ciples and occult tendencies from science. But
while Bacon was a lawyer who believed in evi-
dence, Descartes was a mathematician who
believed in reasoning. He thought that science was
like geometry, in which Euclid’s axioms seemed to
stem from innate ideas that could be used to
deduce the structure of geometry. Thus science
could begin with a few “clear and simple ideas”
that would lead by a process of deduction, with
only a minimum of observations, to an un-
derstanding of the structure of the universe.
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 101

Descartes was educated by the Jesuits in
ancient languages, scholastic philosophy and
mathematics. Only in the latter study did he find
the clarity and certainty that he desired, so he left
school in 1612 to travel and think, including a
period of military service and three years in Paris
with scientific friends. In 1629 he withdrew to
Holland to prepare his works, and in 1637 he
published his Discourse on Method in French. It
consisted of two parts: his analysis of the
mathematical-deductive method of science, and an
outline of his mechanical view of the physical
world, expanded in 1644 into his Principia
In an appendix to the Discourse, Des-
cartes presented his ideas on the application of
algebra to geometry, thereby founding the field of
analytic geometry, along with Pierre Fermat (ca
1601-65). Descartes represented equations by
pairing values of x on a horizontal axis with cor-
responding values of y on a vertical axis to portray
geometric curves. For example, if y = x² then x =
1, 2, 3... correspond to y = 1, 4, 9... after squaring
the values of x. All such points graphed on these
so-called “Cartesian coordinates” will give a
smooth geometric curve, in this case a parabola. In
spite of this brilliant contribution, paving the way
for Newton’s calculus, Descartes failed to make
much use of mathematics in his mechanistic
theory. In his view, mathematics did not determine
the structure of the universe, but instead served as
a tool for describing the mechanical forms and
motions in the universe.
In trying to achieve the certainty of
mathematics in his mechanistic philosophy, Des-
cartes began with a method of radical doubt that
led him to the one thing he could not doubt, his
existence as a thinker who doubts, and thus his
celebrated Latin phrase “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I
think, therefore I am”). This indubitable proposi-
tion, clearly and distinctly perceived, led to the
general rule that clear and distinct ideas can be
considered as true. One such innate idea is the idea
of God as a perfect and infinite being. According
to Descartes, the idea of God must come from an
infinite being, and hence God must exist. This is
the most important link in the Cartesian chain of
deductions, since God’s perfection guarantees the
validity of reason and the reliability of clear and
distinct ideas.
Another innate idea, supported by the
belief that God does not deceive us, is the exis-
tence of the external world. Descartes defined
substance as objects or beings independent of our
thinking. God is the only absolute substance, but
there are two independent relative substances:
matter defined as extended and passive substance
(res extensa: extended thing), and mind defined as
unextended and active substance (res cogitans:
thinking thing). Inert matter as mere extension
cannot move itself, and thus God is the first cause
of motion:
It is wholly rational to assume that God,
since in the creation of matter He imparted
different motions to its parts, and preserves
all matter in the same way and conditions in
which He created it, so He similarly pre-
serves in it the same quantity of motion.
Descartes defined “quantity of motion” as the
product of mass and speed (mv = momentum) and
asserts the law of conservation of motion: if one
object in a collision loses mass or speed, the other
will gain an equal amount so that the total quantity
of motion in the world remains constant (Σmv =
constant). Thus for Descartes, God is more than
just a first cause, since His immutability ensures
the existence of nature and its laws.
In contrast with Bacon, Descartes be-
lieved he could deduce the laws of nature in a
mechanical universe: “Give me motion and ex-
tension and I will construct the world.” He goes
beyond Galileo’s “circular” inertia in stating the
principle of “rectilinear” inertia: a body in un-
restrained motion preserves its state of motion in a
straight line, thus implying an infinite universe.
The identity of matter with extension leads to the
concept of a “plenum” (full), in which matter is
infinitely divisible, does not permit a vacuum, and
fills all of space with a subtle invisible fluid.
Matter interacts only by contact, which forms
rotating vortices, or whirlpools, in the plenum
around celestial objects.
Thus Descartes explained the Copernican
universe by his vortex theory: the vortex of the
Sun carries the planets with their whirling vortices
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 102

around it, the outward pressures of each being
balanced by its neighbors throughout the universe.
The theory could even be viewed as geocentric, if
that was preferred by the Church, since the Earth
was at the center of its own vortex. Matter in
motion also explained the mystery of gravity: the
downward pressure of subtle matter in the Earth’s
vortex on larger particles. Magnetism is not the
occult action of a soul, but is caused by screw-
shaped particles, right-handed and left-handed for
attraction and repulsion. The vortex theory pro-
vided the first mechanical explanation for helio-
centric planetary motion, and was preferred in
France for nearly fifty years after Newton had
demonstrated its inadequacy. Such a mechanistic
approach seemed to cleanse science of not only the
occult, but of all mystery as well.
Descartes even applied his mechanistic
view to biology, treating animals as machines and
only humans as having a soul: a kind of “ghost in a
machine” to account for rationality and immor-
tality. The soul or mind consists of unextended
mental substance, the active agent of thought and
will. This extreme dualism separates mind and
body, leaving the mind free to operate independ-
ently from nature, and the body governed by
mechanical principles free of vitalism, except for
animal spirits carried by the blood. Genuine
knowledge must come from innate ideas in the
mind rather than from the senses, and nature was
stripped of wonder and made independent from
God. By 1650 the English philosopher Thomas
Hobbes (1588-1679) went the next step by elimi-
nating mind as an independent reality and devel-
oped a completely materialistic philosophy.
Thus Cartesian dualism tended to separate
science from religion and reinforce a growing
individualism, in which unextended minds had no
inherent connections with other minds. Descartes
suggested a point of interaction between the mind
and body in the pineal gland attached to the brain,
thinking that it was unique to humans. He was
shown to be wrong by the Danish naturalist Nico-
laus Steno (1638-1686), a Catholic convert and
eventual archbishop, who discovered the pineal
gland in lower animals. Steno also proposed the
organic origin of fossils and methods for dating
rock strata, emphasizing that “Scripture and Na-
ture agree” and the compatibility of science and

Boyle and Corpuscular Philosophy
The Christianized atomic theory of Gas-
sendi was popularized in England by Walter
Charleton (1620-1707), who later became physi-
cian to Charles II. Gassendi attributed the motion
of atoms to God, but Charleton suggested that the
motion of such inert atomic particles was a proof
of the existence of God. In The Darkness of Athe-
ism Refuted by the Light of Nature (1652), he
argued that an atheistic atomic theory could not
account for activity and order in the universe. He
also published an English paraphrase of Gas-
sendi’s Syntagma, entitled Physiologia Epicuro-
Gassendo-Charltoniana; or, A Fabrick of Science
Natural upon the Hypothesis of Atoms (1654),
which became the main source of Epicurean
atomic ideas in England.
Applications of the atomic theory were
begun in England by Robert Boyle (1627-1691),
who referred to it as the “corpuscular philosophy.”
Boyle, the fourteenth child of the Earl of Cork,
was a child prodigy who began the study of Gali-
leo’s work while traveling in Italy with a tutor in
his early teens. A fierce thunderstorm in Geneva
led him to make a lifelong commitment to Chris-
tian faith and its relation to science. Returning to
London in 1646, he began meeting with a group of
scientists calling themselves the “Invisible Col-
lege,” who had similar interests in the empirical
methods of Bacon and the iatrochemists. Boyle felt
that the best explanation of empirical observations
was by a revised version of the atomic theory.
Descartes had rejected atomism in his mechanical
philosophy because of his view that a vacuum was
Boyle’s corpuscular theory gained
support from news of Otto von Guericke’s ex-
periments with the vacuum produced by an air
pump in Germany. While at Oxford from 1654 to
1668, Boyle engaged Robert Hooke (1635-1702)
in 1657 to build an improved version of the air
pump, and together they began to experiment with
reduced air pressures. They showed that a ringing
bell produced no sound in a vacuum and that a
feather and lead ball fall at the same rate in an
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 103

evacuated jar. In his first scientific work, New
Experiments Physico-Mechanical Touching the
Spring of the Air and its Effects (1660), Boyle
described his experiments in both physics and the
physiology of respiration. By gradually exhausting
the air in a jar containing a mouse and a candle, he
observed the resulting expiration of the mouse at
about the same time as the candle.
In 1662 Boyle found the pressure-volume
law known by his name. He showed that the vol-
ume of a gas is inversely proportional to the ap-
plied pressure by pouring mercury in a U-tube
closed at one end. By increasing the column of
mercury, the pressure on the air in the closed end
of the tube compressed it to a volume that was
inversely proportional to the pressure (V = C/P) so
that their product remains constant, giving Boyle’s
law as PV = constant. He explained this “spring of
the air” by two corpuscular hypotheses: the
particles of air were either tiny stationary springs,
or they were small spherical particles in rapid
random motion whose collisions produced a pres-
sure that resisted compression.
Although Boyle believed in the possibil-
ity of the transmutation of gold, he transformed
alchemy into the rational science of chemistry with
the publication of his Sceptical Chymist (1661). He
ridiculed the four metaphysical elements of the
Greeks and the three mystical elements of the
alchemists. Instead, he defined an element as an
irreducible material substance that could be iden-
tified only by empirical methods. He made a clear
distinction between elements and compounds, the
former being any substance that cannot be broken
down into simpler substances, and the latter
consisting of two or more elements that can be
separated and then recombined to form the original
compound. Boyle separated phosphorus from urine
in 1680, independently identifying the first new
element not already known. He was unaware that
it had been discovered about ten years earlier by
German alchemist Hennig Brand (ca. 1630-1710).
Boyle strongly supported the Reformation
thought of Luther and Calvin on the radical sov-
ereignty of God, resulting in the rejection of Aris-
totle’s view of intrinsic powers in nature. They
viewed nature as entirely passive, subject to the
command of God as the only active principle in
the world. Boyle joined in this criticism of Aris-
totle’s concept of nature as a living and active
being. He felt that it detracted from the honor and
glory of God as Creator, ascribing to nature what
belonged to God. Thus, in his corpuscular phi-
losophy, material bodies were completely passive
and totally dependent on God. In The Excellency
and Grounds of the Mechanical Hypothesis
(1674), he describes the role of God in his me-
chanical philosophy:
Thus the universe being once framed by
God and the laws of motion settled and all
upheld by his perpetual concourse and gen-
eral providence; the same philosophy
teaches, that the phenomena of the world are
physically produced by the mechanical
properties of the parts of matter, and that
they operate upon one another according to
mechanical laws. ‘Tis of this kind of cor-
puscular philosophy, that I speak.
But the emphasis was shifting from the Reforma-
tion view of God as sovereign Redeemer to God as
a sovereign Ruler of the world machine.

Scientific Societies and the Puritan Ethic
The Baconian ideals of experimental and
institutional science began to bear fruit in the
1640s in close conjunction with Puritanism and the
English Revolution (1640-1660). Robert Boyle
was a leading figure in this movement, having
close relations with Puritans, though himself a
moderate Royalist. His group of associates in
London became known as the “Invisible College”
because they had no fixed meeting-place. They
were influenced by the Puritan ideal of edification
through mutual cooperation in groups, and
believed that science could further the glory of
God and the welfare of humans. One of Boyle’s
first essays was a call for the free communication
of useful scientific information. He was also active
in a number of projects for translation of the
Scriptures, including the Turkish New Testament,
the Indian Bible, and the Company for the Propa-
gation of the Gospel in New England.
About 1645 an informal group of me-
chanical philosophers in London began meeting at
Gresham College in Bishopsgate, which had been
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 104

a center of experimental philosophy and the study
of medicine, astronomy, and navigation since
1598, before any university existed in London. The
leading spirit of this so-called “Philosophical
College” was the Puritan clergyman John Wilkins
(1614-1672), whose Discourse Concerning a New
Planet (1640) helped to popularize the Copernican
system and to harmonize it with Calvinist theology.
He became Oliver Cromwell’s brother-in-law in
1656. Of the ten known members of this group, six
were Puritans siding with the Parliamentarians, and
only one was definitely Anglican and Royalist.
Several Puritans at Oxford University
were removed from their posts when Charles I
occupied Oxford and made it his capital in 1642.
Oxford fell to Cromwell in 1646, and two years
later a number of Royalist professors were
replaced by Parliamentarians, including John
Wilkins and several others from the London based
“Philosophical College.” After Charles I was
apprehended and beheaded in 1649, Puritanism
shifted from a position of opposition to one of
power, with Cromwell installed as Lord Protector
in 1653. The Puritan ascendancy marked the
beginning of a new emphasis on academic free-
dom, in which old philosophies and new scientific
ideas were both allowed free expression. However,
the Puritan coherence that sustained the
Revolution was insufficient to support the Com-
monwealth after the death of Cromwell.
With the restoration of Charles II in 1660,
many scientists appointed by the Commonwealth
left Oxford and returned to London, which became
the main center of science in England. A meeting
at Gresham College in 1660 proposed the founding
of a “College for the promoting of Physico-
Mathematical Experimental Learning,” and elected
John Wilkins as chairman. In 1662, Charles II
granted a Royal Charter incorporating the group as
“The Royal Society for the Improvement of
Natural Knowledge,” with Wilkins as first secre-
tary and Henry Oldenburg (ca 1617-1677) as sec-
ond secretary. Oldenburg was a German busi-
nessman with extensive European connections,
who handled the Society’s correspondence and
conceived the idea of publishing a scientific jour-
nal. In March of 1665, the first issue of The
Philosophical Transactions appeared.
Membership of the Royal Society in-
creased from about one hundred at its founding in
1660 to more than two hundred in the 1670s. The
first Curator of Experiments was Robert Hooke,
who proposed statutes in 1663 that were pervaded
by the Baconian influence and recommended “not
meddling with Divinity, Metaphysics, Moralls,
Politicks, Grammar, Rhetorick, or Logick.” In the
religious and political atmosphere of the Restora-
tion, the Puritan affiliations of many of the mem-
bers of the Royal Society became problematic. Out
of the 68 Fellows in 1663 for whom information is
available, some 42 (62%) had strong Puritan
leanings while 26 were Royalist.
About the same time in Paris, Marin
Mersenne (1588-1648) initiated informal scientific
meetings and correspondence. The wealthy
Parisian Habert de Montmor organized later
meetings and formalized the Montmor Academy
by a constitution in 1657 that declared its purpose
to be “the clearer knowledge of the works of God,
and the improvement of the conveniences of life,
in the Arts and Science which seek to establish
When the Montmor Academy requested
aid from Louis XIV’s minister, Jean Colbert, he
decided to establish a new scientific society. In
1666 the Paris Académie des Sciences was
founded under the patronage of the crown with
twenty one members, increasing to about fifty by
the end of the century. In contrast with the self-
supporting amateurs of the Royal Society, the
Academicians were professional scientists, several
recruited from other countries, who were paid a
salary by the King to work as a group on problems
set by the royal ministers.


The Clock and other Contributions of Huygens
One of the most important foreign mem-
bers of the Paris Academy, hired by Colbert in
1666, was the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens
(1629-1695). In 1655 he had developed a better
way to grind lenses, which he used to construct
more powerful telescopes. A year later he identi-
fied the rings of Saturn and announced the dis-
covery of a satellite of Saturn. He named it Titan,
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 105

which is Saturn’s largest moon. Another foreign
member of the Paris Academy, the Italian
astronomer Giovanni Cassini (1625-1712), found
four more moons and a gap in the rings of Saturn
in 1675.
Using Galileo’s laws of the pendulum in
1656, Huygens greatly improved the accuracy of
measuring time by constructing the first pendulum
clock, in which a weight-driven mechanism main-
tained the oscillations. He made a micrometer in
1658 that gave a similar improvement in measur-
ing angles with the telescope. In 1674 he invented
the spring-driven clock regulated by a balance
wheel, making possible the pocket watch. Huygens
was elected to the Royal Society in 1663, even
before he joined the Paris Academy. He moved
back to Holland in 1681 when Louis XIV began
moving against Protestants.
In addition to his practical inventions,
Huygens was an outstanding mathematical physi-
cist. In his Horolgium Oscillatorium Sive de Motu
Pendulorum (1673), he applied mathematics to the
ideas of Galileo and Descartes, supporting the
Cartesian vortex theory. He derived the formula
for the period T (time) of small-amplitude
oscillations of a simple pendulum, of length L:
T = 2π L/g ,
from which he obtained an accurate measurement
of the acceleration of gravity at slightly more than
g = 32 ft/s² (9.8 m/s²) by measuring the time for
many oscillations. He invented the cycloidal pen-
dulum, in which the swing is constrained to the
form of a cycloid, and showed that its period was
independent of the amplitude of its swing. His
analysis of oscillating rigid objects (physical pen-
dulums), established the basis for the mathematical
study of rotation.
New Mechanical Ideas
In discussing rotation, Huygens also de-
scribed his theory of uniform circular motion, such
as an object whirling on a string. He derived the
concept he called “centrifugal force” in 1659,
which he viewed as the outward inertial tendency
of a rotating body to follow a straight line away
from its curved path. He showed that this cen-
trifugal force varied as the square of the speed v
and inversely as the radius R of the circle, later
recognizing its dependence on the mass m of the
rotating object (Figure 5.3), in the form:
F = mv²/R .
In 1669 Huygens set up a whirlpool experiment in
a bowl of water, which showed that bits of wax
were drawn to the middle, apparently confirming
the Cartesian theory that gravity was caused by the
outward tendency of the Earth’s vortex displacing
heavier objects inward. In this view, weight
resulted from a balancing of the centrifugal force

Figure 5.3 Huygen’s Centrifugal Force Idea
Outward centrifugal force was later recognized
to be the reaction to an inward centripetal force
that produces a centripetal acceleration: the
change in velocity toward the center of a circle
that produces circular motion. A point with tan-
gential velocity v for a time t moves a distance
vt and would have to accelerate at rate a
through the radial distance at²/2 (from Galileo’s
law) to remain on the circle. The resulting right
triangle with sides R and vt has hypotenuse
R+at²/2, which are related by the Pythagorean
R²+(vt)² = (R+at²/2)² = R²+Rat²+(at²/2)²
so v² = Ra + a²t²/4
Actual (smooth) circular motion corresponds to
the limiting value of a as t approaches zero, or a
centripetal acceleration given by
= (limit of a as t→0) = v²/R.
Centripetal force is then F = ma
= mv²/R, as
shown independently by Newton.
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 106

of the vortex. Experiments with a revolving clay
sphere revealed an equatorial bulge, explaining the
shape of Jupiter and implying the same for the
Huygens reported his solution to the
problem of two colliding bodies to the Royal Soci-
ety in 1668. The special case of an inelastic col-
lision (Figure 5.4a) in which the two bodies stick
together was also presented at this time by John
Wallis (1616-1703) and Christopher Wren (1632-
1723). For a mass m
with speed v
colliding with
a mass m
with speed v
, they obtained the final
speed V from conservation of the “quantity of mo-
tion” (mv):
Σmv = m
+ m
= (m
+ m
For a perfectly elastic collision, in which
the speed of approach for two colliding bodies is
equal to their speed of separation after impact
(Figure 5.4b), Huygens showed that the Cartesian
quantity of motion is not conserved unless the
directions are taken into account. This leads to the
concept of momentum as mass times velocity (a
vector with both magnitude and direction) instead
of just speed, where the total
momentum is conserved if the
momenta of objects with
opposite velocities are sub-
tracted. But he also identified
the quantity mv² as another
conserved quantity in perfectly
elastic collisions that can be
added without concern for di-
rection, later called “vis viva”
(living force) and leading
eventually to the energy con-
Ten years later Huy-
gens published a wave like
theory of light in his Traité de
Lumière (1678). His waves
were impulses in a finely di-
vided aether, rather than peri-
odic oscillations. He states the
important idea, known as
Huygens’ principle, that each
aether particle receiving an
impulse becomes a luminous
source transmitting this im-
pulse in every direction. He
was able to use this idea to
explain the laws of reflection
and refraction, and even the
phenomenon of double refrac-
tion in calcite crystals discov-
ered by Erasmus Bartholinus
in 1669. Contrary to Descartes,
his waves traveled at a finite
m m m
m m m m
1 1 2 2
1 2 1 2
v V
v V v V
1 2
1 2 1 2
(a) Perfectly Inelastic Collision: Equal Final Velocity = V
Before Collision After
(b) Elastic Collision: Approach Velocity = Separation Velocity

Figure 5.4 Conservation Laws in Inelastic and Elastic Collisions
(a) In perfectly inelastic collisions, two objects with initial mo-
menta m
and m
coallesce with a common velocity V as first
predicted from conservation of momentum by Wallis and Wren:
+ m
= (m
+ m
)V so V =


(b) For an elastic collision, Huygens applied both conservation of
momentum and vis viva to two masses m
and m
with velocities v
and v
in the form:
+ m
= m
+ m
or m
- V
) = m
- v
) ,

+ m
² = m
² + m
² or m
² -V
²) = m
² -v
The second equation (conservation of vis viva) divided by the first
equation (conservation of momentum), as shown on the right give:
+ V
= V
+ v
or v
- v
= V
- V
showing that the approach velocity is equal to the separation
velocity in elastic collisions.
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 107

Another foreign member of the Paris
Academy of Sciences, the Danish astronomer Ole
Roemer (1644-1710), demonstrated the finite
speed of light. He used the pendulum clock to
detect that the moons of Jupiter had periods that
were slightly longer (about 26 seconds) when the
Earth is receding from Jupiter than when it is ap-
proaching (Figure 5.5). He recognized that this
was due to the increasing distance that light had to
travel in reaching the Earth in each orbit of a moon
(42.5 hours for the moon Io).
In 1676 Roemer announced to the Paris
Academy that an eclipse of one of the moons
would be ten minutes later than the time predicted
from the average period as measured by Giovanni
Cassini in 1668. He then calculated that light
would take 22 minutes to cross the Earth’s orbit
(modern value: 16 minutes). Huygens combined
this with the diameter of the Earth’s orbit, deter-
mined by Cassini and Jean Richer in 1671, finding
the speed of light to be about 230 million m/s, or
about three-fourths the modern value.

The Air Pump and Other Machines
As suggested by the work of Boyle and
Hooke, the air pump was one of the most impor-
tant devices in establishing the scientific revolu-
tion. It was invented in 1650 by the German
engineer Otto von Guericke (1602-1686) in the
Protestant city of Magdeburg where he served as
burgermeister. He used the principle of the water
pump, but with better fitting parts to make it nearly
airtight. He showed that a close-fitting piston in an
evacuated cylinder could not be removed by the
effort of twenty men.
In 1654 von Guericke demonstrated the
power of a vacuum to Emperor Ferdinand III by
evacuating two large metal hemispheres fitted to-
gether along a greased flange. Air pressure held
these “Magdeburg hemispheres” together so tight-
¤ ¤
¤ ¤
Jupiter and
its moon Io:
T = 42.5 s
Orbital diameter d = 3 x 10 m
Light crosses orbit in t = 1000 s
T + 13s
T - 13s
(Light takes 13s to go distance
earth goes in T = 42.5 h)

Figure 5.5 Roemer’s and Huygen’s Method of Measuring the Speed of Light
Roemer determined that light from Jupiter’s moon Io takes 13 seconds longer between eclipses than its
average period around Jupiter of T = 42.5 hours when the Earth is moving away from Jupiter, and 13
seconds shorter when the Earth is moving toward Jupiter. From this he estimated that light crosses the
Earth’s orbital diameter d in a time t = 22 minutes (modern value is about 1000 seconds).
Huygens used this to calculate the speed of light from its orbital diameter d. Using modern values, this
gives: c = d/t = 3×10
m/1000s = 3 ×10
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 108

ly that a team of sixteen horses could not pull them
apart. He also did some of the vacuum ex-
periments that Boyle performed independently a
decade later.
Even in an early study of electrical ef-
fects, Guericke took a mechanical approach. In
1672 he described the first frictional electric
machine to produce electricity by rubbing. He
mounted a globe of sulfur on a shaft with a crank
so that the globe could be charged by holding one
hand on it while turning the crank. It is interesting
to note that few electrical discoveries were made
during the mechanically-oriented seventeenth cen-
tury, but Guericke’s device did initiate a series of
improved frictional machines.
Work with the air pump led the French
Huguenot physicist Denis Papin (1647-1712) to an
early concept of a steam engine. After serving as
an assistant to Huygens in the Paris Academy of
Sciences, he left Paris due to the persecution of
Protestants and became one of Boyle’s assistants.
He developed a “steam digester” or pressure
cooker, complete with safety valve, for cooking at
higher temperatures. By boiling water in a cylinder
with a piston, he showed the possibility of using
the pressure of the expanding steam on the piston
to do work. Robert Hooke suggested the
possibility of creating a vacuum in a cylinder by
condensing steam, and later contacted Thomas
Newcomen (1663-1729), who developed the first
effective steam engine using the resulting air pres-
sure to pump water from coal mines.
Hooke also studied the action of springs
and found that spiral springs oscillate with a con-
stant period. Huygens used this observation to
make the first spring-driven clock, although Hooke
contested the priority of his work. In 1678 Hooke
discovered that the force tending to restore a
stretched spring or other elastic material is pro-
portional to the distance that the stretched end is
displaced from its equilibrium position, now called
Hooke’s law. He developed a spring-driven clock
mechanism to keep a telescope pointed to a given
celestial position when it is mounted on an axis
parallel to the Earth’s rotation. He also introduced
the cross-hair for precise positioning of a
telescope, and the vernier for reading a fraction of
the scale in measuring its orientation.
The Microscope
Invented about the same time as the tele-
scope, the microscope had a less dramatic devel-
opment but was no less important in helping to
establish mechanical and corpuscular ideas.
Galileo tried to use an inverted telescope as a
microscope, reporting in 1614 that, “I have seen
flies which look as big as lambs, and have learned
that they...walk on glass, although hanging feet
upwards, by inserting the point of their nails in the
pores of the glass.” Optical theory of the
microscope was advanced by Kepler, Torricelli,
and Huygens, the latter inventing an improved
The Italian physician Marcello Malpighi
(1628-1694) made the first major microscope dis-
coveries, working at the University of Pisa under
the influence of Borelli. In 1660, using a single
lens that he called a “flea glass,” Malpighi saw that
blood flowed through a network of tiny vessels
over the lungs of a frog, indicating that respiration
involved transfer of air to the blood. His
observations revealed hair-like blood vessels,
eventually called “capillaries.” They provided the
missing link between the smallest visible arteries
and veins, completing Harvey’s theory of blood
circulation. Malpighi also made important studies
of insect and plant anatomy. Like Galileo, his
arguments against ancient authorities and in favor
of “mechanist surgeons” led to his formal indict-
ment at Rome in 1689 by church authorities, who
claimed the microscope distorted reality.
Robert Hooke and the Dutch naturalist
Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680) also made studies
of insects. Swammerdam founded modern ento-
mology with his Historia Insectorum Generalis
(1669), but his most famous discovery was the red
blood corpuscle, announced in 1658, and now
known to be the oxygen-carrying part of the blood.
Robert Hooke published his observations with a
compound microscope in his book Micrographia
(1665), written in English. It contained fifty-seven
remarkable illustrations of plant structures and
insect anatomies, unrivaled by anyone but
Hooke’s method of making thin sections
was of special importance. But his most important
discovery was what he called “cells” in plant tissue
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 109

when he observed the honeycomb structure of a
thin sliver of cork. The living cell came to have a
role in biology during the nineteenth century
similar to that of the atom in chemistry and
physics, being the basic unit of an organism that is
capable of independent functioning.
The most unusual of the early microsco-
pists was the Dutch draper Antoni van Leeuwen-
hoek (1632-1723). He retained the use of single
lenses, grinding more than four hundred of his
own during his long lifetime. They were very
small, but with a short focal length that could
magnify up to more than two hundred times. He
reported his discoveries in letters to the Royal
Society that were translated and published in the
Philosophical Transactions, including human
capillaries, red blood cells, yeast cells, and para-
sites on fleas, inspiring the English poet Jonathan
Swift to write the following lines:
So naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ‘em
And so proceed ad infinitum.
In 1677 Leeuwenhoek discovered the one-celled
animals now called protozoa in a drop of water,
and “animalcules” (spermatozoa) in human semen.
In 1683 he described what were apparently
bacteria at the optical limit of his lenses, not to be
observed again for over a century. In 1680 he was
elected to both the Royal Society and the Paris


Early Newtonian Ideas
During the latter half of the seventeenth
century, Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and his con-
temporaries corrected and correlated the mechani-
cal concepts of Galileo, Kepler, and Huygens
within a unified heliocentric system. For the first
time, both terrestrial and celestial motions could be
understood in terms of the same physical causes,
and the world could truly be viewed as a universe.
Since Newton was the central figure in the
achievement of this consistent understanding of
the mechanical universe, it is often called the
Newtonian synthesis. But the emergence of this
new world view involved many other scientists,
and it is difficult if not impossible to assign credit
Newton was born on Christmas Day 1642
at Woolsthorpe Manor, near Grantham in Lin-
colnshire. The date is not as messianic as it might
appear since England was still on the Julian cal-
endar, having rejected the popish Gregorian cal-
endar in which the corrected date was January 5,
1643. His father died before his birth and he grew
up on the farm of his maternal grandparents. As a
shy schoolboy, he made clocks and other me-
chanical devices, but had no interest in farming.
With financial help from an uncle, New-
ton enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge, in
1661, and studied mathematics under Isaac Barrow
(1630-1677). Barrow also had strong interests in
alchemy and the Hermetic philosophers, whose
empiricism had left room for the vital spirit in
nature that Descartes had tried to eliminate. When
Newton finished his B.A. degree in 1665, he
returned home for nearly two years to escape the
Black Plague that was spreading in many English
cities. During his isolation, he had time to start
formulating his ideas.
In a manuscript note some fifty years
later, Newton described his recollection of those
unusually creative years:
In the beginning of the year 1665 I found the
Method of approximating series and the rule
for reducing any dignity of any Binomial
into such a series. The same year in May I
found the Method of Tangents of Gregory
and Slusius, and in November had the direct
Method of Fluxions, and the next year in
January had the Theory of Colours and in
May following I had entrance into the
inverse method of Fluxions. And the same
year I began to think of gravity extending to
the orb of the Moon and...from Kepler’s rule
of the periodical times of the Planets..., I
deduced that the forces which keep the
Planets in their orbs must be reciprocally as
the squares of their distances from the
centres about which they revolve; and
thereby compared the force requisite to keep
the Moon in her Orb with the force of the
gravity at the surface of the Earth, and found
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 110

them answer pretty nearly. All this was in
the two Plague years of 1665-1666. For in
those days I was in the prime of my age for
invention and minded Mathematics and
Philosophy more than at any time since.
If Newton’s memory was correct, these
were indeed “miracle years,” comprising the three
most important discoveries of one of the greatest
centuries in the history of science. The direct and
inverse methods of fluxions marked the beginning
of differential and integral calculus, the basis of
almost all later developments in mathematical sci-
ence. The theory that white light consists of all the
colors of the spectrum established the foundation
of modern optics. The inverse-square law of
gravity became the unifying concept of the new
mechanical universe, ending the Greek division
between celestial and terrestrial regions. Un-
doubtedly, Newton’s early work was staggering,
but documentary evidence seems to suggest some
For more than two decades, much of
Newton’s work remained unknown except for his
theory of colors. After returning to Cambridge, he
received his M.A. in 1668 and became Lucasian
Professor in 1669 on the recommendation of Bar-
row, who resigned to study theology. From his
early experiments, he recognized that lenses act
like prisms in dispersing light into a spectrum,
causing “chromatic aberration” in refracting tele-
scopes. In 1668, he constructed a reflecting tele-
scope by using a concave mirror instead of a lens.
Although this first reflecting telescope was only
six inches long, it had a magnification of forty
times and was equivalent to a six-foot refracting
telescope. He built a larger one in 1671, and
demonstrated it to Charles II before presenting it to
the Royal Society.
As a result of this success, Newton was
elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1672 and
presented his first paper, describing his theory of
colors. Descartes tried to explain color mechani-
cally as the result of differing rates of spin of tiny
spheres in the luminous aether, modifying white
light passing through it. Newton challenged this
view with his prism experiments, showing that
white light was not simply modified, but was dis-
persed into an elongated spectrum with red light
refracted the least and violet bent the most. Using
a second inverted prism, he showed that the col-
ored rays could be refracted back together to form
white light again (Figure 5.6). Thus he demon-
strated that white light consisted of many rays,
each having its own color and angle of refraction.
Robert Hooke, who favored a wave theory of light,
criticized Newton’s paper for avoiding a theory of
the nature of light, leading the touchy Newton to
distance himself from the Royal Society.
White light = ROYGBIV
Inverted Prism

Figure 5.6 Newton’s Demonstration of the Composite Nature of White Light
Newton showed that the colors of the spectrum are components of white light. Different colors are re-
fracted through different angles, causing dispersion into the spectrum. By placing an inverted prism in
the path of the dispersed light, Newton was able to demonstrate a reversed refraction of the component
colors, combining them to obtain white light again. He designated seven colors in the spectrum: red,
orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet (abbreviated by the acronym ROYGBIV).
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 111

There are some reasons to question New-
ton’s recollection of how much of his theory of
gravity was completed in 1666. The evidence
suggests that he had not yet developed clear ideas
of mass, inertia or force. From 1666 to 1679 he
worked on a theory of gravity based on the vortex
ideas of Descartes. In 1679 he even suggested that
the Sun and planets might be governed by “some
principle of unsociableness in the aethers of their
vortices.” Using his method of fluxions, he had
derived Huygens’ centrifugal force law, apparently
viewing circular motion as having an outward
tendency. Thus the force on the Moon in its orbit
would have involved the tendency of the Moon to
recede. Only later did he introduce the term
“centripetal” (center seeking) for the inward force
on an object required for orbital motion instead of
its natural straight-line inertial motion.
Whatever Newton’s conceptual frame-
work at the time, the inverse-square force on the
planets is easily obtained for the special case of a
circular orbit of radius R and circumference 2πR,
in which the speed of a planet of period T (time for
one orbit) is v = 2πR/T. Combining this result with
Huygens’ formula F = mv²/R gives:
F = mv
/R = m(2πR/T)
/R = 4π
Kepler’s third law T
= kR
in this equation gives:

F = 4π
= 4π
which shows that the force F varies inversely as
the square of the distance R.
Newton claimed that the association of
this inverse-square law (1/R
) with gravity on
Earth occurred to him when he saw an apple fall-
ing down and connected it with the “fall of the
Moon” to remain in its orbit (Figure 5.7). From the
orbit of the Moon with radius R (60 Earth radii)
and period T (27.3 days), he calculated that the
Moon falls 0.0044 feet per second in following its
orbit instead of a straight-line inertial path. Since
the apple is 60 times closer to the center of the
Earth, the inverse-square law implies that it should
fall faster by a factor of 60². This gives .0044 x
3600 = 15.8 feet in one second, “pretty nearly” the
16 feet obtained from Galileo’s law of free fall.
Some historians believe that Newton may have
waited to publish these results until he was able to
show that the gravity of spherical objects like the
Earth and Moon act as if their matter were
concentrated at their centers.
In the meantime, Robert Hooke was try-
ing to develop Gilbert’s view that gravity was
similar to magnetic attraction. In discussing the
comet of 1664 with Christopher Wren, he sug-
gested that the gravitational attraction of the Sun
caused the greater curvature of its orbit near the
Sun. After Huygens’ formula for centrifugal force
appeared in 1673, several scientists including
Hooke, Wren and Edmund Halley (1656-1742)
derived the inverse-square law for circular orbits.
T=27.3 days
Lunar orbit

Figure 5.7 Inverse-Square Law for the Moon
Newton said that he recognized the cause of the
Moon’s orbit as a gravitational attraction to-
ward the Earth when he saw an apple fall.
Combining the formula for centripetal acceler-
ation a = v²/R with the orbital speed v = 2πr/T
and the values for the orbital radius R = 60
Earth radii and period T = 27.3 days gives:
a = v²/R = 4π²R/T² = .0088 ft/s² = 32/60².
This is less than g at the surface of the Earth by
a factor of 60² (a = g/60²), so Newton
concluded that gravitational force diminishes
as the inverse square of the distance from the
center of the Earth since force is proportional
to acceleration.
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 112

When Oldenburg died in 1677, Hooke became
Secretary of the Royal Society and wrote to New-
ton in 1679, inviting him to resume correspon-
Newton’s reply was stiffly courteous, but
he did suggest an ingenious test of the Earth’s
rotation by dropping an object from a tall tower.
He argued that since the top of a tower is further
from the center of the Earth than the bottom, the
top must move faster, just as the outside of a wheel
moves faster than the center. Thus a falling object
should move slightly forward to the east. Newton
also claimed that it would follow a spiral path in
relation to the center of the Earth “if its gravity be
supposed uniform.”
Hooke immediately recognized Newton’s
error of assuming uniform gravity. In his reply he
suggested an inverse-square force of attraction
toward the center of the Earth, which he believed
would produce “a kind of Elleptueid.” Hooke’s
last letter remained unanswered, but Newton ap-
parently returned to the problem of planetary
motion. With the new insight of attraction, he was
able to show that an inverse-square force acted
between the centers of spherical bodies and
produced elliptical orbits.
One day in 1684, Hooke, Halley and
Wren met at a coffeehouse, where their discussion
turned to the problem of demonstrating elliptical
orbits from the inverse-square law. Hooke claimed
to have solved the problem, but would not share
his solution, even when offered a prize by Wren. A
few months later Halley visited Newton at
Cambridge and posed the problem to him. Newton
immediately replied that he had computed an
elliptical orbit from an inverse-square force of
attraction on a planet toward the center of the Sun,
but unfortunately was unable to find his calcula-
tions. Three months later, he sent Halley a paper
that successfully derived all three of Kepler’s laws.
Recognizing the importance of Newton’s
achievement, Halley returned to Cambridge and
urged him to write a book on his new dynamics of
the solar system.

The Newtonian Synthesis
For nearly two years, Newton concen-
trated on writing his Philosophiae Naturalis Prin-
cipia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of
Natural Philosophy), usually referred to as the
Principia. It is perhaps the single most important
scientific treatise in the history of science, and it
absorbed all of Newton’s energies. His secretary
Humphrey Newton (no relation) noted that, “He
ate very sparingly, nay, ofttimes he has forget [sic]
to eat at all, so that...when I have reminded him,
[he] would reply, Have I; and then making to the
Table would eat a bit or two standing.”
When Book I of three projected volumes
reached the Royal Society in 1685, Hooke imme-
diately claimed that Newton had plagiarized his
ideas from earlier correspondence. Newton was
furious and proceeded to delete all references to
Hooke. Although the Society at first planned to
publish the Principia, it was short of funds, so
Halley agreed to pay the expenses himself. This
act of generosity appeased Newton, who then
lifted his threat to withhold Book III and agreed to
full publication. Halley received the completed
manuscript in April 1686, and it was published in
the summer of 1687. In the second edition (1713),
Newton even acknowledged the independent
deduction of the inverse-square law by Hooke,
Halley and Wren.
In the Principia, Newton develops the full
implications of the concept of gravitational
attraction. In the first section, labeled
“Definitions,” he defines the center-seeking cen-
tripetal force required to keep the planets in their
orbits, in contrast with Huygens’ outward cen-
trifugal force to balance the vortex. The attraction
of “universal gravitation” extends across space,
acting on apples, moons and planets. Such an
“active force” was viewed as “occult” in the
Cartesian tradition because of the lack of a tangi-
ble intervening mechanism. But Newton’s
mathematical demonstrations reveal the value of
such a force, even if he would “frame no hypothe-
ses” about its source.
Although the use of an active force in
dynamics appears to be a new idea for Newton, it
was not completely alien to his thinking. During
his silent years, Newton followed Isaac Barrow in
extensive alchemical researches and theological
studies that supported this idea. His work in al-
chemy had been from the corpuscular viewpoint,
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 113

leading him to the conclusion that active forces
influence particles of matter. Hermetic writings
reinforced this idea with their emphasis on vitality
and activity in nature. His early notebooks refer to
the Cambridge Platonist Henry More (1614-1687),
who challenged Descartes’ idea of mind as
unextended and suggested that infinite space is
filled with spirit that acts on matter. Since only
God is infinite, He fills space and gives it life. In
Newton’s words, God is present “from infinity to
infinity; He governs all things.” Newton would not
allow Cartesian mechanisms to crowd out God’s
active and creative role in His world, identifying
space as the “sensorium of God.”
However, the Principia suppresses these
mystical and religious motivations in favor of the
strict logical form of Euclidean geometry. After
the definitions of mechanical terms such as mass,
momentum, acceleration, and force, there is a short
chapter entitled “Axioms or Laws of Motion.”
The three laws of Newton appear here as the basis
for his study of motion, although the first two had
their origin in the work of Galileo and Descartes,
and the Principia credits the last to Wren and
Huygens. Newton indicates their fundamental
nature by identifying them as axioms without
proof, although their validity is consistent with
empirical evidence. The first two laws define
inertia and force, while the third law introduces the
concept of a reaction force:
Law I. Every body continues in its state of
rest or of uniform motion in a right line,
unless it is compelled to change that state by
forces impressed upon it....
Law II. The change of motion is propor-
tional to the motive force impressed; and it
is made in the direction of the right line in
which that force is impressed....
Law III. To every action there is always op-
posed an equal reaction.
The “motion” of a body is its momentum (mv) and
both it and force are known as “vector” quantities,
having both magnitude and direction. In a corol-
lary, Newton gives the rule for combining two
forces as the diagonal of a parallelogram formed
by the vectors.
The second law is the basic mechanical
principle of cause and effect. The definition of
force is that which changes the momentum. In the
usual case where the mass of an object does not
change, the force F (bold face for vectors) is equal
to the mass m times the change in velocity
(magnitude and direction), which is the accelera-
tion a, giving:
F = ma.
For an object whirling on a string, the centripetal
force on the object is the inward tension of the
string, and the resulting effect is the inward cen-
tripetal acceleration. The outward tension pulling
at the center is the equal and opposite centrifugal
reaction of the third law.
After the introductory sections on defini-
tions and axioms, the rest of the Principia divides
into three books of propositions derived as theo-
rems from the axioms. In Book I, entitled The
Motion of Bodies, Newton proved 98 propositions
on motion for various kinds of forces. He derives
Kepler’s second law for any centripetal force to-
ward a fixed point. If a planet receives impulses
toward the Sun at equal intervals of time, its iner-
tial motion will change direction each time,
forming a series of equal triangles with the Sun at
one vertex, so that “equal areas are swept out in
equal times.” Passing to the limit of an infinite
number of instantaneous impulses gives a con-
tinuous orbit.
Newton next obtains Kepler’s first law by
showing that if the attracting force varies as the
inverse square of the distance from a focal point,
the orbit will be an ellipse, parabola or hyperbola,
depending on the initial velocity that starts the
motion. Kepler’s third law also follows from the
laws of motion for elliptical orbits caused by an
inverse-square centripetal forces (Figure 5.8). Al-
though Newton derived these theorems for parti-
cles, he next shows that homogeneous spheres
attract each other as though their masses were
concentrated at their centers.
Book II, of the Principia, entitled The
Motion of Bodies in Resisting Media, discusses
mainly to the motion of bodies in fluids, including
the Cartesian aether. Here he shows how to ac-
count for the effect of air resistance on objects like
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 114

projectiles and pendulums. He also calculates the
speed of sound waves by using Boyle’s law for the
compression of air, erroneously assuming constant
temperature. Finally he refutes Descartes by
showing that the period of a planet in a vortex
varies as the square of the distance from the center,
rather than the three-halves power required by
Kepler’s third law (T
= kR
→ T = kR
). In a
frictional fluid, the orbit would not even be stable.
Book III, entitled The System of the
World, applies the hypothetical laws of the first
two books to the universe as observed. The central
concept is the law of universal gravitation, which
generalizes the inverse-square law to the mutual
attraction of any two bodies of masses m and M
separated by a distance R (Figure 5.8), or in
modern notation:
F = G mM/R
where G is a universal constant. This law, perhaps
the most important in the history of science,
unifies terrestrial and celestial motions, assigning
the same cause to the motion of projectiles and
planets. It even leads Newton to the theoretical
possibility of artificial satellites circling the Earth:
That by means of centripetal forces the
planets may be retained in certain orbits, we
may easily understand, if we consider the
motions of projectiles; for a stone that is
projected...the greater the velocity is with
which it is projected, the farther it goes
before it falls to the Earth. We may therefore
suppose the velocity to be so increased, that
it would describe an arc of 1, 2, 5, 10, 100,
F = GmM/R²
Planetary orbit
of radius R
F = ma

Figure 5.8 Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation and Planetary Motion
Newton generalized the inverse-square force of attraction between the Moon and Earth to include a
similar force between any two masses in the universe. From his second and third laws of motion, he
concluded that the force varies as the product of the masses m and M of each object. He showed that
a spherical mass acts as though its mass were concentrated at its center, so that if the centers of m
and M are separated by a distance R, the force of universal gravitation is given by
F = GmM/R².
Applied to a planet of mass m with a circular orbit of radius R, period T and speed v = 2πR/T,
moving around the Sun of mass M>>m, the planet experiences centripetal force F = ma = mv²/R from
the Sun’s gravity, so that
F = GmM/R² = mv²/R = m(2πR/T)²/R = 4π²R/T².
This expression leads directly to T² = (4π²/GM)R³, which is easily recognized as Kepler’s third law
T² = kR³, where Kepler’s constant is k = 4π²/GM.
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 115

1000 miles before it arrived at the Earth, till
at last, exceeding the limits of the Earth, it
should pass into space without touching it.
Later editions of the Principia include a diagram
showing projectile paths from the top of a moun-
tain, beginning as parabolas that extend further and
further until they become circular or elliptical
orbits around the Earth.
Terrestrial motions, including Galileo’s
laws, now follow by considering gravity on a mass
m near the surface of the Earth (at a distance R
from its center where its mass M acts). From
Newton’s second law (F = ma) the force of gravity
causing acceleration g of a mass m is its weight W
given by
W = mg = G mM/R
ignoring the centrifugal effect due to the Earth’s
rotation. Newton assumes that “inertial mass” m
associated with acceleration (g) is equal to
“gravitational mass” m associated with attraction
), so m cancels and g = GM/R
is constant
regardless of the value of the mass m as demon-
strated by Galileo. Evaluation of G a century later
made it possible to determine the mass M of the
Earth, and thus its average density and internal
Newton calculated that the rotation of the
Earth would tend to make it bulge at its equator if
it was once hot enough to be elastic, causing an
increase in R of 17 miles (Figure 5.9). This must
have occurred before the Earth became rigid, since
if the Earth was perfectly spherical the oceans
would pile up l7 miles higher at the equator. Thus
g is not truly constant, but will be largest at the
at pole:
R > R
eq p
by 25km
F > F
2 1
26,000 yr.
equatorial bulge:
at equator:
Vega (A.D. 15,000)
g = 9.83m/s²
g = 9.78m/s²

Figure 5.9 Equatorial Bulge and its Effects on Gravity and Precession
Newton showed that the centrifugal effect of the Earth’s rotation would cause an equatorial bulge.
From this he used the law of universal gravitation to predict that g would be largest at the poles where
R is smallest. The weight of a mass m at the pole separated from the center of the Earth by the radius
W = mg = GmM/R

and thus g = GM/R
has its largest value since R
is the smallest value of R. Newton also calculated
the precession of the equinoxes from the fact that the force of attraction by the Sun on the Earth is
slightly larger on the side of the Earth closer to the Sun than on the side further away (F
causing a small twisting effect. The inequality of these forces accounts for one complete precessional
wobble of the Earth in 26,000 years, matching the observed precession rate of the equinoxes.
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 116

pole where R is smallest, and
smallest at the equator where
R (and the centrifugal effect of
the Earth’s rotation) is largest,
matching the pendulum meas-
urements of g made in the
tropics by Jean Richer in 1671
and by Halley in 1677.
Newton was also able
to give the first satisfactory
explanation of the tides
(Figure 5.10) by the gravita-
tional action of the Moon on
the oceans, causing two high
tides in a lunar day (24 hours
and 50 minutes). He explained
variations between the highest
“spring tides” and lowest
“neap tides” by the additional
force of the Sun, greater when
it is aligned with the Earth and
Moon (near the new or full
Moon), and smaller when it is
perpendicular to them (half
Newton accounted
for many new celestial phe-
nomena, in addition to Ke-
pler’s laws, by universal
gravitation. The centripetal
force on a planet of mass m
and speed v in its orbit at a
distance R from the Sun of
mass M is given by:
F = mv
/R = GmM/R
This equation also applies to a satellite of mass m
circling a planet of mass M, making it possible to
compare the masses and densities of the Sun, Earth
and other planets with moons. Newton explained
the precession of the equinoxes by the slight dif-
ference in the force of the Sun’s attraction on op-
posite sides of the Earth’s equatorial bulge (Figure
5.9). This causes the Earth’s axis to wobble like a
spinning top. Calculations from the forces on the
Earth and its rate of spin give 50˝ of precession per
year (one complete wobble every 26,000 years), as
first observed by Hipparchus. He explained slight
deviations from Kepler’s laws in the motions of
the planets, called “perturbations,” by the in-
creased mutual attractions between the planets as
they pass each other, but Newton could only ap-
proximate a solution to this “three-body problem.”
He thought these perturbations would destabilize
the solar system, leading him to suggest that God
intervenes to maintain stability.
Newton devoted two of the longer sec-
tions of Book III to calculations on the motions of
the Moon and comets. These complex lunar cal-
culations relate to precession and perturbations of
the Moon’s elliptical orbit, setting the pattern for
future work in celestial mechanics. He obtained
data from the Greenwich Observatory Astronomer
24 hr. rotation
aligns with sun
50 min. later/day
sun at
spring tide
sun at neap tide
partly cancels effect of moon
(90º from moon)
oceans at equator
two tides every
24 h 50 m
27.3 day

Figure 5.10 Newton’s Explanation of Tides from Gravitation
Newton used the inverse-square law to show that the Moon has the
largest gravitational effect on the oceans, resulting in the force
pulling the ocean away from the Earth on the side toward the
Moon, and the force F
pulling the Earth away from the ocean
on the side away from the Moon. Thus there are two high tides in a
lunar day (24 hours and 50 minutes), when any point on a coast lines
up with the nearest or farthest point from the Moon. The highest
(spring) tides occur when the Sun is aligned with the Earth and
Moon (new or full Moon), and the lowest (neap) tides occur when the
Sun is at right angles to the Earth and Moon.
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 117

Royal John Flamsteed (1646-1719), causing years
of bitterness over what Flamsteed felt was prema-
ture use of his work. Newton’s work on comets
used observational data of Halley and others to
show that comets follow gravitational orbits of
either elongated ellipses or parabolas.
After observing the comet of 1682, Hal-
ley worked out the orbits of some two dozen com-
ets. He was struck by the similarity of the orbits of
comets that had appeared in 1456, 1531 and 1607
with that of 1682. In 1705 he suggested that these
were orbits of a single comet in an elongated
elliptical orbit with a period of about 75 years,
visible only when it was near the Earth on its path
around the Sun (Figure 5.11). His prediction of its
reappearance in 1758 was confirmed after it was
first observed on Christmas of that year by a
farmer in Germany. Halley became the second
Royal Astronomer in 1720.
Newton’s Fluxions and Optics
Newton cast his impressive mathematical
demonstrations of the Principia in the form of
classical geometry, since that was the form under-
stood by his contemporaries. But he obtained most
of his results first by the method of fluxions, his
version of the calculus invented some twenty years
earlier. He claimed that he wrote his treatise on
The Method of Fluxions and Infinite Series in
1671, but it was not published until 1736 when it
was “translated from the Author’s Latin Original
not yet made publick” by John Colson. In a modest
introduction to one of the most important steps in
mathematical progress, Newton says “I have
endeavored to enlarge the Boundaries of
Analyticks, and to make some Improvements in
the Doctrine of Curved Lines.”
The calculus was based on the method of
Archimedes, which treated a curve as a large
Sun Uranus
orbit of comet
in orbit of
(predicted from

Figure 5.11 Comet Orbit, Planet Perturbations, and Discovery of Neptune
Newton and Halley demonstrated the elliptical orbits of comets and showed that their periods would
be affected by the gravitation of the planets, especially Jupiter. In the case of Halley’s comet, the
position of Jupiter will cause it to speed up or slow down, producing an orbital period that varies
between 74 and 79 years. Newton accounted for the perturbations of the planets by their mutual
gravitational attraction, which causes small deviations in their speed and orbit. After the discovery of
Uranus in 1781, an unexplained perturbation in its orbit led to the discovery of Neptune in 1846.
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 118

number of small straight tangents or chords.
Newton showed how to calculate the rate of
change of the curve at any point from the slope of
the tangent to the curve at that point (differential
calculus), and how to find the maximum and
minimum values of the curve. By increasing the
number of chords along a finite curve indefinitely
while their length decreased proportionately, he
was able to calculate the length of the curve or the
area bounded by it (integral calculus). Others
introduced the more precise concept of the limit as
a magnitude that can be approached more nearly
than any finite difference, however small, finally
resolving Zeno’s paradoxes.
Other mathematicians anticipated many
ideas of the calculus, and the German philosopher
and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716)
independently invented a somewhat different ver-
sion. The form introduced by Leibniz, including
the differential dx as an infinitesimal difference
in x and the elongated ‘s’ as the integral sign for a
sum of infinitesimals, was developed in Europe
and eventually adopted in England also. The
infinitesimal ratio dx/dt, for expressing an instan-
taneous rate of change in x, was represented by x

in Newton’s fluxions. It appears that Newton
invented his fluxions first, but Leibniz published
his version of the calculus first (1684), leading to a
priority debate between their respective supporters.
In 1700 Leibniz became the first president of the
new Academy of Sciences in Berlin.
Publication of the Principia brought
fame to Newton. He defended the rights of Cam-
bridge University in 1687 against King James II,
and was elected to Parliament in 1689 after James
was deposed. Perhaps as a result of his work on
the Principia and the resulting controversies,
Newton suffered a nervous collapse in 1693. By
1696, however, he was well enough to accept an
appointment as Warden of the Mint and to initiate
a reform in coinage. After Hooke died in 1703,
Newton was elected President of the Royal Society
and remained as its virtual dictator for nearly 25
years. With the passing of the man who had
criticized his theories of light 30 years before, He
finally agreed to publish his Opticks or a Treatise
of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections and
Colours of Light, which appeared in 1704.
Newton wrote the Opticks in English and
it was much easier to read than the mathematically
forbidding Principia. It described Newton’s many
experiments on light, providing the definitive
example of Baconian empiricism and the basic
metaphor for the eighteenth century
“Enlightenment” (suggested by Immanuel Kant in
1785). His separation of white light with a prism
associated quantitative angles of refraction with
each of the colors, which he somewhat arbitrarily
designated as seven: red, orange, yellow, green,
blue, indigo and violet (easily remembered from
the acronym ROYGBIV). He explained the color
of a given object as the combination of colors it
reflects after absorbing all others, and gave the
first complete explanation of the rainbow.
Newton seemed to favor a particle theory
of light in the Opticks, but he retained elements of
the wave theory. From Roemer’s speed of light,
Newton calculated that light waves would require
an aether with an elasticity of 490 billion times
that of air if its density was 700,000 times rarer
than air, a value that would not appreciably slow
the planets in the 10,000 years he considered suf-
ficient since the creation.
Newton passed white light through a
plano-convex lens with its curved surface pressed
against a flat pane of glass to produce a series of
colored circles, as first described by Hooke but
called “Newton’s rings.” Newton calculated the
thickness of the air gap between the two glass sur-
faces at each ring, and suggested the idea of an
internal vibration or “interval of the fits,” whose
length determines which color of light will be
reflected or transmitted. Since light of a single
color produces bright and dark rings, the “fits of
easy reflection and transmission” seem like inter-
ference of waves, reinforcing or cancelling each
Even though this analysis eventually led
to an evaluation of the wavelength of light, New-
ton still preferred a particle theory. Thus he sug-
gested that different sizes of corpuscles might
cause different colors, which refract differently in
transparent materials of different densities. He de-
duced the law of sines for refraction, discovered in
1620 by the Dutch physicist Willebrord Snell
(1580-1626), by assuming that light particles
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 119

speed up by stronger attraction as they pass into
denser materials like glass or water. He attempted
to explain the 1665 account by Francesco Grimaldi
(1618-1663) of colored fringes produced by white
light passing through two successive slits
(diffraction) in terms of attractive forces. His
preference for the particle theory of light influ-
enced others and delayed the wave theory for a
In spite of his claim to the contrary,
Newton developed many hypotheses. The me-
chanical view demanded an explanation of un-
known causes. To avoid controversy, Newton
expressed many hypotheses in the form of Queries
appended to the Opticks, growing to a total of 31
in later English editions. He even attempted to
explain gravity by mechanical actions in the
aether, but in the end he was driven back to his
religious convictions. In Query 28 he tries to
correlate the two:
The main business of natural philosophy is
to argue from phenomena without feigning
hypotheses, and to deduce causes from ef-
fects, till we come to the very First Cause,
which certainly is not mechanical; and not
only to unfold the mechanism of the world,
but chiefly to resolve these and such like
question. What is there in places almost
empty of matter, and whence is it that the
Sun and planets gravitate towards one an-
other, without dense matter between them?
Whence is it that Nature doth nothing in
vain; and whence arises all that order and
beauty which we see in the world?... And
these things being rightly dispatched, does it
not appear from phenomena that there is a
Being incorporeal, living, intelligent,
omnipresent, who in infinite space, as it
were in His sensory, sees the things them-
selves intimately, and thoroughly perceives
them, and comprehends them wholly by
their presence to Himself.
Newton’s ideas of absolute space and absolute
time as symbols of God’s omnipresence and eter-
nity were criticized by Leibniz. He believed that
only relative space and time have any meaning, as
developed later in Einstein’s theory of relativity.
In a debate with Samuel Clarke (1675-
1729) in 1715, Leibniz also protested against
Newton’s suggestion that God intervenes to stabi-
lize the solar system. Leibniz wondered why God,
the most perfect Being, would create such an im-
perfect machine that it would have to be corrected
from time to time, thus violating a truly mechani-
cal universe. Clarke responded on behalf of New-
ton by accusing Leibniz of excluding God from the
world. Actually both Leibniz and Newton held
strong Christian convictions, although Newton
harbored Unitarian tendencies. In spite of their
differences, both men believed that a correct
understanding of science would further the cause
of Christianity.
Perhaps both Newton and Leibniz would
have agreed with Bishop George Berkeley in 1734
who said, “He who can digest a second or third
fluxion, a second or third difference, need not,
methinks, be squeamish about any point in Divin-
ity.” In his old age, Newton compared himself
with “a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting
myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble
or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great
ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
Even his unified and mathematically ordered me-
chanical universe could not explain everything in
the vast and complex world.

The Influence of Newtonian Ideas
Descartes promoted the idea of a me-
chanical universe in a vague way, but Newton
presented the complete mechanism in a mathe-
matically precise and compelling form. The col-
lapse of the geocentric view had caused conster-
nation and confusion, compounded by the idea of a
moving Earth in infinite space. The Newtonian
synthesis restored confidence (faith?) in reason
based on experience, giving birth to a new sense of
optimism and progress. It produced few immediate
practical results, but provided a new picture of the
world as a great machine consisting of inert
particles subjected to universal laws in perfect
order and harmony. Almost immediately it began
to influence ideas about society and culture.
The philosopher John Locke (1632-1704),
a friend of Newton and fellow member of the
Royal Society, began the task of translating
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 120

Newtonian science into political and philosophical
theory in two important books appearing in 1690.
His Treatise of Civil Government argued that
individuals are the particle ingredients of the state,
which should be structured by self-evident natural
rights such as life, liberty and property, and the
democratic ideals of equality and tolerance. Using
mechanical analogies, he suggested that the state
“should move that way whither the greater force
carries it, which is the consent of the majority.”
This reflected the new constitutional monarchy in
England, which was limited by Parliament in the
new “age of reason.”
In his Essay Concerning Human Under-
standing, Locke suggested that the human mind is
a “blank tablet” at birth, in which simple “atomic
ideas” gained by sensation are correlated by the
laws of association and reason to form complex
ideas. Locke presses the analogy of “the dominion
of man in this little world of his own understand-
ing, being much-what the same as it is in the great
world of visible things.” Since reason must be
based on experience, our knowledge is limited to
the natural world and we can only know God
through His laws in nature. He is the Clock-maker
God, creator of the great machine and its First
Cause. Locke’s book on the Reasonableness of
Christianity (1695) initiated deism as a system of
natural religion in which God is revealed only in
Newton’s discoveries found slower
acceptance on the continent, where Cartesian ideas
dominated until about 1740. After a period of exile
in England from 1726-1729, the French
philosopher François Marie Arouet de Voltaire
(1694-1778) became an effective propagandist for
the “enlightened” theories of Bacon, Newton,
Locke and the English Deists, beginning with his
Letters on the English (1734). Voltaire attacked
superstition, organized religion, and Biblical
revelation, but admitted that, “The world embar-
rasses me, I cannot conceive of so beautiful a
clock without a maker.” He wrote a popular ac-
count of Newtonian theory with his mistress Mme.
de Chatelet in 1738.
The Newtonian idea that God created the
world with a fixed order was extended to biology
by the Swedish Lutheran botanist Carolus Linn-
aeus (1707-78). He believed in the “fixity of spe-
cies,” each being a special creation of God at the
beginning of the world. Building on the work of
the English naturalist John Ray (1628-1705), who
defined species as interbreeding organisms, Linn-
aeus developed the system of “binomial nomencla-
ture,” whereby he classified some 18,000 species
by double Latin names that designate their genus
and species. In his Systema Naturae (ten volumes:
1735-1758), he classified every known plant and
animal by class, order, genus, and species, using
an artificial system for plants based on the sexual
organs in the flowers.
The French naturalist George Leclerc,
Comte de Buffon (1707-88), impressed with New-
tonian mechanical philosophy, preferred a natural
system of classification based on a mechanical
uniformity that admitted no discontinuities in
nature. His 36-volume Histoire Naturelle (1749-
85) gave a vivid description of the diversity of
nature. His biological mechanisms included
“organic molecules” and “penetrating forces”
modeled on Newtonian ideas. He preferred a
physical origin of the solar system, suggesting the
collision of a comet with the Sun and requiring as
much as a million years for the Earth and planets
to cool. In his Époques de la Nature (1778) he
divided the Earth’s history into six epochs con-
sisting of long periods of development, instead of
the six Biblical days of immediate creation. He
also proposed the degeneration and disappearance
of some species.
Another French philosophe influenced by
English ideas was Charles Montesquieu (1685-
1755), who extended the idea of natural law from
laws governing human nature to the laws of
nations in his Spirit of the Laws (1748). By mid-
century the courts of Louis XV and Frederick the
Great were full of philosophers who saw society as
well as the universe ruled by reason. The Baconian
emphases on experiment and progress also became
evident in France with the publication of the great
French Encyclopédie between 1751 and 1777. Its
twenty-two volumes including illustrations were
edited by Denis Diderot (1713-84) and the
mathematician Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-
83), with contributions from many French
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 121

The natural laws of society described by
Locke and Montesquieu were put into practice in
the American Revolution, as expressed by Thomas
Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that
all men are created equal, that they are
endowed by their Creator with certain unal-
ienable Rights, that among these are Life,
Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, that to
secure these rights, Governments are insti-
tuted among Men, deriving their just powers
from the consent of the governed.
The Constitution formalized laws with a system of
checks and balances between the three branches of
government similar to the Newtonian equilibrium
of forces. Benjamin Franklin developed some of
these ideas in his essay, “On liberty and necessity;
man in the Newtonian universe.” Even the capital
city of Washington was designed about an ellipti-
cal hub like the solar system, with the Capitol and
White House at its foci. Democratic goals also
replaced the Divine Right of Kings in the French
“Declaration of the Rights of Man.”
In the study of economics, mechanistic
ideas influenced both the French Physiocrats,
beginning with François Quesnay (1694-1774),
and the Scottish political economist Adam Smith
(1723-90). In his Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith
set forth the natural laws that govern economics.
Like Locke, he emphasized independent
individuals subject to the forces of nature, which
leads each of them “by an invisible hand to pro-
mote an end which was no part of his intention.”
Smith claimed that the impersonal market system
required no interference (free enterprise) because it
automatically adjusted itself to the forces of
competition according to economic laws.
The mechanical ideas of the Enlighten-
ment also influenced the arts. English writers such
as John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and Joseph
Addison developed prose and poetic styles of
simplicity and clarity as close to mechanical pre-
cision as possible. The English novel received its
modern form in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe
(1719) with its emphases on individualism and
‘factual’ detail. Baroque music formalized its
modes of expression into set patterns and stan-
dardized mechanical instruments with develop-
ments such as the equally tempered scale. The
Mozartian synthesis of music and drama marked
the culmination of the Enlightenment spirit with its
logical clarity and constructive forces.
French and Swiss mathematicians led the
way in applying Leibniz’s form of the calculus to
Newton’s celestial mechanics, beginning in Basel
with the Bernoulli brothers Jakob (1654-1705) and
Johann (1667-1748), and their nephew Daniel
(1700-82). Alexis-Claude Clairaut (1713-65) and
Jean d’Alembert (1717-83) developed the methods
of differential equations applied to mechanics.
Clairaut worked on the “three-body problem” of
lunar motion, announcing that the law of universal
gravitation was wrong until he corrected a mistake
that confirmed the theory in 1749. He also worked
out the effect of Jupiter and Saturn on Halley’s
comet to improve on the prediction of its 1758-59
The most prolific mathematician of all
times was the Swiss-born Leonhard Euler (1707-
1783), who spent most of his life in scientific
academies at the courts of Berlin and St. Peters-
burg, publishing many papers after he lost his
eyesight. Euler worked out a consistent analytical
formulation of Newton’s mechanics in his
Mechanica (1736), developed the equations for
motion and rotation of rigid bodies in his Theoria
Motus Corporum Solidorum (1760), and devised
methods for solving problems with many variables
in his work on partial differential equations and
calculus of variations. The grand synthesis of
mechanics in terms of pure analysis divorced from
geometry was achieved by Joseph-Louis Lagrange
(1736-1813) in his Mécanique Analytique (1788).
The culmination of Newtonian mechanics
came with d’Alembert’s protégé Pierre Simon
Laplace (1749-1827), who had once taught Napo-
leon Bonaparte at the Ecole Royale Militaire. In
1773 he presented his famous statement on de-
terminism to the Paris Academy of Sciences:
The present state of the system of nature is
evidently a result of what it was in the pre-
ceding instant, and if we conceive of an In-
telligence who, for a given moment,
embraces all the relations of being in this
Universe, It will also be able to determine
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 122

for any instant of the past or future their
respective positions, motions, and generally
their affections.
If Newton’s laws completely determine the future
of all being, then free will is only an illusion, and
Laplace’s “Intelligence” is more like a superhu-
man calculator in the image of Newton than the
God who created humans in His image.
Laplace took another step in separating
God from the universe in his Exposition du
Système du Monde (1796, 1813), where he intro-
duced his “nebular hypothesis” to explain the
physical origins of the solar system. He calculated
a very small probability that the motions and
rotations of the planets and their satellites would
all be in the same direction and nearly in the same
plane by pure chance. While Newton saw this as
evidence of Divine Providence, Laplace insisted
that it was due to a single physical cause. He sug-
gested that a nebulous rotating cloud of matter
once surrounded the Sun; but centrifugal action
formed a hot nebular disk that cooled and con-
densed into the planets, which threw off their own
satellites in the process.
Laplace devoted himself especially to the
problem of the stability of the solar system, which
had led Newton to suggest divine intervention. In
1786 he presented his mathematical analysis
showing that the slow acceleration of Jupiter bal-
anced the deceleration of Saturn, reversing each
other in about 900 years. When considered as a
system, their long “secular perturbations” are
found to slowly oscillate. With this self-correcting
mechanism, applied also to the Moon, he was able
to complete his Traité de Mécanique Céleste (five
volumes from 1799 to 1825) without any mention
of God, telling Napoleon Bonaparte, “I have no
need of that hypothesis.” The gap in Newton’s
analysis was filled, and his “God-of-the-gaps” was
no longer needed.
While the French were working out the
theory of astronomy, the English were making
important new observations. The third Astronomer
Royal, James Bradley (1693-1762), tried to find
direct empirical evidence for the Earth’s motion.
He failed to detect stellar parallax, but did discover
the “aberration of starlight” and explained it in
terms of the motion of the Earth in 1728. This was
a tiny annual shift in the stars that required
pointing the telescope slightly in the direction of
the Earth’s motion, like holding an umbrella
forward while moving in rain. It led to a good
value for the speed of light and seemed to support
the particle theory of light. In 1748 Bradley also
discovered a slight “bobbing” of the Earth’s axis
called nutation. Both effects improved the
accuracy of astronomical measurements by
introducing corrections to account for the fact that
we live on a moving platform.
Universal gravitation was tested experi-
mentally on Earth in 1774 by the fifth Astronomer
Royal, Nevil Maskelyne (1732-1811). He meas-
ured the deviation of a plumb bob from the vertical
on either side of a mountain. By estimating the
mass of the mountain and comparing its pull with
that of the Earth, he calculated the mass of the
Earth and its mean density at 4.5 times that of
In 1798 the amateur scientist Henry
Cavendish (1731-1810) measured the Earth’s mass
more accurately by using a torsion balance
designed fifty years earlier by the Cambridge cler-
gyman, John Michell (1724-93). This consisted of
a horizontal “dumbbell” of two lead balls sus-
pended from a fine wire (Figure 5.12). When
Cavendish supported two large lead spheres, one
near each ball on diagonally opposite sides, he
measured a tiny attractive force by the twisting of
the wire. This gave an accurate value for the
universal gravitation constant (G = FR
/mM = 6.7
× 10
), and a mean density for the
Earth of 5.5 times that of water.
Observational astronomy reached its pin-
nacle in England with the work of the German-
born musicians William Herschel (1738-1822) and
his sister Caroline Herschel (1750-1848). They
ground their own lenses and mirrors and made
some of the best telescopes of the time. In 1781
William observed a star-like object with an
apparent disc, and he showed that its orbit was that
of a new planet beyond Saturn, eventually named
Uranus. With better telescopes, he later found two
satellites of Uranus and two of Saturn. He
cataloged more than 800 double stars and showed
that some were circling each other in accord with
Newton’s laws, extending gravity beyond the solar
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 123

system. In 1782, King George III awarded
Herschel the post of King’s Astronomer.
From a 1783 survey of the distribution of
stars, Herschel concluded that the Milky Way was
a disc-shaped revolving galaxy of stars including
our Sun, an idea suggested in 1750 by the amateur
English astronomer Thomas Wright (1711-86). A
study of some 2000 nebulous sources led Herschel
to propose that various nebulae represent different
stages in the evolution of other galaxies, following
earlier suggestions in 1755 by the German phi-
losopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant also
concluded that neither infinite space nor bounded
space is rational, and thus space is not objectively
real. He proposed in his Critique of Pure Reason
(1781) that the human mind is endowed with
Newtonian categories like space and time. These
allow us to construct our own world independent
of their reality, which along with God can be nei-
ther proved nor disproved by reason.
The most dramatic result of Newtonian
theory came from an analysis of the anomalous
perturbations in the orbit of Uranus by a young
English student, John Couch Adams (1819-92),
and the French astronomer Urbain Leverrier
(1811-1877). During some sixty years of obser-
vations since its discovery, the orbit of Uranus was
found to deviate by 1.5 minutes of arc from
Kepler’s law, corrected for known perturbations.
By 1845 Adams had calculated the position of an
unknown planet that would cause this deviation of
The prediction of Adams was largely
ignored until a similar calculation by Leverrier in
1846 was used by Johann Galle (1812-1910), head
of the Berlin Observatory, to discover the planet
Neptune. On the same evening he received
Leverrier’s letter, he found the new planet less
than a degree from the predicted position. One
year before this triumph of Newtonian theory,
Leverrier discovered a similar anomaly in the orbit
of Mercury; but this shift of 40 seconds of arc per
century in the perihelion of Mercury’s orbit could
not be explained until Newton’s theory was
replaced by Einstein’s theory of general relativity.


Christianson, Gale E. In the Presence of the
Creator: Isaac Newton and His Times. New
York: Free Press, 1984.
Cohen, I. Bernard. The Newtonian Revolution.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
Fauvel, John, Raymond Flood, Michael Shortland
and Robert Wilson, eds. Let Newton Be! New
York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Figure 5.12 Measurement of the Universal
Gravitation Constant by Cavendish
In 1798 Cavendish measured the constant of
universal gravitation G with a torsion balance
consisting of two lead balls each of mass m
suspended on a rod with a fine wire. When two
large lead spheres each of mass M were
brought near on diagonally opposite sides from
the suspended balls, a small attractive force F
was measured by the twisting of the wire. A
small twist of the mirror causes a large shift in
the light beam. Using the law of universal
gravitation F = GmM/R², the constant G could
be determined from the values of F, m, M, and
R, as:
G = FR²/mM = 6.7 x 10
From this value the mass of the Earth M
be calculated by equating the weight W = mg of
an object of mass m with the gravitational
attraction between it and the Earth, whose
centers are separated by the radius of the Earth
so: W = mg = mM

= gR
²/G = 6 x 10
Chapter 5 • A Mechanical Universe 124

Galileo. Discourse Concerning Two New Sciences.
H. Crew and A. deSalvio, trans. New York:
Dover, 1954.
Gillispie, C. C. The Edge of Objectivity. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1960.
Hall, A. R. Philosophers at War: The Quarrel
Between Newton and Leibniz. New York:
Cambridge University of Press, 1980.
Hankins, Thomas L. Science and the Enlighten-
ment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
Herival, John. The Background to Newton’s “Prin-
cipia”: A Study of Newton’s Dynamical Re-
searches in the Years 1664-1684. Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1965.
Manuel, Frank E. A Portrait of Isaac Newton.
Washington: New Republic Press, 1979.

McMullin, Ernan. Galileo, Man of Science. New
York: Basic Books, 1968.
Newton, Isaac. Mathematical Principles of Natu-
ral Philosophy. A. Motte, trans. rev. F. Cajori.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1934.
Newton, Isaac. Opticks. (Fourth Edition, 1730).
New York: Dover, 1952.
Nicholson, Marjorie. Newton Demands the Muse.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946.
Sabra, A. I. Theories of Light: From Descartes to
Newton. London: Oldbourne, 1967.
Westfall, Richard S. The Construction of Modern
Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1977.
Westfall, Richard S. Never at Rest: A Biography of
Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge Uni-
versity Press, 1981.


The successes of the Newtonian synthesis
strengthened European confidence in mechanical
thinking, but made few immediate contributions to
practical developments in technology. The
application of mechanical ideas to chemistry,
initiated by Boyle, made little progress in
understanding chemical reactions or phenomena
such as combustion. Newton had struggled with
the role of active principles in nature, but the me-
chanical model of passive particles acted upon by
external forces prevailed in the 18th century. It
provided little guidance for the chemist beyond the
new emphasis on quantitative measurements, but
these would eventually lead to a revolution in
Even mechanical devices and early forms
of steam power developed quite independently of
Newtonian theory. But new inventions and me-
chanical ways of thinking began to make dramatic
changes in social and economic structures, espe-
cially in England with the introduction of the fac-
tory system of large-scale machine production.
The development of steam power hastened the
trend toward large urban factory centers, accom-
panied by the mining of coal and iron and the
building of roads and canals. By the end of the
18th century this Industrial Revolution was well
established, but its rationalizing tendencies and
dehumanizing effects came increasingly under at-
tack in the literary and artistic movement known as
the Romantic Reaction.

The Vis Viva Concept
Even during Newton’s lifetime, debate
arose concerning the inadequacies and dangers of
the mechanical philosophy, and Newton’s old
nemesis led the attack. In 1686 Gottfried Leibniz
opened the debate by publishing a paper with the
grand title “A short demonstration of a famous
error of Descartes and other learned men, con-
cerning the claimed law of nature according to
which God always preserves the same quantity of
motion; by which, however, the science of me-
chanics is totally perverted.” Descartes defined
“quantity of motion” as the product of mass and
speed, leading to the law of conservation of mo-
mentum (mv) and Newton’s definition of force in
his second law as the rate of change (Δ) of mo-
mentum (F = Δmv/Δt or F = ma if m is constant).
Leibniz referred to the momentum mv as
vis mortua (dead force), measuring the inertial
tendency of inert objects to resist changes in their
motion. By contrast, he defined vis viva (living
force) as the quantity mv², which Huygens viewed
as being conserved in elastic collisions. Leibniz
insisted that, “Force must be evaluated by the


An Energistic Universe

Chemical and Industrial Revolutions, Heat and Light

Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 126

quantity of effect it can produce, for example by
the height to which it can raise a heavy load.”
Galileo’s law gives the distance (height) moved by
an object starting from rest to a speed v with
constant acceleration a = v/t (in time t = v/a) as:
d = at²/2 = a(v/a)²/2 = v²/2a.
Thus acceleration to a speed v over a distance d is
a = v²/2d. For an object of mass m to be acceler-
ated to a speed v in a distance d, the required force
is given by:
F = ma = mv²/2d.
An object with weight mg (where g is the accel-
eration of gravity) and upward velocity v has a
“living force” proportional to mv² capable of
raising it to a height d = v²/2g. Leibniz suggested
that this vis viva is not lost in inelastic collisions,
but merely “dissipated among the small parts” that
make up the colliding objects. He also suggested
that the “living force” given to an object thrown
upward is stored in the object as mv² decreases
during its rise, but is recovered when it falls. Thus
he viewed vis viva as part of a more general
conserved quantity, later called energy.
The vis viva controversy was based on a
metaphysical difference in opinion. The Cartesians
and their Newtonian successors tried to explain
phenomena by matter and motion as measured by
momentum, without appealing to intrinsic forces
in matter. Leibniz believed that force is the essence
of matter, constituting a living and dynamic world
of activity, rather than a dead world of passive
inert particles. Only that which is active is real,
and activity is the expression of force.
Conservation of vis viva makes the universe self
sufficient, dependent only on the “pre-established
harmony” of its parts, rather than requiring
continual intervention by God. According to
Leibniz, the world may not be perfect, but it is the
“best of all possible worlds.”
By the middle of the 18th century, the
“quantity of motion” debate was recognized as
more verbal and metaphysical than material. As
early as 1668, Huygens had recognized that both
momentum and mv² are conserved in elastic col-
lisions. In 1742 the French mathematician Jean
d’Alembert (1717-1783) clarified the distinction
between momentum and vis viva. Using Galileo’s
acceleration equation a = Δv²/2d in Newton’s sec-
ond law F = ma = Δmv/Δt = Δmv²/2d, gives:
FΔt = Δmv and F
d = Δmv²/2.
Thus he showed that the impulse “FΔt” of a force
F acting on a mass m for a time Δt equals the
resulting change in momentum Δmv, while the
work “F
d” done by a force F acting on a mass m
over a distance d changes the vis viva by Δmv²/2.
The Croatian Jesuit priest Roger
Boscovich (1711-1787) developed a further cri-
tique of mechanism. He rejected the idea of
material corpuscles and replaced it with the con-
cept of matter composed of dimensionless points,
which were centers of force extending out in every
direction. These points exerted simultaneous
forces of attraction and repulsion on each other to
account for both the solidity and separability of
matter. A similar idea was developed by German
philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who
taught that we know substance only through
forces, so that force was the essence of matter and
the phenomenal basis of science. Following Kant,
German nature philosophers and the Romantic
movement came to view the world in terms of
active principles and a unity of forces.
In 1807 the English physician Thomas
Young (1773-1829), who had completed his
studies in Germany at the University of Göttingen,
coined the word “energy” as the “capacity to do
work” (F
d), and defined vis viva as “kinetic
energy” (K.E. = mv²/2) to describe the energy of
motion. Although Young’s suggestion was not
widely adopted at first, the energy concept was
eventually applied to phenomena in many other
fields of science besides mechanics, including
heat, light, electricity, magnetism, chemistry,
biology, and atomic physics. It provided the kind
of active principle and unifying concept that
Leibniz had originally suggested and that was
sought after in the nineteenth-century Romantic
Reaction against mechanistic science.
The Phlogiston Theory
A century before the emergence of the
energy concept, German chemists tried to develop
an active principle to account for chemical reac-
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 127

tions between matter and fire in their “phlogiston
theory.” The Lutheran alchemist Joachim Becher
(1635-82) of Speyer suggested that compound
bodies consist of three kinds of earths, correspond-
ing to the iatrochemical principles of salt, mercury
and sulfur. He identified the sulfur principle with a
“fatty earth” (terra pinguis) that gave bodies,
especially organic substances, their qualities of
odor, taste and combustibility. In 1703 Becher’s
student, the physician Georg Ernst Stahl (1660-
1734), gave the name phlogiston (Greek:
inflammable) to this terra pinguis, and turned it
into a unifying theory to explain combustion and
The phlogiston theory explained com-
bustion as the release of phlogiston. When a rib-
bon of metal burned, it left an ash or calx (oxide),
given by the reaction:
metal - phlogiston → calx.
With considerable insight, Stahl recognized that
this process was analogous to the rusting of a
metal. Phlogiston also accounted for properties
like color and odor, and its escape from a burning
object agitated atoms and produced heat. Organic
materials like wood contained more phlogiston
than metals and thus burned better. Since a metal
can be recovered from its calx by burning it with
charcoal, the metal seemed to absorb phlogiston
from the charcoal:
calx + phlogiston → metal.
Since the charcoal mostly disappears, it appeared
to be nearly pure phlogiston.
By the middle of the eighteenth century,
it became increasingly clear that the calx weighed
more than the original metal! In the 1760s,
scholars at the medical school of Montpellier in
France suggested that phlogiston has “levity,” or
negative gravity, as evidenced by its tendency to
rise. Thus when phlogiston combined with a metal
it made it lighter. This idea clearly contradicted the
mechanical philosophy, but the phlogiston theory
provided a better qualitative explanation of many
chemical reactions. It gained wide acceptance by
British chemists during the latter half of the
eighteenth century, and inspired several of them to
carry out experimental work that eventually
overthrew the theory and laid the foundations of
modern chemistry.

New Gases and Experimental Methods
In the early eighteenth century, the An-
glican clergyman Stephen Hales (1677-1761)
developed quantitative methods of experimenta-
tion with gases. He collected and measured the
“airs” liberated by organic and inorganic materials
by bubbling them through a “pneumatic trough” of
water into an inverted flask, displacing its water.
He recognized that a gas can exist free or fixed in a
solid, but he thought all gases were forms of
common air, since they all obeyed Boyle’s law.
When he described his methods to the Royal Soci-
ety in 1727 he explained the importance of meas-
And since we are assured that the all-wise
Creator has observed the most exact
proportions, of number, weight, and
measure, in the make of all things; the most
likely way therefore to get any insight into
the nature of these parts of the creation,
must in all reason be to number, weigh and
Hales was the first to quantify blood pressure in
animals, measuring the height of the blood in a
thin glass tube connected to a blood vessel. He
also measured sap pressure in trees with a
mercury-gauge manometer.
In the eighteenth century, water and air
were still regarded as elements, but the Scottish
chemist Joseph Black (1728-99) showed that air is
not a simple substance. During the preparation of
his 1754 thesis for the medical degree at Glasgow,
Black showed that magnesia (magnesium carbon-
ate) and limestone (calcium carbonate) lost weight
and released a similar gas when heated. Using the
methods of Hales, he showed that if an acid
dissolved the same amount of magnesia or lime-
stone, it lost the same weight and type of gas, and
that the gas could recombine with their residues to
form the original substances.
Black called the gas “fixed air” because it
could be fixed into solid form again. The residue
from limestone (calcium carbonate) was the
caustic alkali quicklime (calcium oxide), then
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 128

assumed to be a compound of limestone and
phlogiston, but Black established that limestone
and magnesia were compounds of alkalis and
“fixed air.” When bubbled through lime water
made from quicklime, it formed a chalky
precipitate that served as a test of its presence. He
found that it did not support combustion or
respiration, and that he could obtain it by passing
common air over charcoal. This led him to
conclude that this gas we now call carbon dioxide
is a component of air as well as fixed in solids.
The chemical nature of gases was studied
further by the eccentric English scientist Henry
Cavendish (1731-1810), who spent four years at
Cambridge but was apparently too shy to be exam-
ined for a degree. In London he collected a gas
from the action of dilute acid on various metals
and found that it burned with a blue flame. He was
the first to measure the weight of a particular
volume of gas, and showed that the density of his
new gas was only 1/14 the density of air. In a 1766
memoir “On Factitious Airs,” he called it
“inflammable air” (later named hydrogen by La-
voisier) and identified it as rich in phlogiston be-
cause of its lightness and inflammability.
One of Black’s students at the University
of Edinburgh, Daniel Rutherford (1749-1819),
studied the portion of air that remains after com-
bustion ceases. He removed its “fixed air” by
passing it through a strong alkali, but it would still
not support combustion. In his 1772 doctoral
thesis, he concluded that it had absorbed all the
phlogiston it could from the burning process, and
thus he called it “phlogisticated air” (later named
The Unitarian clergyman Joseph Priestley
(1733-1804) became interested in the properties of
gases when he served a church in Leeds next to a
brewery. He collected the “fixed air” given off in
the fermentation process and discovered soda-
water when he dissolved it in water. Using a
pneumatic trough with mercury, he was able to
isolate several water-soluble gases. In the 1770s he
isolated the gases now called ammonia, carbon
monoxide, hydrogen chloride, oxygen, sulfur
dioxide, and various oxides of nitrogen. When he
treated metals with “spirit of nitre” (nitric acid) to
form “nitrous air” (nitric oxide), he found that it
diminished a volume of common air by about one-
fifth, causing it to lose its “goodness” for res-
piration or combustion.
In 1774 Priestley identified the missing
one-fifth of air with a gas given off when he
heated the red calx of mercury (mercuric oxide)
under a bell-jar with a burning glass. He identified
it with the source of “goodness” in common air by
showing that it was especially effective in
supporting the respiration of a mouse and the
burning of a candle. He assumed that it lacked
phlogiston, giving it a greater capacity for absorb-
ing phlogiston during combustion, and thus he
called it “dephlogisticated air” (later named oxy-
gen by Lavoisier). The Swedish apothecary Carl
Scheele (1742-86) had isolated the same gas two
years earlier and named it “fire air.” He too iden-
tified it with a lack of phlogiston, but his results
were not published until 1777. In further experi-
ments, Priestley showed that vitiated air could
regain its “goodness” by the action of sunlight on
green plants.
Phlogiston theory made it possible to
retain air and water as elements, explaining new
gases in terms of the different ways they combine
with phlogiston. Even the work of Cavendish in
1783 on the production of water from
“inflammable air” could be explained by the the-
ory. Using sparks of electricity from the newly
discovered Leyden jar, he ignited inflammable air
with common air in a closed flask, and produced a
“dew” of water on the inside surface. Collecting
the dew, he found “that almost all the inflammable
air, and about one-fifth of the common air, are
turned into pure water.” He again formed water
when he exploded inflammable air with dephlo-
gisticated air. His firm belief in phlogiston (φ) and
the elementary nature of water led him to suppose
that water was pre-formed in each of the gases as
dephlogisticated air + inflammable air → water,
(water - φ) + (water + φ) → water.
He reported his results in his Experiments on Air
(1784), noting that 2.02 volumes of inflammable
air combined with one volume of dephlogisticated
air to produce an equal weight of water (eventually
leading to the formula H
O for water).
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 129


Lavoisier and the Elements
The French chemist Antoine Lavoisier
(1743-94), often called the “father of modern
chemistry,” was well prepared to reinterpret the
new discoveries of gases and their reactions. His
father was a wealthy lawyer who sent him to the
Collège Mazarin in Paris to study law, but he
became interested in science and pursued studies
in mathematics, physics, botany and chemistry.
His sympathies were Newtonian and he combined
the quantitative methods of physics with the prac-
tical approach of the chemist. To support his
chemical research and private laboratory, he
invested in the tax-collecting “Ferme Général.” He
also married the 14-year old daughter of an
executive in the firm, who became his chief
research associate.
In the tradition of Newton, Lavoisier
based his experimental work on the principle of
conservation of mass in all chemical reactions. By
experimenting with reactions in closed flasks, he
was able to confirm this principle by careful
weighing before and after a reaction, and to
account accurately for any transformations that
occurred. He expressed this idea in his Traité
Élémentaire de Chimie (1789), the first modern
chemical textbook:
We may lay it down as an incontestable
axiom that in all the operations of art and
nature, nothing is created; an equal quantity
of matter exists both before and after the
experiment,...and nothing takes place
beyond changes and modifications in the
combinations of these elements. Upon this
principle, the whole art of performing
chemical experiments depends.
In his first communication to the Académie Royale
de Sciences (1765), to which he was elected in
1768, he reported that the water given off in
heating gypsum to make plaster of Paris is exactly
equal in weight to that required to set the same
amount of plaster.
In 1768 Lavoisier tested the claim of von
Helmont that water could be transmuted to earth,
based on the appearance of sediments after long
boiling of water. He boiled water for 101 days in a
closed system, in which the condensed steam
could be returned to the boiling water. He showed
that the weight of the water did not change, while
the flask lost an amount of weight equal to that of
the sediments. This led him to suspect that the
various “airs” identified by the English chemists
were not “transmutations” of the element air, but
were distinct gases in a mixture that constituted the
atmosphere. In 1772 he began a systematic
program of repeating past experimental work on
calcination and combustion, “with new safeguards
in order to link our knowledge of the air...with
other acquired knowledge and so to form a
Lavoisier began his revolution in chemi-
cal theory by showing that the burning of phos-
phorus and sulfur increased their weight. Rejection
of the idea of levity (negative weight) led him to
recognize that they must have united with
something instead of losing phlogiston. He then
heated tin and lead in closed containers with a
limited supply of air, forming a layer of calx on
each. The containers and their contents did not
change weight. But after each was opened, air
rushed in to replace the original air that had united
with the metal, accounting for the increase in the
weight of the calx. When he heated the red calx of
lead with charcoal, it was converted back to lead
along with a gas that he identified as “fixed air.”
At first he thought that this must be the gas
responsible for calcination and combustion, but
further tests showed that it would not support any
When Priestley visited Paris in October of
1774, Lavoisier dined with him and became
acquainted with his discovery of “dephlogisticated
air” from the red calx of mercury. Refining
Priestley’s experiment, he heated four ounces of
mercury in a flask with a long bent neck leading
into an inverted bell-jar supported over a mercury
bath. Starting with 50 cubic inches of air in the
flask and bell-jar, Lavoisier heated the mercury in
the flask to its boiling point for a period of 12
days, noting the formation of “red particles” on the
surface of the mercury until the calcination was
complete. He found the weight of the red calx to
be 45 grains (about 2.9 grams) and the volume in
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 130

the bell-jar reduced by one-sixth, now filled with
“azotic” (lifeless) air unable to support respiration
or combustion. Reversing the process, he heated
the 45 grains of red calx for a few minutes until it
disappeared, and he collected 41.5 grains of
mercury and about eight cubic inches of
“respirable air” in the bell-jar.
Basing his conclusions on the conserva-
tion of mass, Lavoisier noted that the 45 grains of
calx must have formed from the combination of
41.5 grains of mercury with 3.5 grains of respir-
able air from the bell-jar, rather than the mercury
losing its phlogiston. Furthermore, the conversion
of calx to mercury released 8 cubic inches of
respirable air, matching the loss of 1/6 of the 50
cubic inches of air in the original calcination of
mercury. In 1775 he presented his results to the
Académie in his most famous memoir, “On the
Nature of the Principle that combines with Metals
in Calcination and that increases their Weight,”
without crediting Priestley’s contribution.
Lavoisier revised his memoir in 1778
after repeating Priestley’s experiments that showed
the complete disappearance of charcoal when
heated with the red calx of mercury. He concluded
that, “Fixed air is the result of the combination of
the eminently respirable portion of the air with
charcoal.” His report to the Académie in 1777 on
“Experiments on Respiration of Animals...” had
suggested that respiration is a process of slow
combustion. In subsequent work with Pierre-
Simon Laplace, they demonstrated this
quantitatively by showing that the same amount of
ice melts from animal heat in respiration as from
charcoal combustion when these processes pro-
duce the same amount of “fixed air,” anticipating
the principle of conservation of energy.
In 1780 Lavoisier reported that the
atmosphere consisted of one-fourth respirable air
and three-fourths azotic air. Priestley, who con-
tinued to find evidence that seemed to support the
phlogiston theory, gave the more accurate ratio of
one-fifth dephlogisticated air and four-fifths
phlogisticated air. Shortly after Cavendish had
formed water in 1783 from the combustion of
inflammable air with respirable air, Lavoisier
repeated the experiment. He then reversed the
process by passing steam over red-hot iron,
breaking down the steam and collecting inflam-
mable air. Since inflammable air was the generic
ingredient in water, he renamed it hydrogen
(water-former). Thinking that respirable air was
the generic ingredient of all acids (it was absorbed
in reactions of acids with metals), he named it “the
acidifying principle,” or oxygen (acid-former).
Thus water was established as a compound of
hydrogen and oxygen. In 1810 British chemist and
physicist Humphry Davy (1778-1829) showed that
muriatic (hydrochloric) acid contains hydrogen
instead of oxygen.
In 1783 Lavoisier began a revision of
chemical terminology to match the clarifications of
experimental work he had achieved over the
previous decade. Madame Lavoisier celebrated the
beginning of this “new chemistry” by burning the
books of the phlogiston theorists. Following
Boyle, Lavoisier defined an element as a “simple
substance” that cannot be subdivided, and began to
form a list of such elements. He could then assign
names to chemical compounds based on the
weighable elements of which they consisted. For
example, he named carbon after charcoal (French:
charbon) and renamed “fixed air” as “carbonic
acid gas” for its carbon and oxygen components.
Lavoisier’s first list of “simple sub-
stances” included, among others, the seven tradi-
tional metals and, ironically, such
“imponderables” as caloric (heat) and light that
lacked measurable mass. Since caloric changes
liquids to gases, he classified the newly discovered
gases as compounds containing caloric. Thus
“oxygen gas” was the element oxygen plus caloric.
In collaboration with other chemists,
Lavoisier published a book in 1787 on Methods of
Chemical Nomenclature, which was quickly
adopted by most chemists and led to the modern
system. In 1789 he presented his theories as a
unified synthesis of chemical knowledge incorpo-
rating the new terminology in his Traité Élémen-
taire de Chemie, which listed some 23 authentic
elements, none of which he had independently
discovered. A new generation of chemists began to
speak the new language, seeing calcination,
combustion and respiration as oxidation processes,
in which oxygen combined with substances rather
than phlogiston being released.
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 131

In 1789 a political revolution began in
France, inspired by ideas of freedom and equality
that grew out of the scientific revolution. Lavoisier
served the new regime in improving gunpowder
and helping to establish the units of the new
decimal metric system decreed by the National
Assembly. But his tax-collecting investments led
to further accusations by Jean Paul Marat, whose
studies of fire Lavoisier had criticized. In the
Terror of 1794, he and his father-in-law were
executed with the guillotine. In the same year,
Priestley left England for America after his home
and chapel in Birmingham were burned by a mob
who objected to his support of the French

Dalton’s Atomic Theory
Lavoisier’s new chemistry led to several
empirical discoveries that formed the basis for a
quantitative atomic theory of the elements. In 1797
the French chemist Joseph Proust (1754-1826),
working in Madrid, announced the law of “definite
proportions.” He showed that copper carbonate
always had a constant composition of 5 parts
copper to 4 parts oxygen to 1 part carbon by
weight, regardless of how he prepared it in the
laboratory. He went on to demonstrate similar
ratios in other compounds, and generalized these
results to state that all compounds contain ele-
ments in certain “definite proportions” by weight.
This law of definite proportions was disputed for a
few years by Claude Berthollet (1748-1822), one
of Lavoisier’s collaborators in the new nomen-
clature, who believed that the composition of a
compound was variable, depending on the mass of
the reacting elements.
The Quaker school-teacher John Dalton
(1766-1844) first applied the atomic theory to the
new view of the elements in a paper read to the
Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society in
1803, and in his New System of Chemical Phi-
losophy (1808). Dalton’s interest in atoms began
with meteorology and the nature of the atmos-
phere. Following Boyle and Newton, he believed
that gases consisted of particles that repel each
other; but he thought that this repulsion was due to
caloric, since in 1801 he found that gas pressure
increased directly with increasing temperature. In
1802 the French chemist Joseph Gay-Lussac
(1778-1850) found a similar relation for the
volume of a gas, a result also demonstrated in
1787 by the French physicist Jacques Charles
(1746-1823), but not published. Charles was the
first to construct a hydrogen balloon, ascending in
1783 just 10 days after the first manned hot-air
balloon flight.
In 1804 Gay-Lussac used a hot-air bal-
loon to ascend some four miles. In 1805 he
collected air samples at high altitude and found
little change in the composition of the atmosphere.
This led Dalton to wonder why heavier gases do
not settle closer to the ground. He also observed
that water vapor added to dry air increased the
pressure by the amount of the vapor pressure of
the water at the same temperature. In 1801 he
stated his law of “partial pressures,” suggesting
that the total pressure of a mixture of gases is the
sum of the pressures that each constituent gas
would have by itself in the same volume. Each gas
was like a vacuum to the others. To explain these
results, he suggested that atoms of different
substances differ in their weight, and only atoms
of the same substance repel each other.
Dalton applied these ideas to all matter
and not just gases. The law of definite proportions
seemed to show that elements combine to form
compounds in small whole number ratios by
weight. He saw that he could explain this by
assuming that the atoms of different elements dif-
fer in weight by similar ratios, and that when two
elements combine to form a compound, each atom
of one element unites with one or a small whole
number of atoms of the other element.
Dalton began to apply this atomic idea to
the gases formed when carbon combines with
hydrogen and with oxygen. He found that methane
contained twice as much hydrogen as ethylene for
a given quantity of carbon (methane 3:1, ethylene
6:1). Carbonic acid (carbon dioxide) contained
twice as much oxygen as carbonic oxide (carbon
monoxide): the carbon-oxygen ratio in carbonic
acid was 3:8 and in carbonic oxide it was 3:4 by
weight. These simple ratios for more than one
compound of two elements led Dalton to his law of
multiple proportions in 1804, and the suggestion
that carbonic oxide is a compound with one atom
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 132

of carbon and one of oxygen, while carbonic acid
consists of one atom of carbon and two of oxygen.
By using the relative weights of the atoms
of different elements, Dalton established the first
quantitative atomic theory. Since hydrogen was
the lightest element, he took the weight of the
hydrogen atom to be one, and from his multiple
proportions he could calculate integers greater than
one for the atoms of the other elements. Thus
ethylene with a ratio of 6:1 for carbon to hydrogen
gave carbon an atomic weight of 6. Since he had
no way of determining the numbers of combining
atoms, he made the simplifying assumption that,
“When only one combination of two bodies can be
obtained, it must be presumed to be a binary one,
unless some cause appears to the contrary.” This
assumption that such compounds contain only one
atom from each element later proved to be
untenable. Using symbols for the elements, such as
for hydrogen, O for oxygen, and O
“azote” (nitrogen), Dalton drew up the first table
of atomic weights. He showed possible
combinations of these atoms to form various
chemical substances (see Figure 6.1).
The Swedish chemist Jakob Berzelius
(1779-1848) confirmed and extended Dalton’s
results, finding many more definite proportions by
about 1807. Berzelius also introduced the initial
letter of the Latin name (plus a second letter in
some cases) as symbols, such as H for hydrogen,
Cl for chlorine, and Cu for copper (cuprum). This
gave rise to the modern notation for compounds by
writing the letters for each element together, with
subscripts for more than one atom of a given
element. Thus Berzelius designated carbon mon-
oxide as CO and carbon dioxide as CO
Dalton’s usual assumption of binary
compounds led him to some mistaken relative
atomic weights. For example, he assumed that the
water “molecule” would consist of one hydrogen
and one oxygen atom (HO instead of H
O) accord-
ing to the reaction:
H + O → HO.
Since he found that hydrogen and oxygen com-
bined in a ratio of 1:7 (actually nearer 1:8), he
assigned a relative atomic weight of 7 to oxygen.

Avogadro’s Molecular Theory
A clue to the combining num-
bers of atoms came from the discovery
by Gay-Lussac in 1808 that the volumes
of combining gases, as well as that of
any gaseous products, are in simple
numerical ratios. Cavendish had ob-
served this for hydrogen and oxygen,
combining in the ratio of 2:1 by volume
to form water. Dalton’s theory did not
directly explain this volume relation-
ship. But from his view that the num-
bers of atoms of two combining ele-
ments are in simple numerical ratios, it
seemed likely that the volume ratio of
two combining gases was related to the
ratio of their combining atoms.
In 1811 the Italian physicist
Amedeo Avogadro (1776-1856) sug-
gested a simple explanation in his
“molecular hypothesis”: equal volumes
of different gases at the same pressure
and temperature contain equal numbers
of molecules. But this raised a problem:
Hydrogen Nitrogen Carbon Oxygen Phosphorus Sulfur
Water Ethylene Methane Nitric Acid
(CH) (CH ) (HO) (NO )
2 2
Acetic Acid Sulfuric Acid Nitrous Acid
(SO )
(N O )
(C H O )
2 2 3 2 3

Figure 6.1 Dalton’s Atomic Symbols and Combinations
Dalton used symbols to represent atoms and showed
possible combinations of these symbols to represent
substances. However, he based, these combinations on over-
simplified assumptions, leading to some later corrections
based on Avogadro’s hypothesis.
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 133

one volume of hydrogen combines with one
volume of chlorine to form two volumes of
hydrogen chloride, implying that one hydrogen
atom and one chlorine atom would form two
hydrogen chlorine molecules. To “balance” this
reaction, Avogadro suggested that some gases
consisted of molecules with two atoms of the same
element, so that:
+ Cl
→ 2 HCl,
where H
and Cl
are diatomic molecules. Also
one volume of nitrogen combines with one volume
of oxygen to form two volumes of nitric oxide gas,
suggesting the reaction:
+ O
→ 2 NO.
From Gay-Lussac (and Cavendish before
him) the ratio of combining volumes of hydrogen
and oxygen to form water is 2:1, so for Avogadro
the reaction would be:
2 H
+ O
→ 2 H
Thus Dalton’s combining-weight ratio of
1:7 = 2:14 for two hydrogen to one oxygen mole-
cule implies that the atomic weight of oxygen is 14
(actually 16) relative to one hydrogen. Avogadro
confirmed this by calculating the gas-density ratio
of oxygen to hydrogen, finding it to be slightly
more than 15. This corresponds to their mass ratio
in equal volumes, and thus their atomic-weight
ratio by his hypothesis.
Avogadro’s hypothesis was proposed
independently in 1814 by the French physicist
André Ampère, but was rejected by both Dalton
and Berzelius. As a result, it was largely forgotten
for nearly fifty years, and the atomic theory saw
little development until after 1860. Dalton held
that like atoms repel one another and cannot
combine. Berzelius suggested in 1812 that this
repulsion resulted from like charges in his
“electrochemical theory” of chemical affinity, in
which only unlike atoms with opposite charges
could form molecules. Gay-Lussac proposed that
identical volumes of gaseous elements contain the
same number of atoms, but not their compounds.
Berzelius accepted this idea and was able to use it
to calculate many correct atomic weights for a
table drawn up in the 1830s. For example, he held
that two atoms of hydrogen combine with one
atom of oxygen to form water as follows:
2 H + O → H
O .
Although this reaction was not correct in assuming
that hydrogen and oxygen as gases were
monatomic, it gave the right formula for water and
thus the right atomic weight for oxygen.
The London physician William Prout
(1785-1850) proposed another promising idea in
1815, but it was also rejected. Noting that atomic
weights are approximately integers relative to
hydrogen as unity, he suggested that atoms of the
other elements were combinations of varying
numbers of hydrogen atoms. However, Berzelius
and others soon found non-integer atomic weights,
such as 35.5 for chlorine. A new form of Prout’s
hypothesis emerged in the 20th century with the
idea that the nucleus of the atom contains an
integer number of protons. In 1824 Prout identified
hydrochloric acid in stomach secretions, and in
1827 he distinguished the organic groups we now
call carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.

Organic and Structural Chemistry
Organic chemistry began to develop in
the first half of the 19th century while atomic the-
ory languished. Berzelius suggested the distinction
between organic and inorganic substances, based
on whether their origin is in living tissue or not.
He believed that organic chemicals required a
“vital force” essential to life for their production.
In 1817 the French chemists Pierre Pelletier and
Joseph Caventou isolated a green compound from
plants that they called chlorophyll (green leaf),
which converts sunlight into chemical energy in
the photosynthesis process. In 1820 they isolated
several alkaloids, such as quinine and strychnine.
Two German chemists, Friedrich Wöhler
(1800-82), a student of Berzelius, and Justus von
Liebig (1803-73), a student of Gay-Lussac, inde-
pendently identified silver compounds, which they
found in 1824 to have identical composition but
different properties. Berzelius suggested the name
“isomers” (“equal parts”) for such compounds,
which demonstrated the importance of the struc-
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 134

ture of molecules as well as their composition. In
1828 Wöhler challenged the organic distinction
made by Berzelius, showing that a urea-like crystal
formed by heating ammonium cyanate was
identical to urea, a compound produced in the
kidney and found in mammalian urine. Liebig
helped to establish the view that oxidation of fats
and carbohydrates produce body heat and vital
activity, but for him “vitalism” was an effect rather
than a cause.
The problems of structural chemistry
stimulated a revival of atomic and molecular the-
ory. The French chemist Auguste Laurent (1807-
53) showed that, contrary to Berzelius’ electro-
chemical theory, some compounds did not seem to
depend on electrical attraction. Laurent developed
a theory of structural types, in which families of
organic compounds were based on atomic
groupings, called radicals, independent of electric
charge. In 1850 the English chemist Edward
Frankland (1825-99) prepared the first organic
compounds with atoms of metals forming an inte-
gral part of their molecules. His study of these
organometallic compounds showed that each metal
atom combined with a definite number of organic
groups. His “theory of valence” in 1852 suggested
that each type of atom has a fixed capacity
(valence) for combining with other atoms.
In 1858 at the University of Ghent in
Belgium, the German chemist Friedrich Kekulé
(1829-96) presented his theory that the atoms of
organic molecules form structural patterns based
on valence. Taking the valence of carbon as four,
he showed how one carbon atom can combine with
four other atoms, and several carbon atoms could
form a chain linking other atoms in various geo-
metric patterns to produce many different
compounds. He assigned positions to the atoms
based on a compound’s chemical behavior. Thus
he could account for many hydrocarbons by
simple structural formulas, such as the following:
| | | | | |
| | | | | |
Methane Ethane Propane
Since carbon atoms can combine in so many ways,
isomerism is very common among organic com-
pounds. Thus isomers of many hydrocarbons
proved to have the same formula but different
structures, such as butane (C
), which comes in
the normal form and in the form of isobutane (with
a boiling point about 10° lower), as shown in the
formulas below.
H H H H \ | | | /
| | | | C—C—C
H—C—C—C—C—H / | \
| | | | H C H
H H H H / | \
Normal butane Isobutane
As early as 1837, Liebig and his French
contemporary J. B. Dumas showed that certain
radicals play the same part in organic reactions as
atoms do in inorganic reactions. Kekulé was able
to incorporate such radicals into his structure
theory. For example, hydrocarbon derivatives
contain radicals such as the hydroxyl group OH,
which form alcohols, including the following:
| | |
| | |
Methyl alcohol Ethyl alcohol
But the development of such structural
models depended on a better molecular theory to
guide the determination of valences, leading
Kekulé to call the First International Chemical
Congress at Karlsruhe in 1860. Here the Italian
chemist Stanislao Cannizzaro (1826-1910) began a
campaign to revive the molecular theory of
Avogadro. In a pamphlet distributed at the con-
ference, he showed how the molecular weights of
many compounds could be determined from their
vapor densities using Avogadro’s hypothesis. Most
chemists soon recognized the validity of the
methods of Avogadro and Cannizzaro, and began
to determine the definitive atomic weights of the
elements and their valences.
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 135

Struggling with the structure of benzene
) in 1865, Kekulé was in a dream state when
he suddenly saw a carbon chain twisting like a
snake trying to swallow its tail. This led him to
propose a ring of carbon atoms, including three
double bonds, for the basic structure of benzene
(Figure 6.2). Combined with various radicals, the
benzene ring quickly found a place in accounting
for many other aromatic compounds.
Mendeléev’s Periodic Table
With atomic weights and valences of the
elements clarified in the 1860s, chemists began to
try to classify them into related groups. In London
the chemist John Newlands (1836-98) arranged the
elements according to increasing atomic weights in
1864, and found that every eighth element, starting
from any given one, had similar properties. This
periodic repetition reminded him of musical
octaves, so he called it the “law of octaves.” The
first three of his octaves are as follows:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
H Li Be B C N O
F Na Mg Al Si P S
Cl K Ca Cr Ti Mn Fe
However, in trying to form a complete classifica-
tion, he tended to force some elements into
anomalous relationships, leading some chemists to
say that he could do better arranging them
alphabetically. Except for hydrogen, pairs of ele-
ments in the first two “octaves” do show strong
mutual resemblances. But in the third octave
beginning with chromium (Cr), these resemblances
break down completely.
The periodic law was developed inde-
pendently and in its most complete form in 1869
by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeléev (1834-
1907). He was the fourteenth child of a Siberian
school teacher. Traveling thousands of miles to St.
Petersburg for schooling at the age of 14, he
eventually rose to great prominence as a professor
in the university there between 1867 and 1890. In
seeking to work out a periodic classification of the
elements, he used the properties of the elements
themselves to guide him, without any preconcep-
tion about the sizes of the periodic intervals.
Mendeléev stated the periodic law as
follows: “The properties of the elements are in
periodic dependence upon their atomic weights.”
One of his principal guides was valence. For ex-
ample, he dared to group tin with carbon and sili-
con because each had a valence of four, even
though only tin is a metal. In his earliest (1869)
version of the periodic table, he arranged the 63
known elements according to increasing atomic
weights and noticed a periodic variation of valence
given by 1-2-3-4-3-2-1, from lithium to fluorine
and from sodium to chlorine. This first effort
identified six periods of elements, but he found
that the periods could not contain equal numbers
of elements if similar properties were to be
matched without forcing their order.
Mendeléev’s first period consisted solely
of the two elements hydrogen and lithium. He set
hydrogen apart since its properties did not match
any known element. Since the noble gases were not
yet known, helium was missing between hydrogen
and lithium. The second period contained seven
elements, each the first member of a family of five
elements with similar properties extending over the
last five periods, except for sodium (Na), which
matches the properties of lithium. Elements in the
third period match those of the second period down

Figure 6.2 Kekulé’s Structure for Benzene
The benzene ring consists of six carbon atoms
linked to each other in a ring that included
double bonds and attached hydrogen atoms
consistent with carbon’s valence of four.
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 136

to potassium (K), but Mendeléev extended the third
period to 12 elements, since the properties of the
next dozen elements did not match those of any
lighter element. Thus he proposed that the elements
from calcium (Ca) to copper (Cu) are the first
members of new families, as shown in the table
below based on Mendeléev’s first table.
Mendeléev’s Periodic Table (1869)
Ti - 50 Zr - 90 ? - 180
V - 51 Nb - 94 Ta- 182
Cr - 52 Mo -96 W- 186
Mn-55 Rh-104 Pt - 197
Fe - 56 Ru-104 Ir - 198
NiCo59 Pd -107 Os -199
H - 1 Cu - 63 Ag-108 Hg -200
Be - 9.4 Mg -24 Zn - 65 Cd-112
B - 11 Al - 27 ? - 68 U -116 Au -197
C - 12 Si - 28 ? - 70 Sn -118
N - 14 P - 31 As - 75 Sb -122 Bi - 210
O - 16 S - 30 Se - 79 Te -128
F - 19 Cl-35.5 Br - 80 I - 127
Li - 7 Na - 23 K - 39 Rb - 85 Cs -133 Tl - 204
Ca -40 Sr - 88 Ba -137 Pb -207
? - 45 Ce - 92
?Er -56 La - 94
?Yt -60 Dy- 95
?In -76 Th-118
Mendeléev expressed doubt about some measured
atomic weights as underlined in the table, and he
shifted the order of these elements to match the
properties of other elements in a given row.
Question marks next to symbols indicate elements
that had been recently discovered and not suffi-
ciently confirmed. Question marks in place of
symbols represented elements as yet undiscovered
at the time, but left unfilled to obtain a better
match of the known elements.
In 1870 the German chemist Lothar
Meyer (1830-95) confirmed Mendeléev’s periodic
law when he found that atomic volumes plotted
against atomic weights showed a similar periodic
variation, with a series of peaks and valleys
matching Mendeléev’s periods. Meyer obtained
his atomic volumes from the ratio of atomic
weight to density for each element, and he showed
that they had clearly defined peak values corre-
sponding to lithium (Li), sodium (Na), potassium
(K), rubidium (Rb) and Cesium (Cs). These peaks
were progressively higher with increasing atomic
weight, indicating larger associated atoms.
By 1871 Mendeléev was confident
enough to predict the existence of elements corre-
sponding to the gaps left in his periodic table, as
indicated by question marks and estimated atomic
weights. From the position of these three element
gaps, he predicted their properties accurately
enough to lead to their discoveries over the next
few years. The element gallium was discovered in
1874, filling the position below zinc; scandium in
1879, fitting below calcium; and germanium in
1885, filling the second gap below zinc, each
named for the country of its discovery.
Most modern versions of the periodic
table group the periods in seven horizontal rows,
and each element has an atomic number indicating
the order of its appearance in the periodic
classification. Families of elements with similar
properties then appear in vertical columns called
groups. The first of the seven periods contains
only hydrogen and helium. The second and third
periods contain 8 elements each, ending with the
noble gases neon and argon. The fourth and fifth
periods contain 18 elements each, ending with the
noble gases krypton and xenon. The sixth period
contains 32 elements, including 14 lanthanide rare
earths following lanthanum, usually set apart for
reasons of space. The seventh and final period is
incomplete, but includes another 14 actinide rare
earths following actinium, with properties
matching the lanthanides.

Heat and the Steam Engine
The study of heat and its relation to en-
ergy paralleled the development of the new
chemistry. In addition to his pioneering study of
gases, Joseph Black (1728-99) also initiated the
quantitative study of heat in 1761, treating it as an
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 137

imponderable material substance even before it
received the name “caloric” in the new nomencla-
ture of 1787. But his work on heat was not pub-
lished until 1803, four years after his death, intro-
ducing the quantitative techniques of calorimetry.
Black was the first to clearly distinguish between
heat and temperature, aided by the development of
the thermometer.
About 1600 Galileo used the expansion of
air in a long-neck flask inverted over water to try
to quantify temperature from the motion of water
in the neck of this “thermoscope.” About 1650 his
disciples in Florence used the expansion of alcohol
with the flask upright. Newton suggested the need
for two reference points for defining the size of the
degree. The German-Dutch scientist Daniel
Fahrenheit (1686-1736) reported on the first
accurate mercury thermometer in 1724, using ice
in salt brine and body temperature as reference
points. Eventually the Fahrenheit scale was
standardized with 32°F for the freezing point and
212°F for the boiling point of water. The Swedish
astronomer Anders Celsius (1701-44) introduced
the “centigrade” scale in 1742, with 100°C for
freezing and 0°C for boiling, but this was reversed
the next year.
Black made the distinction between tem-
perature as the intensity or degree of sensible heat
versus the quantity of heat required to change the
temperature or state (phase) of a substance. Based
on careful measurements, he defined the quantity
of heat added to a substance as proportional to the
mass of the substance and its temperature change.
He then found that the same mass of different sub-
stances required different quantities of heat for the
same change in temperature. Each substance had
its own specific heat. Taking water as a standard
(specific heat = 1), he defined one kilocalorie
(Cal) of heat as the quantity required to change the
temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1°C.
Black also observed that heat added in
melting ice or boiling water does not change the
temperature of either, and that the quantity of heat
to change the phase of a substance is proportional
to the mass changed. He measured this insensible
or latent heat that is apparently stored in the water
or steam without changing its temperature. Latent
heat of about 80 Cal changes 1 kilogram of ice to
water at 0°C, and about 540 Cal changes 1 kilo-
gram of water to steam at a constant 100°C. The
same quantities of latent heat must escape to
condense steam or freeze water. Black developed
the methods of calorimetry to measure heat
exchanges between substances by mixing them in
an insulated “calorimeter” vessel and measuring
their temperature changes. By assuming
conservation of heat, he was able to equate the
heat lost by the warmer substances to the heat
gained by the colder substances.
Black’s analysis helped to explain the
improvements made in the steam engine by his
associate at the University of Glasgow, the
instrument-maker James Watt (1736-1819). In
1763 Watt was asked to repair a demonstration
model of the Newcomen steam engine, which
consisted of a boiler to introduce steam into a
cylinder fitted with a piston that moved up and
down in the cylinder as the steam expanded and
condensed. Condensing steam produced a partial
vacuum in the cylinder, permitting air pressure to
act on the piston. While repairing the engine, he
recognized that most of the heat was wasted in
reheating the walls of the cylinder in each cycle
after cold water was injected to condense the
steam. In terms of Black’s measurements, 540 Cal
per kg of condensed steam had to be removed in
each stroke of the piston.
In 1765 Watt devised a separate container
to serve as an external condenser, which could be
kept at low temperature and pressure while the
cylinder could be kept hot all the time (see Figure
6.3). By not having to reheat the cylinder in each
cycle, Watt’s engine operated more rapidly and
could do more than twice as much work with the
same amount of fuel. He also attached a pump to
the condenser to remove the condensed steam and
maintain a partial vacuum. Watt also allowed
steam to enter alternately on either side of the
piston, so that air pressure drove the piston both
ways during condensation. In 1774 Watt joined
with Matthew Boulton in Birmingham to
manufacture steam engines, and by 1800 some 500
of their external-condenser engines were fueling
the Industrial Revolution.
In the English midlands, Watt and Boul-
ton met on a monthly basis with a dozen other
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 138

businessmen and scientists in the so-called Lunar
Society to further their interest in the practical
utility of science. Several tended toward political
radicalism and Nonconformist theology, including
Priestley and Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of
Charles). One study of English and Welsh indus-
trial entrepreneurs in the 1770s concluded that
41% were Nonconformists compared to only 7%
of the general population. They constituted a great
diversity, including Quaker, Baptist, Methodist
and Unitarian, but they usually shared a certain
independence of mind and moral courage. As the
principal heirs of Puritanism, they valued science
for its material benefits.
The use of steam power emphasized the
connection between heat and motion in doing
work. The Newtonian idea of heat as particle
motion rather than an impon-
derable caloric fluid was re-
vived by the American-born
Benjamin Thompson (1753-
1814), better known as Count
Rumford. He sided with the
British in the American Revo-
lution, and left for Britain after
the war. Knowing of Black’s
measurement of the large
quantity of heat given up by
water when it freezes, he tried
to detect any change in the
weight of water in this change
of phase. Finding none, he
concluded that heat is not a
caloric fluid, but is a form of
From 1785 to 1796,
Rumford managed a munitions
factory in Bavaria, where he
received the title of count for
his service. While boring can-
non, he noticed the production
of large amounts of heat,
usually explained as the release
of caloric as the metal was cut
away. In a 1798 issue of the
Philosophical Transactions he
published “An Inquiry
concerning the Source of Heat
which is excited by Friction,” in which he
described his experiments:
Being engaged, lately, in superintending the
boring of cannon in the workshops of the
military arsenal at Munich, I was struck with
the very considerable degree of heat which a
brass gun acquires, in a short time, in being
bored; and with the still more intense heat
(much greater than that of boiling water, as I
found by experiment), of the metallic chips
separated from it by the borer.
He challenged the idea that caloric was released
from the metal when it was chipped away by not-
ing that even more heat escaped with a dull drill
when no metal was cut, enough to melt the metal if
it was trapped as caloric. He concluded that the
Heat added
Heat removed
540 Cal/kg
> Work done

Figure 6.3 James Watt’s External Condenser Steam Engine
In early steam engines, the cylinder was cooled in each cycle to
condense spent steam. Watt introduced an external condenser,
which could be kept cold while removing 540 Calories of heat per
kilogram of condensed steam without cooling the cylinder. Steam
from the boiler enters the cylinder through the intake valve and
pushes the piston out. Steam condensation in the condenser
produces a partial vacuum, so when the exhaust valve opens the
spent steam rushes out of the cylinder into the condenser and air
pressure pushes the piston back. Since the cylinder remains hot,
the steam engine could operate at much higher speeds.
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 139

mechanical motion of the drill agitated particles in
the metal to move, confirming that heat was a form
of motion (Figure 6.4):
It is hardly necessary to add, that any thing
which any insulated body, or system of
bodies, can continue to furnish without limi-
tation, cannot possibly be a material sub-
stance: and it appeared to me to be
extremely difficult, if not quite impossible,
to form any distinct idea of any thing,
capable of being excited, and communi-
cated, in the manner the heat was excited
and communicated in the experiments,
except it be MOTION.
In spite of this evidence against the caloric theory
of Lavoisier, only a few scientists accepted Rum-
ford’s views during the next 50 years. In 1799 he
established the Royal Institution in London, and in
1804 he went to Paris, where he married
Lavoisier’s widow.
Dissipation of Heat
The mathematical study of heat and the
steam engine were pursued in France in the early
19th century by scientists and engineers trained in
a more theoretical tradition than in Britain. The
French mathematician Joseph Fourier (1768-1830)
developed a new method of mathematical analysis
in 1807, in which he represented a
certain class of functions by an infinite
trigonometric series. He applied this
theorem to the conduction of heat
through solids in his Analytical Theory
of Heat (1822). His interest was pri-
marily in the “class of phenomena
which are not produced by mechanical
forces,” and viewed thermal phenomena
as distinct from mechanics, as in the
flow of heat from hot to cold until it
reaches equilibrium.
The relation between heat and
mechanical effects was especially evi-
dent in the steam engine, which was
developed by the British but first ana-
lyzed theoretically by the French army
engineer Sadi Carnot (1796-1832). His
father Lazare Carnot (1753-1823) was a
mathematician who had studied the operation of
the water wheel. The younger Carnot saw in his
father’s work an analogy for analyzing the
operation of a steam engine and heat engines in
general. His only publication, entitled Reflections
on the Motive Power of Fire (1824), developed
this analogy.
We may justly compare the motive power of
heat with that of a fall of water. The motive
force of a water fall depends on the height
and quantity of fluid: the motive force of
heat depends upon the quantity of caloric
employed and what we may call the height
of its fall, that is to say, the difference in
temperature of the bodies between which the
caloric is exchanged.
This analogy led Carnot to introduce the basic
principle that the amount of work done by the pis-
ton of a mechanically perfect steam engine
depends only on the temperature difference
between the boiler and the condenser and the
amount of heat flow between them. But his adher-
ence to the theory of caloric and its conservation
led him to the wrong conclusion that no heat was
converted into mechanical work.
Carnot’s principle showed how to maxi-
mize the thermal efficiency of heat engines by
approaching as nearly as possible an ideal Carnot
Motion Heat
Drill bit
Cannon barrel

Figure 6.4 Rumford’s Idea of Heat as Motion
Rumford observed the heat produced in boring cannon
barrels and theorized that the motion of the drill bit is
transferred to the particles of the metal in the cannon
barrel, and thus that heat is a form of motion. Opponents
suggested that caloric fluid is trapped in the metal and
released when the drill bit chips away metal filings. But
Rumford noted heat production even by a dull drill bit
without chipping any metal, confirming his theory.
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 140

cycle. In the Carnot engine, an idealized gas
absorbs a quantity of heat Q at a constant upper
temperature T
(isothermal), cools without heat
transfer (adiabatic), contracts and ejects heat Q at a
constant lower temperature T
, and then returns to
the original high temperature by adiabatic
compression, allowing for maximum “heat fall”
between T
and T
. Such a cycle is “reversible” in
that the work it produces can be used to run an
identical engine backwards, transferring the same
quantity of heat from the low to the high tem-
Carnot also established the idea that the
maximum possible efficiency is the same for all
heat engines of any type operating between the
same two temperature levels. He demonstrated this
by showing that two ideal heat engines with
different efficiencies, operating between the same
temperatures, would result in the absurd possibility
of perpetual motion. If the more efficient engine
drives the less efficient one in reverse, the second
engine could pump heat from the lower to the
higher temperature, maintaining or even increasing
the temperature difference and thus doing endless
work without adding fuel. In 1830 Carnot finally
realized that some heat was converted into work
and he abandoned the caloric theory, but he died in
the cholera epidemic of 1832 before his notes
could be published.
Another French engineer B. P. E. Clap-
eyron (1799-1864) analyzed Carnot’s ideas in
1834 with the aid of pressure-volume graphs of
heat-engine cycles. He showed that the area of
such a graph gives the work done in a cycle and
suggested the quantitative definition of efficiency
as the ratio of work done divided by the heat
supplied. The relatively low efficiency of even
ideal heat engines revealed the limitations of
extracting work from heat. Furthermore, the
natural tendency of heat to flow from high to low
temperatures suggested that heat becomes increas-
ingly less available to do work. This dissipation of
heat was later formalized by Lord Kelvin in the
second law of thermodynamics after caloric theory
was replaced by the ideas of convertibility of heat
into energy and conservation of energy in the first
law of thermodynamics, leading to the absolute
temperature scale.
Conservation of Energy
While the English and French developed
the mechanical view of nature, which separated
matter from spirit, the Germans followed the
iatrochemists and Leibniz in affirming that spiri-
tual activity and vital forces permeated nature. In
the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant suggested
that matter is constituted by the interaction and
balancing of forces. The German school of nature-
philosophy (Naturphilosophie), initiated by
Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854) at the end of the
century, supported the ideas of vitalism and the
unity of the forces of nature. These ideas
influenced Thomas Young, who suggested the
word “energy” for the “living force” (vis viva) of
Leibniz, but the Germans continued to use the
word “force” (kraft) in developing the energy
concept. Young and Humphry Davy developed
Rumford’s idea that heat was a form of motion,
but the caloric theory of heat still dominated the
first half of the nineteenth century.
The German physician Julius Robert
Mayer (1814-1878) first suggested the general law
of conservation of energy in all its forms. As a
ship’s doctor in the tropics, Mayer noticed that the
venous blood of European passengers, not yet
acclimated to the tropics, was a brighter red than
the working crew members. He reasoned that
oxygen increases the redness of the blood, and that
crew members were utilizing oxygen faster to
combine with food in producing heat and work.
Thus they converted chemical energy into me-
chanical work by the muscles, and then into body
heat. Mayer suggested that the ultimate source of
all energy on Earth was the Sun. He tried to pub-
lish his ideas in a German physics journal, but they
were rejected due to lack of experimental data. In
1842 his work was published in a chemical journal
edited by Liebig, who supported the idea of
chemical combustion of food.
Mayer’s paper was largely overlooked,
but another German physician, Hermann von
Helmholtz (1821-94), arrived at the same ideas
independently from the study of muscle action,
and worked them out in much greater detail. His
work was also rejected at first, but in 1847 he
published it in an influential booklet entitled Die
Erhaltung der Kraft (On the Conservation of
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 141

Force). In arguing that heat and other kinds of
energy (“force”) were equivalent and intercon-
vertible, he was able to express the law of conser-
vation of energy in a mathematical form, and to
state the principle that the total amount of energy
in the universe was constant. In opposition to
vitalism, he showed that food can account for
animal heat and motion, and that an additional
vital force would make them into perpetual motion
machines. In 1854 Helmholtz calculated that
gravitational contraction of gas to form the Sun
could provide enough energy to fuel the Sun for
about 25 million years.
Conservation of energy was established
experimentally by the Scottish amateur scientist
James Prescott Joule (1818-89), a student of Dal-
ton, at his family brewery in Manchester from
1840 to 1847. By systematic measurements, he
showed that several different forms of energy
could be converted into the same quantity of heat.
In 1840 he measured the heat produced by a wire
carrying an electric current by measuring the
change in temperature of the water in which he
submerged the wire. He showed that the quantity
of heat generated in a given time was proportional
to the electric energy, which he measured from the
square of the electric current in a relation now
known as Joule’s law. He suggested that the elec-
tric energy converts into heat by the frictional
effect of electric current flowing through the wire.
Joule also recognized that work done
against gravity produces a gravitational potential
energy that can then do work. Thus an object of
weight mg gains potential energy mgh when it is
raised to a height h equal to the work done in
raising it (P.E. = F
d = mgh). By attaching an
object to a cord passing over pulleys and then
wrapped around the axle of a paddle wheel
submerged in water, he could release the object to
convert its potential energy into rotational energy
Work = 2mgh Heat
4,186 joules 1 Cal

Figure 6.5 Joule’s Measurement of the Mechanical Equivalence of Heat
Between 1840 and 1848, Joule performed several experiments to show that the same amount of
mechanical work always produces the same quantity of heat. In one experiment, Joule determined
the work done in stirring water by measuring the distance (h) that hanging weights (mg) move under
the influence of gravity to rotate the stirring blades. The heating of the water was measured from its
change in temperature. In this way it can be shown that 4186 joules of work always produce one
kilocalorie (Cal) of heat, confirming that heat is a form of mechanical energy.
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 142

of the paddle wheel to agitate the water (Figure
6.5). Again he found that the quantity of heat
produced in the water was proportional to the
mechanical work done. He also compared the
work in compressing a gas to the heat generated.
In all these cases, Joule found that the same
amount of energy produced the same quantity of
heat within his experimental limits.
The modern unit of energy is named in
Joule’s honor, where one joule (J) is the work done
by one newton of force acting over one meter.
Joule’s mechanical equivalent of heat is 4186
J/Cal. Initially the Royal Society rejected Joule’s
work, but it appeared in a Manchester newspaper
in 1847 after he presented it to the British Asso-
ciation for the Advancement of Science (founded
in 1831). There it caught the attention of the young
Scottish mathematician William Thomson (Lord
Kelvin), who recognized the importance of Joule’s
work and was able to win its acceptance and
secure Joule’s reputation. Together with the work
of Helmholtz, who also gave public recognition to
the contribution of Mayer, the law of conservation
of energy was established on a firm theoretical and
quantitative basis.

Thermodynamics and Kinetic Theory
William Thomson (1824-1907), who be-
came Lord Kelvin in 1892, was the son of a
mathematics professor at the University of Glas-
gow, where he became a student at age eleven and
professor in 1846 after graduate work in Paris.
About 1850 he began an attempt to reconcile the
ideas of Carnot and Clapeyron with those of Joule
and Helmholtz in what he called
“thermodynamics.” Carnot’s use of the caloric
theory had led him to suggest that the heat Q ab-
sorbed by a steam engine did not change into work
in falling to a lower temperature. After showing
that work does convert into heat, Joule argued that
some of the heat absorbed by a heat engine
transforms into work. Thus the work done by any
heat engine is given by W = Q
- Q
, where Q
the same as Carnot’s heat Q from the boiler, and
is the heat returned to the condenser.
Thomson recognized two principles of
thermodynamics in the work of Carnot as modified
by Joule: conservation of energy (but not heat) in
converting heat to work W = Q
- Q
, and the
dissipation of energy in the form of heat Q

rejected at the lower temperature of the condenser.
Energy is not destroyed, but it becomes less avail-
able to do work as it dissipates in the form of heat
at lower temperatures. Thomson recognized that
useful energy is continually decreasing and that
this dissipation of energy defines a direction for
the flow of time. In 1846 he calculated that a
steady rate of cooling would lower the Earth’s
temperature to its present value in about 100 mil-
lion years if it was originally at the temperature of
the Sun.
In 1848 Thomson saw in the Carnot cycle
the possibility of an absolute temperature scale
independent of the variable expansion rates of dif-
ferent materials. In 1854 he proposed that equal
increments of temperature in an ideal heat engine
correspond to equal amounts of work, and he
showed that this correlates closely with a gas
thermometer in which the volume diminishes by
1/273 of its volume at 0°C for every drop of 1°C.
Thus the so-called Kelvin scale begins with abso-
lute zero temperature 0°K = -273°C (modern
value: -273.15°C), and the freezing point of water
is T
= 273K. Thomson also expressed the effi-
ciency of Carnot’s ideal heat-engine as 1-T
when operating between absolute temperatures T

and T

and suggested that molecular
energies fall to zero at absolute zero temperature.
Working independently at the suggestion
of Thomson, the German physicist Rudolf Clau-
sius (1822-88) confirmed and extended the ideas
of thermodynamics. He recognized that an ideal
heat engine could convert all of its heat into work
(100% efficiency) only if it operated with its lower
(exhaust) temperature at absolute zero with no heat
rejected. At higher temperatures the heat transfer
Q increases in proportion to the absolute
temperature T so that the ratio Q/T remains
constant in an ideal heat engine, but increases in an
ordinary engine due to larger heat rejection. In
1865 Clausius took this ratio as a measure of heat
dissipation (heat unavailable to do work) and gave
it the name entropy, suggesting that it increases in
all isolated natural processes. For example, as an
object loses heat to its surroundings, its
temperature decreases so its entropy increases.
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 143

In his classic generalization of thermo-
dynamics, Clausius could express the first and
second laws in the twin statements:
Law I. The energy of the universe is constant.
Law II. The entropy of the universe always
The second law appeared to put limits on the uni-
verse. The deistic clock-world of the mechanists
appeared to be running down. Although its energy
is conserved by the first law, it becomes
increasingly unavailable by the second. The
steadily increasing entropy of the universe led
some philosophers to speak of its eventual “heat
death,” when the last temperature difference will
disappear in cold conformity. The closed circle of
mechanical laws was finally broken.
In 1857 Clausius initiated a dynamical
interpretation of thermodynamics in terms of
molecular motions when he revived the kinetic
theory of gases. The theory was introduced in
1738 by the Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli
(1700-82), who explained the pressure of a gas in
terms of the collisions of atoms in random motion
on the wall of its container. In 1848 Joule used
similar assumptions with elastic collisions to
derive the ideal gas law relating pressure, volume
and temperature (PV/T = constant), and calculated
the average speed of a water vapor molecule at
100°C to be more than 1 mile/sec.
By treating heat as the total energy of the
moving molecules, Clausius was able to connect
kinetic theory, thermodynamics, and chemistry.
Resorting to a statistical analysis, he could relate
the measurable heat constants of a gas to the
atomic structure of its molecules. The Scottish
physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79) devel-
oped the statistical implications of kinetic theory
in 1866. Using probability, he calculated the dis-
tribution of molecular energies above and below
the average. Kinetic theory showed that absolute
temperature is proportional to the average kinetic
energy of the molecules. Then, for example,
cooling by evaporation (perspiration, etc.) could be
explained as the more probable loss of faster
molecules from a liquid, reducing the average
energy of its molecules and thus its temperature.
Both Maxwell and the Austrian physicist
Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906) demonstrated the
statistical nature of entropy. Maxwell pointed out
that heat could be made to flow from a cold gas to
a hot gas by a unique being, later called Maxwell’s
demon, who would only let the fastest molecules
in the cold gas pass to the hot gas, and the slowest
molecules in the hot gas pass to the cold. Such an
idea for decreasing entropy was meant to show
that the second law is not absolute. In fact, living
organisms do reverse entropy in achieving greater
molecular organization, but only by receiving an
excess of energy from the Sun, and thus an
increase in the entropy of the universe. In 1877
Boltzmann demonstrated statistically that entropy
corresponds to the high probability that systems
tend toward states of greater disorder.
The mechanical universe of deism had
removed God to a transcendent realm beyond any
influence on the world. Now energy, with its uni-
versal, indestructible and active character, pointed
to an energistic universe anticipated by the ro-
mantic poets and nature philosophers, with their
pantheistic view of God immanent in nature. But
entropy, by contrast, was like a satanic virus, pro-
gressively destroying the creative works of energy
in its march towards death. By the same token, the
fact that the universe is winding down implies that
it must have once been wound up. The fact that it
has not yet completely unwound points to a
creative beginning at a finite time in the past, and
the possibility of a creative renewal in the future.
Waves and Sound.
The active nature of energy is
especially evident in wave phenomena. A wave
is the propagation of a disturbance, usually in
the form of a periodic vibration, through an
elastic medium. Waves differ from particle
emission by the fact that only energy pro-
pagates, but not matter. In longitudinal waves
such as sound, the vibrations are parallel to the
direction of propagation, while in transverse
waves such as those on a string, the vibrations
are perpendicular to the direction of pro-
pagation. Sound has been long associated with
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 144

vibrations and waves, but the wave nature of light
was not established until the nineteenth century.
A water wave causes a floating cork to
vibrate up and down as the wave moves along the
surface of the water. The height of the crest or
depth of the trough in a wave is called its ampli-
tude. The frequency f of the wave is the number of
vibrations per second at any point on the wave,
and the wavelength λ (Greek letter lambda) is the
distance from crest to crest (Figure 6.6). Since the
crest of a wave travels one wavelength in each
vibration, it will travel f wavelengths per second,
so the speed v of wave propagation is given by the
v = λf.
Since the wave speed remains constant in any
given medium, its wavelength will decrease as the
frequency increases and vice versa.
About 1600 Galileo recognized the me-
chanical nature of sound vibrations. He established
the relation between the pitch of sound and the
frequency of its vibrations by
scraping along the notched edge
of a coin at different rates. The
French friar Marin Mersenne
(1588-1648) reported the same
relation in his Harmonie Uni-
verselle (1636) by counting the
vibrations of long strings. In 1640
he and his fellow Minorite friar
Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655)
estimated the speed of sound by
timing echoes over known
distances, showing that the speed
was independent of the pitch.
About 1660 Boyle and Hooke
demonstrated that sound does not
propagate in a vacuum, but
required the “spring of the air.”
In his Principia (1687),
Newton obtained a theoretical
value for the speed of a sound
wave by assuming longitudinal
vibrations of air are governed by
Boyle’s law (isothermal pressure
variations). In 1708 the English
theologian William Derham
(1657-1735) attempted to verify
Newton’s result by measuring
the difference in time between
the flash of a cannon and its blast
over a distance of 12 miles. He
came close to the modern value
of 344 m/sec (at 20
C), but his
result exceeded Newton’s value
by about 20 percent. Laplace
corrected Newton’s analysis in
λ λ λ
f = 1/ T
v = / T = f
frequency (vib/sec) (a) Transverse Wave
compression - rarefaction
(b) Longitudinal Wave

Figure 6.6 Transverse and Longitudinal Waves
(a) In a transverse wave, such as in light or on a string,
vibrations of the wave medium are perpendicular to the
direction of the wave propagation. The time for one vibration is
called the period (T) and the number of vibrations per second is
the frequency (f = 1/T). The wavelength is the distance from
peak to peak. Since the wave travels one wavelength (λ) in one
vibration (T), the speed of the wave is given by v = λ/T = λf.
(b) In a longitudinal wave such as in sound, vibrations of the
wave medium are parallel to the direction of the wave pro-
pagation. When sound travels through air, molecules of air move
closer together at some points (compression) and further apart
at other points (rarefaction). These points are propagated at a
characteristic speed (v) through the air. The time that air
molecules take to vibrate back and forth from compression to
rarefaction and back again is the period (T) and the number of
such vibrations per second is the frequency (f). The distance
from one point of compression to the next is the wavelength (λ).
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 145

1802 by accounting for tem-
perature variations due to
rapid vibrations without time
for heat transfer (adiabatic
heating and cooling during
compression and rarefaction).
In the same decade, the
German physicist Ernst
Chladni (1756-1827) meas-
ured the speed of sound in
various gases from the change
in pitch they produced in a
pipe, and demonstrated the
various vibrational patterns of
thin plates.
At the beginning of
the eighteenth century, the
French physicist Joseph
Sauveur (1653-1716) showed
that strings can vibrate simul-
taneously at a fundamental
frequency and at higher in-
teger multiples of the funda-
mental that he called
“harmonics” (Figure 6.7). The
fundamental corresponds to a
half wavelength along the
length of the string, yielding
the maximum amplitude by
constructive interference, and
causing the loudest tone called
resonance. The second har-
monic (first overtone) corre-
sponds to one wavelength
along the string, and thus
twice the frequency of the
fundamental (one octave
higher). Sauveur also de-
scribed the pulsations in loudness called “beats”
that result from two closely spaced tones sounded
together. He introduced the term “acoustics” for
the scientific study of sound.
The German physicist Georg Ohm (1789-
1854) stated in 1843 that the ear perceives all
sounds as a combination of their harmonics.
Ohm’s “law of acoustics” was the basis of the
“resonance theory of hearing” introduced by Her-
mann von Helmholtz (1821-94) in 1863. This
theory proposed that differences in pitch are per-
ceived by structures of the inner ear (now identi-
fied with sensory hairs along a spiral membrane in
the cochlea) that resonate at different frequencies.
He showed how the particular combination of a
fundamental and its overtones gives a sound
source its unique quality. He also suggested that
discordant sounds in music were the result of tone
combinations that caused beats at unpleasantly low
Destructive: cancellation
Constructive: reinforcement
(a) Interference of waves traveling through the same medium
(b) Standing waves at resonant frequencies (natural vibrations)
Destructive Constructive
1st harmonic 2nd harmonic 3rd harmonic
(fundamental) (overtones: octave and fifth)
(resulting displacement: dotted lines)

Figure 6.7 Interference of Waves and Standing Wave Harmonics
(a) Two waves in the same medium interfere with each other by the
superposition of their displacements. When the waves are one-half
wavelength out of phase, the crest of one wave overlaps the trough
of the other so that they cancel each other in what is known as
destructive interference. When the waves are in phase with each
other, they reinforce each other in constructive interference with the
resulting amplitude (maximum height of the wave) equal to the sum
of the amplitudes of the individual waves.
(b) When a wave is reflected at a boundary, it interferes with the
transmitted wave. On a string fixed at both ends, these reflections
interfere both constructively and destructively to produce standing
waves with characteristic frequencies called harmonics. The lowest
frequency (first harmonic) is called the “fundamental” and forms a
half wavelength over the length of the string. At twice the
fundamental frequency, a standing wave of one wavelength forms
the first overtone of the fundamental (second harmonic) an
“octave” higher than the fundamental. At three times the
fundamental frequency, the third harmonic forms with three half
wavelengths as an “octave” plus a “fifth” above the fundamental.
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 146

Revival of the Wave Theory of Light
During the eighteenth century light was
usually described by Newton’s particle emission
theory, ignoring his idea that light particles also
involved vibrations in the aether. Although some
scientists supported Huygens’ “wave theory,”
including Leonhard Euler (1707-83) and Benjamin
Franklin (1706-90), they did not find a viable
alternative to the particle theory. One difficulty
was the fact that sound waves spread around
corners (diffraction), but light seemed to cast sharp
shadows. By the end of the century, however, the
particle theory of light came under attack by the
German nature philosophers, led by the poet-
philosopher Johann von Goethe (1749-1832), who
believed in the purity of white light and that colors
were due to the conflict between light and
Thomas Young (1773-1829) revived the
wave theory of light on a more solid experimental
basis about 1801, but it was not widely accepted
for several years. Young was a child prodigy from
a Quaker family, who knew a dozen languages by
the age of twelve. He studied medicine under the
aging Joseph Black at Edinburgh, where animal
dissections led him to the discovery in 1793 of the
principle of visual accommodation, whereby the
eye focuses on objects at different distances by
changes in the curvature of the eye lens. Later he
explained astigmatism as an irregular curvature of
the cornea, and introduced the three-color theory
of vision. Young completed his physics degree in
1796 at the University of Göttingen in Germany,
where he became interested in wave theories. In a
thesis on sound, he suggested that both sound and
light are wave vibrations, and that colors are
analogous to tones of different frequencies. In
1799 he obtained a medical degree at Cambridge.
About 1800 Young used the principle of
interference of waves to demonstrate the wave
nature of light and to measure its wavelength. He
described how two waves can reinforce each other
when their amplitudes overlap in constructive
interference, or cancel when they oppose each
other in destructive interference (Figure 6.7a):
When two undulations, from different ori-
gins, coincide either perfectly or very nearly
in direction, their joint effect is a combina-
tion of the motions belonging to each... It
has been shown that two equal series of
waves proceeding from centres near each
other, may be seen to destroy each other’s
effects at certain points, and at others to
redouble them; and the beating of two
sounds has been explained from a similar
Thus when two identical waves are in phase (crest
to crest), their combined amplitude doubles, but
when they are out of phase (crest to trough) their
combined amplitude cancels. Young explained
Newton’s rings, formed when the curved surface
of a lens is pressed against a flat glass surface, as
the interference of light waves reflected from the
two adjacent surfaces. From the length of the air
gap separating the surfaces at a given ring, using
Newton’s own data, he could calculate the
wavelength that would be reinforced to give the
ring its particular color.
Young presented a paper to the Royal
Society in 1801 on his double-slit experiment,
which combined diffraction and interference. He
found that light passing through two closely
spaced parallel slits in a screen formed several
alternating bright and dark bands of light on a
second screen placed behind the first, instead of
just the two bands of light expected from a particle
view (Figure 6.8). Young explained this by
suggesting that light waves spread out from each
of the slits by diffraction, and then the spreading
waves combine on the second screen through
interference to form bright and dark bands by
reinforcing and cancelling each other. From the
separation of the slits, screens and bands, he
calculated the wavelengths of various colors. He
found red light to form more widely separated
bands than violet light. The measured data give a
wavelength for red light of about 0.7 micron
(millionth of a meter) and a wavelength for violet
light of about 0.4 micron. Colors appeared as
continuous variations in wavelengths.
In the double-slit experiment with white
light, longer wavelengths reinforce at larger angles
within a given band and shorter wavelengths
reinforce at smaller angles, dispersing the light of
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 147

each bright band into a spectrum from violet to red
at increasing angles from the center of the screen,
much like the action of a prism. Young pointed out
that the wavelengths of light were so small
compared to visible objects that they would
usually appear to travel in straight lines and cast
sharp shadows. Such short wavelengths combine
with the speed of light (c = λf = 3x10
m/sec) to
give extremely high frequencies for light on the
order of a million- billion (10
) vib/sec. Rather
than the inert particles of the mechanists, light
appeared to be an active vibration beyond the
imagination of even Leibniz or Huygens.
Development of the Wave Theory of Light
At first, Young assumed that light waves
were longitudinal. But he was puzzled by the
phenomenon of “polarization,” first named by
Newton in connection with the formation of two
images by double refraction in the calcite crystal
(Iceland spar). If light passes through two such
crystals rotated relative to each other, every 90°

rotation causes one image to disappear and the
other to reappear. In 1808 the French engineer
Étienne Malus (1775-1812) discovered that par-
tially reflected light is polarized. Looking through
a calcite crystal at the reflection of the Sun from
Diffraction Interference
white light:

Figure 6.8 Young’s Double-Slit Experiment to Measure the Wavelength of Light
By passing light through a pair of horizontal slits in a screen, Young was able to measure the
wavelength of light from the pattern of bright and dark horizontal bands of light observed on a
second screen. The formation of such bands could be interpreted by assuming that diffraction of
light waves through the two slits allows it to spread out in wavelets, which then combine at the
second screen to produce bright bands by constructive and dark bands by destructive interference.
The first bright band above the center is formed at a point where the distance from the lower slit is
one wavelength longer than the distance from the upper slit so that the light from the two slits is in
phase. Then the large shaded triangle with sides x (screen separation) and y (bright band spacing) is
nearly similar to the small shaded triangle of sides d (slit separation) and λ (wavelength), and the
sides are approximately in the proportion λ/d = y/x, for a wavelength of λ = yd/x. For white light,
the longer wavelengths have larger diffraction angles q, so the light is dispersed into a spectrum
with violet at the smallest angles, and red at the largest angles.
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 148

nearby windows, he noticed that the two images
were of unequal intensities, changing as he rotated
the crystal. He then showed that candlelight
reflected from a water surface at a 36° angle
became completely polarized, producing a single
image with a crystal; and if it passed through the
crystal first, it produced only a reflected ray. His
colleague at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris,
François Arago (1786-1853), found that in partial
reflection of light the refracted ray is also
In 1815 the Scottish physicist David
Brewster (1781-1868) showed that complete po-
larization occurs for reflection at that angle of
incidence (Brewster’s angle) when the light splits
into reflected and refracted rays at right angles to
each other, both rays producing only one image
with a calcite crystal. Two years later Young wrote
Arago suggesting that a consistent explanation of
these polarization phenomena is possible by
assuming that light is a transverse wave. He
suggested that transverse vibrations of light could
separate into two perpendicular components at the
reflecting surface, leaving the reflected ray with a
single component of transverse vibration parallel
to the reflecting surface, and the refracted ray
polarized in a plane perpendicular to it.
Young’s work was not readily accepted,
and in 1818 he became interested in a completely
unrelated field. A basalt slab with hieroglyphic,
demotic and Greek inscriptions was found by
troops of Napoleon in 1799 near the city of Ro-
setta in northern Egypt. Young was the first to
show how the hieroglyphics could be deciphered
by showing that they were actually phonetic sym-
bols. The French archaeologist Jean Champollion
(1790-1832) then completed the deciphering of the
Rosetta stone and the unraveling of Egyptian
Frenchmen also completed and estab-
lished Young’s work on the wave theory of light.
About 1815 the French engineer Augustin Fresnel
(1788-1827) began an effort to revive Huygens’
longitudinal wave theory of light. He independ-
ently conducted some of the experiments that
Young had done more than a decade earlier. In
1817 Arago told Fresnel about Young’s hypothesis
of light as a transverse wave, and Fresnel used it as
the basis of a prize essay on optical diffraction
submitted to the Institut National. He worked out a
complete mathematical theory of transverse light
waves and applied it to phenomena like interfer-
ence and polarization in his “Mémoire sur la Dif-
fraction de la Lumière” of 1819. He analyzed the
diffraction of light through a single slit and ex-
plained the resulting diffraction pattern. He also
demonstrated the bright spot at the center of a
circular shadow required by his theory.
The transverse wave theory of light raised
new problems regarding the presumed medium of
propagation for light called the luminiferous
(“light-carrying”) aether. In 1821 Fresnel pointed
out that longitudinal waves could be propagated by
a fluid medium, but transverse waves required a
more rigid medium. It was hard to imagine an
aether that was solid and rigid enough to allow the
passage of both light and planets. In 1845 Irish
physicist George Stokes (1819-1903) called
attention to materials like wax that could support
transverse vibrations and also yield to
compressions. He suggested that the aether might
have similar but more exaggerated properties,
acting as an elastic solid with respect to light and a
fluid with respect to matter. The French
mathematician Augustin Cauchy (1789-1857)
worked out several models of the aether at the
Ecole Polytechnique that were physically awkward
but seemed mathematically feasible.
Difficulties with the aether concept led
some like Arago to waver in supporting the wave
theory, and a few like Brewster rejected the wave
theory altogether in favor of Newton’s particle
theory. But further confirmations of the wave
theory were given during the 1850s by the French
experimenters, Armand Fizeau (1819-1896) and
Jean Léon Foucault (1819-68). Newton had
deduced that light particles would travel faster in
denser media due to attraction, while Huygens had
shown that waves would slow down. In 1849,
Fizeau and Foucault measured the speed of light
by beaming it through the gap between the teeth of
a rotating cogwheel to a mirror on a hilltop five
miles away. By adjusting the speed of rotation,
they were able to get the reflected light to pass
back through the next gap, and they calculated the
speed from the distance and time. A year later
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 149

Foucault improved the technique by using a
rotating mirror. In 1853 he used this method to
show that light was faster in air than water, in
support of the wave theory.

Radiation and Spectroscopy
The study of the spectrum of light waves
emitted and absorbed by various substances has
revealed important connections between light,
heat, chemistry and atomic structure. In 1752, the
Scottish physicist Thomas Melvill made the first
observations of the spectra of light emitted by
various excited gases. He placed different sub-
stances in a flame and, “Having placed a paste-
board with a circular hole in it between my eye
and the flame...I examined the constitution of these
different lights with a prism.” He found a
discontinuous spectrum of colored patches, differ-
ent for each substance, each patch separated by
dark gaps, and their colors corresponding to their
location in the continuous spectrum. Later inves-
tigators used a slit instead of a hole, and observed
a series of characteristic bright lines of definite
wavelengths for each substance.
Light has long been associated with radi-
ant heat, which can be focused like light by a
“burning glass” lens. The Swiss physicist Pierre
Prévost (1751-1839) suggested in 1791 that all
bodies radiate and absorb heat, with temperature
changes dependent on their relative rates of radia-
tion and absorption. In 1800, the astronomer
William Herschel used a prism to test portions of
the Sun’s spectrum with a thermometer. He found
that the temperature increased toward the red end
of the spectrum, but rose even higher beyond the
red. This led him to conclude that there was an
invisible component of light associated with radi-
ant heat, now called “infrared” radiation (Figure
6.9). It was later shown to have all the properties
of visible light, but at a longer wavelength invis-
ible to the eye.
A year after Herschel’s discovery of
infrared radiation, the German physicist Johann
Ritter (1776-1810) discovered radiation beyond
the violet end of the spectrum, now called
“ultraviolet” radiation (Figure 6.9). He was
studying the chemical reaction that light produces
in blackening silver chloride (later used for
chemical effects)
in prism
Infrared (higher
Dispersion into
continuous spectrum
Line spectrum
Differential refraction
(red refracts less
than violet)
of hydrogen:

Figure 6.9 Discovery of Infrared, Ultraviolet and Line Spectra
In 1800, William Herschel discovered infrared radiation when he measured the temperature across the
visible spectrum, finding that it increased toward the red end and was highest beyond the red. In 1801,
Johann Ritter identified ultraviolet radiation from the chemical effect of light on silver chloride, which
increased toward the violet end of the spectrum and was strongest beyond the violet. In the nineteenth
century, the bright spectrum lines produced by incandescent gases were measured, and in 1885
Johann Balmer found that the wavelengths of the hydrogen lines fit a simple formula.
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 150

photography), and found that it was even more
effective beyond the violet end of the spectrum.
The English physician William Wollaston
(1766-1828) had detected ultraviolet light even
before Ritter, but the latter usually receives credit
for his clearer identification. In 1802, Wollaston
was the first to report the use of a narrow slit with
a prism, and the first to describe dark lines in the
solar spectrum, but he wrongly interpreted some of
them as the natural boundaries of the four colors in
the continuous spectrum:
The colours into which a beam of white light
is separable by refraction, appear to me to be
neither seven, as they are usually seen in the
rainbow, nor three, as some
persons have conceived; but...four primary
divisions of the prismatic spectrum may be
Working with platinum ores in 1804, Wollaston
isolated two platinum-like elements, which he
named palladium and rhodium.
While testing prisms for the characteris-
tics of their glass in 1814, the German physicist
and optician Joseph von Fraunhofer (1787-1826)
observed some 600 dark lines of the several thou-
sand that criss-cross the solar spectrum (Wollaston
apparently saw only five). Fraunhofer measured
the wavelengths of the more prominent lines,
designating them alphabetically. He also found
that these lines remained the same when he used
different prisms, suggesting that they were
characteristic of the sunlight rather than the glass.
He also introduced the diffraction grating with
many slits to form spectra. The British astronomer
John Herschel (1792-1871), son of William
Herschel, suggested in 1823 that gases could be
identified from the unique spectrum of each.
In 1849 Foucault found that certain bright
lines in the spectrum from the light of an electric
arc coincided with some dark lines in the solar
spectrum. But it was the use of flame tests for
chemical analysis by the German chemist Robert
Bunsen (1811-99) that led to the development of a
precise prism spectroscope with the German
physicist Gustav Kirchhoff (1824-87). Using this
instrument in 1859, Kirchhoff showed that when
white light passed through a cool vapor, it
absorbed certain wavelengths and formed a dark-
line spectrum. This suggested that cooler gases
surrounding the Sun absorbed wavelengths from
the white light produced by the Sun, causing its
dark-line spectrum. Finally Kirchhoff showed that
each dark line of the absorption spectrum of a
given gas matched one of the more numerous
bright lines in the emission spectrum of the same
Kirchhoff and Bunsen recognized two
important applications of their spectroscope: the
chemical analysis of compounds from the lines in
their spectra, and the identification of the chemical
constituents of celestial bodies. Their work
benefited from the nearly colorless flame produced
by the burner developed by Bunsen. In 1860,
Kirchhoff and Bunsen observed a distinctive blue
line, not associated with any of the known ele-
ments, in the spectrum of a mineral. This led to
their discovery of the element cesium (from the
Latin for sky-blue). A year later, Bunsen discov-
ered the element rubidium from a “ruby red” line
in the spectrum of one of its compounds. The same
year, the English physicist William Crookes
(1832-1919) discovered thallium (Greek for
“green twig”) in selenium ores from its green line,
and in 1863 the German mineralogists Ferdinand
Reich and Hieronymus Richter identified indium
in a zinc ore from its indigo line.
Kirchhoff continued his analysis of the
Fraunhofer lines in the solar spectrum. He first
showed that the prominent double lines of sodium
in the yellow region of the spectrum matched the
position of the D-lines in the Sun’s spectrum. He
went on to identify half a dozen other elements in
the atmosphere of the Sun. The Swedish physicist
Anders Ångström (1814-74) had also realized that
the dark lines of a gas should match its bright
lines. In 1863, he announced the discovery of
hydrogen in the Sun, and began a catalog of solar-
spectrum wavelengths using a unit now called the
angstrom (1Å=10
m). In 1868, the French
astronomer Pierre Janssen (1824-1907) observed
an unknown solar-spectrum line during an eclipse
of the Sun in India. He sent his data to the English
astronomer Joseph Lockyer (1836-1920), who
found no similar line for the known elements and
concluded that it was an element not known on
Chapter 6 ▪ An Energistic Universe 151

Earth, which he named helium (from the Greek for
“Sun”). It was identified in a mineral source in
1895 by the Scottish chemist William Ramsay
Spectroscopy reached the stars in 1863,
just six years after the French philosopher Auguste
Comte died, blasting his claim that the constitution
of the stars could never be known. The English
astronomer William Huggins (1824-1910) used a
prism attached to the lens of a telescope to show
that the stars have some of the same spectral lines
as those on Earth. In 1868, he observed a small red
shift toward longer wavelengths in the position of
a hydrogen line in the spectrum of the star Sirius.
A similar shift in the pitch of a moving sound
source had been analyzed in 1842 by the Austrian
physicist Christian Doppler (1803-53). Huggins
applied this to the increase in the wavelength of
light from Sirius to calculate the speed of its
motion away from the Earth. By 1875 he
developed photographic spectroscopy with the
help of his wife Margaret Lindsay Huggins to form
permanent records and time exposures of spectra
from the dim light of stars and other objects. Half
a century later, the study of red shifts of the
spectra from distant galaxies would reveal the
origin and structure of the universe.
The Swiss mathematics teacher Johann
Jakob Balmer (1825-98) discovered the spectral
key that would eventually open the inner structure
of the atom. While teaching at a girl’s school in
1885, he found an empirical formula that revealed
the ordered pattern of the lines of the hydrogen
spectrum, which are spaced more and more closely
with decreasing wavelength. He showed that the
measured wavelengths of the four visible lines of
hydrogen (red, green, blue and violet), starting
with the red line at 6562.1Å, were precisely related
to the squares of the integers n = 3, 4, 5, and 6 by
the formula:
λ = 3645.6 (

n² - 2²
in angstrom units. Balmer’s formula successfully
predicted that there would be other lines for n = 6,
7, 8,... in the ultraviolet, ending at 3645.6Å for large
values of n. Balmer also speculated that there might
be other series of lines for hydrogen whose wave-
lengths could be found by replacing the 2² in the
denominator by 1², 3², 4², and so on. Such series
were found early in the 20th century in the ultra-
violet and infrared regions of the spectrum, leading
to a detailed theory of the hydrogen atom as a kind
of miniature solar system of orbiting electrons.
Thus spectroscopy became a guide to
both the outer reaches of an energistic universe, and
to the inner world of atomic activity. Light revealed
the same physical laws governing matter and energy
throughout the cosmos. But now the fixed stars of
the Newtonian world were apparently moving. The
myriad proliferation of spectrum lines would
eventually lead to the replacement of the inert
particles of the mechanists and the simple atoms of
Dalton with complex structures and organized
activities within the atom itself. But in the 19th
century, these mysterious spectrum lines were
merely a confusing reminder that not all phenomena
were completely understood.

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tion of Energy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1974.


The energy concept emphasized activity
in the universe and the unity of its physical laws.
Instead of imponderable fluids, heat came to be
viewed as the energy of molecules in motion, and
light now appeared as the propagation of wave
energy. The principle of conservation of energy
now governed both chemical reactions and bio-
logical processes. But the constant content of
energy in the universe was also found to be dissi-
pating into ever decreasing availability for useful
work. The nineteenth century saw the arrow of
time enter the physical sciences with the second
law of thermodynamics. In other areas as well, the
sciences finally began to grasp the significance of
During this same period of time, the
biological sciences began to question the fixity of
species, and geologists took a new look at fossils
and the processes shaping the crust of the Earth.
From antiquity the great variety of plants and
animals had been viewed as a continuous series of
links in a “great chain of being” stretching from
the highest creatures to the lowest forms of life
and matter. Leibniz had suggested that the “best of
all possible worlds” required that all creatures that
could exist must exist. To this principle of
plenitude he added a principle of continuity,
requiring that species merge into one another in an
unbroken chain. But the chain was still static until
evidence began to accumulate suggesting change
and development in species.

Temporalizing the Chain of Being
In the eighteenth century, the French phi-
losophes raised objections to the static chain-of-
being concept in view of their optimistic ideas of
progress. Some also opposed the idea of a graded
scale of creatures because of their rejection of the
medieval concept of hierarchy. Voltaire pointed
out that the chain of being was already broken by
the refutation of celestial hierarchies in the helio-
centric theory of the planets. In suggesting alter-
natives, some philosophes went back beyond Aris-
totle to the pre-Socratic Greeks. Denis Diderot
(1713-84) proposed a version of Empedocles’ the-
ory in 1754, suggesting that various animal organs
grew together at random, but only the more viable
combinations survived.
In Catholic France, the chain-of-being
concept died hard, in spite of the efforts of the phi-
losophes. Instead of rejecting it completely, it was
combined with the idea of progress in some early


An Evolving Universe

Developmental Concepts and Evolutionary Theories

Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 153

evolutionary theories. The chain was reinterpreted
as a plenitude of possibilities unfolding in history
and giving rise to organisms of ever increasing
complexity and perfection. It came to be seen as a
scale of ascent up which organisms had evolved
over time, rather than a static hierarchy of fixed
Such a theory, incorporating a historical
view of the chain of being, was published in five
volumes (1761-68) by the former Jesuit Jean Bap-
tiste Robinet (1735-1820). He proposed that
organic species formed a graded scale of creatures
that was complete, but progressively changing. All
creatures receive “additions which they are able to
give themselves by virtue of an internal energy, or
to receive from the action of external objects upon
them.” He saw this internal energy as “the most
essential and the most universal attribute of
being...a tendency to change for the better.” The
additions which animals receive from external
objects were similar to the environmental
conditioning that the philosophes preached as an
aid to progress.
Unlike his contemporary French compa-
triot Georges Buffon, Robinet did not see organic
change as a process of degeneration, but as con-
taining the seeds of progress culminating in the
highest forms of life:
Envisaging the sequence of individuals as
so many steps in the progress of being
towards humanity, we shall compare each
of these with man, first with respect to his
higher faculties, that is, his reason.
Like other early evolutionary thinkers, Robinet
thought of atoms as endowed with life and a soul,
making it easier for inorganic matter to generate
living beings. Differing combinations of these
living atoms produced different species of plants
and animals. His Catholic background and deistic
tendencies led him toward a more continuous view
of evolutionary progress within a dynamic chain of
A more discontinuous idea of evolution
was developed by the Swiss lawyer and naturalist
Charles Bonnet (1720-93), whose Huguenot back-
ground was in a Protestant tradition of greater
emphasis on catastrophic change. In 1740, he
discovered that aphids (tree-lice) could reproduce
without fertilization of the female egg
(parthenogenesis), leading him to accept the
widely held theory of preformation. In this theory
all the future generations of each species are pre-
formed and contained in miniature in the egg (or
sperm), waiting to be activated in the process of
reproduction. It involved a radical form of the
fixity of species, with some preformationists
holding that the entire human race existed inside
Eve’s ovaries.
Bonnet introduced the term “evolution” to
describe the unfolding of preformed embryos. This
apparent fixity of species conflicted with the
increasing fossil evidence of creatures that no
longer existed, leading Bonnet to postulate peri-
odic catastrophes over the whole Earth, with the
Mosaic flood viewed as only the last of many. In
his Philosophical Palingenesis, or Ideas on the
Past and Future States of Living Beings (1770), he
proposed that all living creatures are destroyed in
these catastrophes, but the seeds of their future
generations survive and are resurrected on a higher
level in the chain of being. He predicted a future
catastrophe in which stones would become
organisms, plants would move, animals would
reason, apes would become men, and men would
become angels.

Evolutionary Speculations
In the nineteenth century, Robinet’s con-
tinuous dynamic chain was developed into one of
the first evolutionary theories by Jean Baptiste
Lamarck (1744-1829), another Jesuit-trained
naturalist. Bonnet’s discontinuous catastrophism
was adopted in opposition to evolution by Georges
Cuvier (1769-1832), who like Bonnet also came
from a Huguenot background. Lamarck became
chair of invertebrate zoology in 1793 at the Paris
Museum of Natural History (the King’s Gardens
before the Revolution), and Cuvier was appointed
chair of comparative anatomy in 1795 at the same
institution. While their ideas were in marked
contrast, their work finally ended the conception of
organic species arranged in a linear sequence
within the chain of being.
Even before Lamarck, an organic theory
of evolution was proposed by the English physi-
Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 154

cian Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), best known as
the grandfather of Charles Darwin. In England the
idea of progress developed as a secularized version
of the Christian conception of a future paradise for
the elect, leading to the popularity of Leibniz idea
that this is the “best of all possible worlds.” These
ideas were the topic of much discussion in the
Birmingham Lunar Society, where both Erasmus
Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood, Charles Darwin’s
other grandfather, were both members. Erasmus
Darwin wrote much of his early scientific thought
in poetic form, dealing largely with botany and
supporting the classification system introduced by
In 1794, Erasmus Darwin published his
Zoonomia, which showed influences from Buf-
fon’s work and anticipated some of Lamarck’s
ideas, though not developed in the same detail. In
this book he applied the secularized English idea
of progress to the development of plant and animal
species, recounting that,
...philosophers have been of the opinion that
our immortal part acquires during this life
certain habits of action or of sentiment,
which become forever indissoluble, continu-
ing after death in a future state of exis-
tence.... I would apply this ingenious idea to
the generation, or production of the em-
bryon, or new animal which partakes so
much of the form and propensities of the
Thus Erasmus Darwin speculated that the habits
acquired by an animal within its environment were
passed on to its offspring, leading to an evolution
of species as organisms progress through the
accumulation of experience. Together with
Lamarck, he believed in an inner force driving
organisms to higher forms. Thus he asks the
Would it be too bold to imagine that all
warmblooded animals have arisen from one
living filament which the great First Cause
endued with animality, with the power of
acquiring new parts, attended with new
propensities, directed by irritations, sensa-
tions, volitions and associations; and thus
possessing the faculty of continuing to im-
prove by its own inherent activity, and of
delivering down those improvements by
generation to its posterity, world without
Unlike Lamarck, Erasmus Darwin emphasized
competition and the survival of more viable organ-
isms, but he offered few facts and no mechanism
for changes in species. His ideas were in tune with
the new free enterprise concepts of economic
capitalism, which became even more popular in
Victorian England when they were developed by
Charles Darwin. Unfortunately, Erasmus Darwin’s
reputation in England suffered from a campaign of
ridicule by the British government against
sympathizers with the French Revolution.
Equally speculative but more influential
in the development of evolutionary theories were
Laplace’s ideas on determinism and on the origin
and evolution of the solar system. Determinism
left little room for miraculous intervention or
teleological causes, and spurred the search for
natural explanations of all events. Laplace’s
“nebular hypothesis” for the origin of the solar
system was first suggested in a tentative form in
1796, but his Exposition du Système du Monde
went through six editions by 1835. In explaining
how the planets might have formed from a gas
cloud surrounding the Sun, he set an example of
natural explanations prior to the appearance of life
and provided support for Buffon’s speculations
about the great antiquity of the Earth required for
the long processes of evolution.

Lamarck’s Theory of Acquired Characteristics
Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) pro-
posed the first comprehensive theory of organic
evolution, although he did not use the word
“evolution” nor its French equivalent. After a
period in the army and medical studies, he began
his career as a botanist in the King’s Gardens at
Paris in 1782. He continued at the newly named
Garden of Plants after the French Revolution, and
was given the new chair of invertebrate zoology
for the study of the lower animals without back-
bones. In shifting his work up the chain of being
from plants to lower animals, he saw evidence for
Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 155

Robinet’s ideas of a continuous but changing scale
of creatures.
In his new position, Lamarck began to
expand the classification of invertebrates from the
two classes of insects and worms used by Linnaeus
into ten invertebrate classes by 1800, which is the
basis for the modern system. In that year he
suggested that the simplest forms of life arose
from spontaneous generation, which then produced
all other forms of life by a process of successive
transmutations. In 1802 he arranged his ten classes
of invertebrates in a linear order, followed by the
four vertebrate classes of fishes, reptiles, birds and
mammals, and suggested that this was an
evolutionary order through which the animals had
passed over time. He also introduced the term
Lamarck published his ideas on what
caused evolution in his Philosophie Zoologique of
1809. His principal explanation was similar to that
of Robinet’s “inner force” acting continuously to
improve the species. He thought that this would
lead to a continuously ascending chain of being
with no missing links. But fossil evidence of
extinct animals seemed to suggest such gaps in the
chain, so he suggested that they were ancestors of
living animals that change over time, and species
were not fixed. But since his zoological studies
revealed some discontinuities in nature, he
developed his theory of acquired characteristics
through inheritance to explain deviations from a
continuous linear sequence.
In developing his theory of the inheri-
tance of acquired characteristics, Lamarck recog-
nized the historical nature of the environment and
how its changing nature might affect living organ-
isms. His theory proposed that animals respond to
environmental changes by developing new habits,
and plants respond by nutritional changes when
new conditions arise. New needs produced by the
changing environment lead to increased use of
some organs and less use of others. As organs
develop through continual use to satisfy new needs
they grow stronger, while unused organs grow
weaker, and these acquired changes pass on to
descendants. Over long periods of time, useless
organs disappear and others develop. After many
generations these changes become appreciable and
eventually transform the species.
Although Lamarck believed that minerals,
plants, and animals, had all developed from a
common source, he broke with the older idea of
continuous connections between them.
All known living bodies are sharply divided
into two special kingdoms, based upon the
essential differences which distinguish ani-
mals from plants, and in spite of what has
been said, I am convinced that these two
kingdoms do not really merge into one
another at any point.
He held that plants and animals originally derived
from two different kinds of particles, each brought
together by the exciting forces of heat and electric-
ity, which also acted on their waste products to
form minerals. As these environmental factors
pushed organisms to greater complexity, they
eventually began to generate their own heat and
electricity to sustain themselves, and provide their
own evolutionary force. Lamarck also proposed a
split in the linear series of animals from their
original particles into two main branches, one
leading from single-cell protozoa to animals with
radial symmetry like the star fish, and the other
leading to animals with bilateral symmetry that
split into further branches.
When Lamarck published his system in
detail in the Histoire Naturelle des Animaux sans
Vertèbres (1815-22), he largely abandoned the
linear scale of the chain of being. The branched
chain broke down even further, and he admitted
that he was unable to find any evolutionary con-
nection between the invertebrate and vertebrate
animal series. He provided many examples of the
kinds of animal habits that he thought would lead
to acquired characteristics. Thus the snail feeling
its way develops tentacles, and the snake slipping
through narrow spaces becomes elongated and
loses its legs through disuse. But his most famous
example was the recently rediscovered giraffe,
brought to Paris in the early 1800s, which he
thought began as a primitive antelope stretching
for the leaves of trees so that each generation
developed slightly longer legs, neck and tongue.
Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 156

Lamarck based his evolutionary mecha-
nisms on natural explanations consistent with the
dominant mechanical views of the 18th century.
But he also believed in a general ascent in com-
plexity that implied a purposeful direction, perhaps
guided by a divine hand. His ideas were strongly
opposed by Cuvier, the more dominant voice
among French scientists, and he was resisted by
the English as being too materialistic. Although he
made enduring contributions to invertebrate
classification and helped to break the chain of
being with his concept of branching, his
evolutionary theory based on the inheritance of
acquired characteristics was not widely accepted.

Early Evolution Debates
One of Lamarck’s colleagues at the Paris
Museum of Natural History, Étienne Geoffroy St.
Hilaire (1772-1844), applied some of Lamarck’s
ideas to vertebrate zoology, but rejected others.
Hilaire agreed that changes in the environment led
to variations in animal forms, forming a roughly
linear evolutionary sequence. But he did not accept
any active evolutionary force within animals, nor
did new habits produce structural modifications.
Instead he believed that the structures of animals
determined their habits and functions, and that a
vertebrate pattern was the basic structural plan for
all animal species so that in essence there is only
“one animal.” This idea that nature manifested a
unified plan or “idea” was introduced near the end
of the eighteenth century by German nature
In his Philosophie Anatomique (1818-22),
Hilaire proposed principles of morphology,
including the idea that all vertebrates have the
same parts or “units of construction.” The same
organs may have different forms and functions in
different species, some even being atrophied or
annihilated, but they are always in the same order
and relationship, revealing a unity of plan behind
the diversity of structure. With Lamarck he
believed that changes in the environment led to
variations in animal forms, but he thought that
these were governed by the basic structural plan as
changing conditions led to the development of
some parts of an animal and the atrophy of others.
This plan developed more fully as more suitable
environmental conditions arose, leading to an
evolutionary sequence. Unlike Lamarck, he be-
lieved that such changes were sudden mutations,
citing the birth of monsters as evidence. He also
believed that embryological development was evi-
dence for evolution, recapitulating the evolution-
ary history of a species.
Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) vigorously
debated the views of his colleagues at the Paris
Museum of Natural History. Although he was an
active Protestant in the Lutheran tradition of work
and faith, his scientific eminence led to many
honors in Catholic France. Starting at the museum
in 1795, he became interested in anatomical
studies of both living animals and fossils,
practically establishing the fields of comparative
anatomy and paleontology. With Hilaire he fol-
lowed the German tradition of morphology, but
like Lamarck, Cuvier held that the functions and
habits of an animal shaped its structural form.
Cuvier differed from both Lamarck and Hilaire in
opposing the scale of nature, preferring a natural
method of classification based primarily on the
nervous and circulatory systems.
In his best known work, Le Règne Animal
(The Animal Kingdom, 1817), Cuvier extended the
classification system of Linnaeus (1735), who used
the categories of class, order, genera and species,
the latter two providing his binomial nomenclature.
Cuvier grouped related classes into still broader
groups called phyla, dividing the animal kingdom
into four phyla: vertebrates (now chordata),
mollusks (soft-bodied), articulates (jointed), and
radiates (radial). Thus animal species appeared as
divergent modifications of these four basic plans
or types, rather than a linear scale of beings.
Cuvier stressed the internal structures of
animals that most clearly indicate relationships,
rather than superficial surface characteristics. His
principles provided the basis for modern systems
of classification (Figure 7.1), which have greatly
increased in complexity with some two dozen
animal phyla now recognized. Cuvier’s younger
associate, the Swiss-French botanist Augustin
Candolle (1778-1841), applied these same
principles to the classification of plants. He
invented the word “taxonomy” in 1813 to describe
the science of classification.
Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 157

Cuvier had no theory to account for the
diversity of species, but instead held that they were
fixed from the original creation. He developed the
principle that the structures and functions of
animals are so correlated that their whole structure
can be inferred from a part. A famous story
illustrates his method: Students dressed as devils
with horns and hooves awakened him with shouts
of “Cuvier, we’re going to eat you!” Cuvier woke
to reply, “You can’t! Creatures with horns and
hooves are herbivores.” He applied this principle
to fossil parts of extinct animals, fitting them into
his four phyla, and thus he was the first to extend
classification to fossils.
Beginning with his study of fossil ele-
phants in 1796, Cuvier included reconstructions of
some 150 extinct mammalian species in his four-
volume Researches on Fossil Bones (1812). These
included a flying reptile, which he named the
“pterodactyl” (“wing-finger”) because its wing
stretched along a huge “finger.” The evidence of
fossils convinced him that extinctions had occur-
red and that organic life had a very ancient history.
Both living species and extinct forms stretched
back over a long historical succession of animals
in four branches of structural similarity.
To explain the fossils and their occasional
extinctions, Cuvier appealed to the catastrophism
of Bonnet rather than the evolutionary hypotheses
of his colleagues. The fossil record revealed great
jumps in nature, not the smooth transitions of a
continuous chain of being. Cuvier found evidence
for at least four such world-shaking catastrophes,
involving powerful forces such as Earthquakes and
floods. By assuming that the last one was the
Noahic flood, he could square strange fossil
creatures and the vast age of the Earth with the
Biblical account, which revealed only recent
history since the last catastrophe.
In a debate with Hilaire in 1830, Cuvier
emerged the victor with his evidence against a
linear sequence of species. He finally broke the
chain of being, but his insistence on the fixity of
species slowed development of evolutionary ideas
for several decades in France. In the meantime, his
followers identified some 18,000 extinct animal
species in France alone, and postulated 27 ca-
tastrophes to account for them.


Natural Theology and Nature Philosophy
Cuvier’s victory seemed all the more de-
cisive because it tended to support the popular
belief in the theory of design, especially in Eng-
land. The English naturalist John Ray (1628-1705)
had demonstrated the amazing adaptations that
abound in nature, especially in plants and animals.
In his book of 1691, The Wisdom of God in the
Works of Creation, he described these adaptations
in great detail and argued that they revealed the
existence of purposeful design in the universe, and
thus a Great Designer as creator of the universe. In
the eighteenth century this argument was
developed further to try to answer the growing
skepticism of the enlightenment, especially by the
bishop of Durham, Joseph Butler (1692-1752), in
his work of 1736, The Analogy of Religion,
Natural and Revealed, to the Course and
Constitution of Nature. However, by claiming that
natural theology was “the foundation and principal
part of Christianity,” he overstated his case and
contributed to the growing eclipse of revelation by
In the early nineteenth century, most
English naturalists were clergymen who agreed
that the exquisite complexity of nature and the

Figure 7.1 Modern Biological Classification
The modern classification system as developed
in the nineteenth century and an example as
applied to the human species.
Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 158

wonderful adaptations of organisms proved the
existence of God. One of the most impressive
books on this theme was by the archdeacon of
Carlisle, William Paley (1743-1805), whose Natu-
ral Theology; or Evidence of the Existence and
Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appear-
ances of Nature was first published in 1802. A
bequest to the Royal Society continued this tradi-
tion through a famous series of eight Bridgewater
Treatises (1833-37) with a common theme, “On
the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God as
Manifested in the Creation.” These publications
viewed any idea that the world resulted from
chance occurrences as ignorance of nature. Even
evolutionary progress could be regarded as a part
of a larger design.
In contrast with the deistic tendencies of
natural theology, German interest in nature tended
toward pantheism. The naturalist Lorenz Oken
(1779-1851) applied German nature philosophy to
biology in his Elements of Physio-Philosophy
(1810). He believed that the universe was in a
process of historical development generated by the
World Spirit, and that humans were the final result
of this process and thus a microcosm of the world.
According to Oken, all creatures had a
common origin in the World Spirit, but they had
no historical connection with each other. But they
did have resemblances, since higher organisms
possessed qualities of the lower, and all came from
a common source. This led Oken to suggest that
the development of embryos should pass through
stages similar to lower organisms in the scale of
beings. His speculations also anticipated the cell
theory as a material unit of life.

Epigenesis and Embryology
A more empirical approach to embryol-
ogy grew out of the debate over preformation
theories in the eighteenth century. Mechanistic
thinkers tended to hold that organisms were fully
formed in their seeds, and simply grew in size by a
mechanical process. Among early microscopists,
Leeuwenhoek and his Dutch followers believed
that preformed men, or “homunculi,” were
contained in the male sperm, while Swammerdam,
Malpighi, and later Bonnet held that all offspring
were fully formed in the female egg. By contrast,
German vitalists leaned toward the idea that a vital
force within the seed caused material
differentiation and physical development accord-
ing to a predetermined pattern. William Harvey
had suggested such a developmental view, which
he called “epigenesis.”
The German biologist Caspar Friedrich
Wolff (1733-1794) suggested a theory of embryo-
logical epigenesis in 1759, though his work was
largely neglected for a half century. He believed
that a vital force acted upon homogeneous organic
matter to produce various tissues and then organs.
In 1768, he described his observations of the for-
mation of the chick intestine in the egg. He also
discovered a primitive kidney in the embryos of
higher animals. This so-called Wolffian body dis-
appeared before the formation of the true kidney.
Thus he demonstrated that the organs are not pre-
formed, but must develop by differentiation of
simple tissue into complex structures. Wolff also
called attention to the greater resemblance of
embryos than of the adult forms of different spe-
cies of animals, and recognized the similarities in
their development.
German nature philosophers began to
develop further the ideas of Wolff on embryologi-
cal epigenesis in the early nineteenth century. The
most important work was done by the Estonian
biologist Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876), who
was German by descent and training, and later
served like Wolff at St. Petersburg. In 1827, von
Baer described the minute mammalian egg of a
dog, which could only be studied with a micro-
scope after its removal from a follicle of the ovary.
His two-volume textbook (1828, 1837) establish-
ing the science of embryology showed that the
embryos of many animals begin with the forma-
tion of four tissue or “germ” layers (later reduced
to three), each producing the same organs in dif-
ferent animals.
Baer also initiated the science of com-
parative embryology by noting that the early
stages of development of different groups of ani-
mals are more alike than the developed individu-
als, and earlier similarities produce greater differ-
ences in adult forms. Nearly identical structures in
the early stages of different embryos might
develop into “homologous” structures with differ-
Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 159

ent functions in the adult animals, such as an arm,
a wing, and a flipper. He demonstrated this in
vertebrates with his discovery of a primitive spinal
column, called a notochord, which is eventually
replaced by the true backbone. Later primitive
fish-like creatures were found with the notochord
in the adult forms, now classified with the verte-
brates in the chordate phylum.
Baer resisted the suggestion of some of
his contemporaries that the development of em-
bryos followed evolutionary stages of
development or formed a linear scale of creatures.
He identified four main types of animals based on
embryology rather than anatomy, each having a
different mode of development resulting in a
different symmetry (vertebrates, annulates,
mollusks, radiates). He followed the German nature
philosophers in holding that species came from a
common source, but their development stemmed
from four divergent plans. The main purpose of bio-
logical development was the production of inde-
pendent and self-contained individuals, not unlike
the emphasis of the romantic philosophers on the
uniqueness of the individual.

The Cell Theory
Biology entered a new era with the an-
nouncement of the cell theory in 1838. Robert
Hooke described his microscope observations of
cork “cells” in 1665. The French physician Xavier
Bichat (1771-1802) developed a general theory
based on minute structures without the use of a
microscope. In his book on membranes (1800),
Bichat distinguished twenty-one types of tissues in
the body based on some 600 post-mortems
conducted in his short life. In a book on anatomy
(1802), he analyzed the organs of the body in
terms of the tissues each contained, and he
recognized that organs combined to form systems
such as the digestive and nervous systems. Each
organ had its own vital force related to its level of
The development in the 1820s of im-
proved microscopes with achromatic objectives
(combining two lenses to prevent spectrum for-
mation) greatly advanced biology. In 1831 the
Scottish physician and botanist Robert Brown
(1773-1858) observed that the “nucleus of the
cell” is a general feature of plant tissues. Four
years earlier, Brown had observed the irregular
motions of pollen suspended in water, known as
Brownian motion, which later provided support for
the kinetic theory. The Czech physiologist Jan
Purkinje (1787-1869) used the microscope in 1835
to observe the nucleus of the hen’s egg, and to
reveal that animal tissues are also made up of cells.
He introduced the term “protoplasm” (first-
formed) for the embryonic material in the egg.
In 1838, the German botanist Matthias
Schleiden (1804-81) recognized the importance of
the cell as the basic living unit of all plant struc-
tures. Basing his theory on the ideas of nature
philosophy, he emphasized the development of
plants through a process of cell formation, whose
arrangement expressed the unity of the plant as a
whole. Each cell was an independent self-
contained unit, but contributed to the organized
plant structure by the action of “form-building
forces.” Schleiden recognized the importance of
Brown’s discovery of the cell nucleus, and sug-
gested that new cells arise from the nucleus of old
After Schleiden described plant cells for
him, the German physiologist Theodor Schwann
(1810-82) extended the cell theory to animal tis-
sues in his Microscopic Investigations of 1839. He
followed Schleiden in emphasizing the develop-
mental and unifying aspects of cellular structure,
suggesting “that all the varied forms in the animal
tissues are nothing but transformed cells, that uni-
formity of structure is found throughout the animal
kingdom, and that in consequence a cellular origin
is common to all living things.”
Schwann held that fertilized eggs of all
animals were single cells, whether large like the
hen’s egg or small like the mammalian egg, so that
all organisms began as a single cell. He coined the
term “metabolism” and taught that a “metabolic
force” transformed intercellular material so that an
“attractive force” could form it into new cells,
giving them an autonomous life of their own. He
applied cell theory to Bichat’s classification of
tissues, differentiating these in terms of the types
and arrangement of their cells.
The cell theory provided a basis for the
unification of the biological sciences, and was
Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 160

rapidly corrected and developed. The Swiss
botanist Karl Nägeli (1817-91) made a careful
microscopic study of pollen formation in 1842 and
described a process of cell division. The Polish-
German physician and zoologist Robert Remak
(1815-65) showed in 1855 that cell division
involves the splitting of the nucleus first inside the
cell, and then the latter splits into two daughter
cells. The German pathologist Rudolf Virchow
(1821-1902), who in 1842 was the first to describe
leukemia, stated the principle that “all cells come
from cells.” In his Cellularpatholigie (1858) he
suggested that cells of diseased tissue are an
altered condition of normal cells, and that these
malignant cells multiply in the tissue.
Improved microscopes and new
techniques of staining tissue with synthetic dyes
contributed to further understanding of cell
division in the 1870s. The German anatomist
Walther Flemming (1843-1905) discovered in
1879 that material inside the nucleus of animal
cells strongly absorbed aniline dyes, calling this
absorptive material “chromatin” (from the Greek
word for color). During the process of cell divi-
sion, he observed the chromatin forming several
filaments, later called “chromosomes” (colored
bodies). In his book, Cell Substance, Nucleus, and
Cell Division (1882), he described his observations
of how these filaments separated during cell
division in a process he called “mitosis” from a
Greek word for “thread” (Figure 7.2).
Flemming’s work was expanded in 1887
by the Belgian cytologist Edouard van Beneden
(1846-1910). He found that the chromosomes were
generally paired, with the same number in the cells
of a given organism (46 in human cells). During
cell division their number doubled and separated
equally into the two daughter cells. But in the
formation of ova and spermatozoa, cell division
was not preceded by a doubling of the
chromosomes, so they contained only half the
normal number (later called meiosis). During the
union of the sex cells the chromosome number was
restored, half from the mother and the half from
the father. It now became clear that the
chromosomes are the agents of reproduction, and
that the cell is the key to all vital activities.

The Decline of Vitalism
Most physiologists in the early nineteenth
century held the vitalistic view that life cannot be
explained without some properties that are neither
physical nor chemical. But increasing
experimental research began to reveal more and
more aspects of living organisms that could be
explained mechanistically by ordinary physical
and chemical laws. The French physiologist
François Magendie (1783-1855) established ex-
perimental physiology in France and became an
early exponent of mechanistic biology. His study
of the nervous system in 1825 led to the discovery
that the anterior spinal nerve roots transmitted
motor impulses to the muscles, and that the pos-
terior nerve roots sent sensory impulses to the
brain. This sensory-motor division of the spinal
nerve roots was discovered independently by the
Scottish surgeon Charles Bell (1774-1842).
The German anatomist and physiologist
Johannes Müller (1801-58) established a famous
school of experimental physiology in Berlin, but
1 2
3 4

Figure 7.2 Stages in Cell Mitosis
Simplified diagram of (1) chromosomes in the
cell nucleus, (2) dividing into pairs joined at
the center, (3) pulled apart, and (4) forming
two new cells, each with the same number of
chromosomes as the parent nucleus.
Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 161

unlike Magendie, Müller strongly believed that a
vital force was necessary to maintain organic
compounds against the destructive effects of
physiochemical forces in living organisms. How-
ever, he rejected the more mystical ideas of nature
philosophy, and viewed humans more like ma-
chines than as a microcosm of the universe. He
confirmed Magendie’s sensory-motor division,
and by experiments on himself in 1826 he discov-
ered that sensory nerves interpret impulses only in
the way that is characteristic of a given nerve.
Thus the optic nerve produces a flash no matter
how it is stimulated. Müller’s Handbuch der
Physiologie (1834) became the standard textbook
of physiology for several decades. His students
were among the most notable in the history of
biology, demonstrating that many life processes
did not involve vital forces.
By 1840 in Müller’s laboratory, Theodor
Schwann first isolated an extract from the stomach
lining he called “pepsin” (from the Greek “to
digest”), and showed that it increased the meat-
dissolving power of acid. Jakob Berzelius called
such speeding of reactions “catalysis,” and the
name “enzyme” was later applied to organic cata-
lysts. Another student of Müller, Emil Du Bois-
Reymond (1818-96), showed that nerve impulses
were electrical in nature, involving known physi-
cal laws rather than some vital principle. Müller’s
most distinguished student, Hermann von Helm-
holtz (1821-94), showed in 1846 that animals
produce heat by contracting muscles, and in 1850
he measured the speed of a nerve impulse. His
treatment of the conservation of energy provided
the strongest argument against vitalism, showing
that vital forces would produce perpetual motion
in living organisms.
Magendie’s assistant and successor at the
Collége de France was the French physician and
physiologist Claude Bernard (1813-78), who de-
veloped the experimental approach of his master.
But Bernard agreed with the vitalists that organ-
isms do exhibit processes unknown in the inor-
ganic world, such as generation, development, and
nutrition. In his 1843 thesis he showed that gastric
juices change cane sugar to dextrose, leading to
the discovery that pancreatic secretions in the
small intestine reduce starches to dextrose, break
down fat molecules, and complete the digestion of
In 1856 Bernard discovered a starch like
substance in the liver he called “glycogen,” which
formed from blood sugar and acted as a reserve to
keep the sugar content of the blood in balance. He
found that the liver secreted bile into the intestine
in addition to secreting sugar into the blood, and
that the nervous system regulated the blood
supply. His experiments on living animals led him
to insist that life can be explained only in terms of
the physicochemical conditions of the internal
environment (milieu intérieur). Thus Bernard held
that organs must be closely integrated to regulate
this internal environment as outer conditions
change, in contrast with German reductionism on
the one hand, and nature philosophers on the other,
who viewed cells as having a nearly independent
life of their own.
Although the trend of the nineteenth cen-
tury was toward mechanistic thought in biology, a
limited form of vitalism proved to be especially
fruitful in the work of the famous French chemist
Louis Pasteur (1822-95). His strong Catholic
convictions led him to maintain a separation
between the organic and inorganic, in opposition
to nature philosophers and evolutionists who
believed in spontaneous generation as a link
between matter and life. Chemists like Berzelius
and Justus von Liebig held that inorganic catalysts
caused fermentation. Pasteur thought that
inorganic fermentation implied spontaneous gen-
eration, and in 1856 he demonstrated that fermen-
tation involved living organisms, leading to his
idea of gentle heating of wine and beer to kill yeast
that causes souring in a method now called
The study of yeast cells led Pasteur to
investigate more closely how microscopic organ-
isms arose. In 1768 the Italian biologist Lazzaro
Spallanzani (1729-99) had boiled solutions that
seemed to breed microorganisms by spontaneous
generation. After boiling he sealed the flask and
showed that no microorganisms appeared, sug-
gesting that spores in the air carried them. Some
evolutionists claimed that heating killed any
organisms on spores above the solution. So in
1860 Pasteur left boiled meat extract exposed to
Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 162

unheated air by way of a swan-shaped neck that
prevented dust particles from entering the flask,
and showed that no organisms formed.
In 1865 Pasteur found that diseased silk-
worms were infested with microscopic parasites,
leading him to propose the “germ theory of dis-
ease” in which diseases could be communicated by
microorganisms spread by infected individuals.
This idea led to the development of chemical dis-
infectants by the English surgeon Joseph Lister
(1827-1912), and the classification of bacteria by
the German botanist Ferdinand Cohn (1828-98). In
1881 Pasteur extended the work of Edward Jenner
(1749-1823), who had developed cowpox
inoculation to prevent smallpox, calling it
“vaccination” (from the Latin vacca for cow).
Pasteur heated a solution containing anthrax germs
from an infected sheep, and showed that sheep
inoculated with the “attenuated” germs gained
immunity from the disease. In a dramatic climax to
his career, he extended this method to the
successful treatment of rabies in 1885.
The German chemist Eduard Buchner
(1860-1917) achieved an impressive demonstration
of scientific materialism over vitalism by showing
that fermentation did not require living organisms.
Vitalists held that only living tissue could use the
so-called “ferments” (enzymes) as catalysts within
the cell for processes such as the conversion of
sugar to alcohol. Buchner tried to demonstrate that
alcohol fermentation was inseparable from life by
grinding yeast cells with sand until none were alive
to see if this would stop fermentation. In 1896 he
placed his cell-free yeast in a thick sugar solution,
and observed bubbles of carbon dioxide as evidence
that the sugar was fermenting into alcohol in the
same way that it would with yeast cells. Thus the
cell was eliminated as the last refuge of nineteenth-
century vitalism. For his work Buchner was
awarded the 1907 Nobel Prize in chemistry.


Early Theories of the Earth
The first clear principles for the study of
the Earth’s surface came from the Danish natural-
ist Niels Steensen, who Latinized his name to
Nicolaus Steno (1631-86) when he converted to
Catholicism. While serving as physician to the
Grand Duke of Tuscany, he began to study the
rocks and minerals in the mountains near Florence.
He published his geological observations and ideas
in 1669, and was a correspondent of the Royal
Society, but his interest shifted to theology after
his appointment as Apostolic Vicar of Northern
Germany and Scandinavia.
Steno’s principles provided a basis for
explaining many geological phenomena (Figure
7.3). First was the principle of superposition: as
sediments settle in the sea, they form a sequence of
strata in which the upper layers must be younger
than the lower layers. Second was the principle of
initial horizontality: sedimentary strata must have
been deposited initially as flat layers parallel to the
surface of the sea, so that any inclined layers are
evidence of deformation of the Earth’s crust after
the layers were consolidated. Third was the
principle of lateral extension: strata were
originally continuous, so that if two parts of the
same stratum were separated by some event like a
river, the intervening material was younger.
Although Steno viewed rock structure as a tempo-
ral sequence of events, he allowed insufficient
time for their development, since he believed that
fossil-bearing strata were deposited by the Flood.

Figure 7.3 Steno’s Diagrams of Strata Changes
Steno illustrated (1) horizontal strata from depo-
sition of sedimentary particles, (2) eroded to form
a cavity, (3) which collapses to form a valley. After
invasion by the sea, (4) new strata form (dashed
lines), with (5) further subterranean erosion and
(6) collapse. [Adapted from N. Steno, Prodromus,
Florence, 1669.]
Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 163

Early theories of the Earth based on
Noah’s Flood were developed in England by natu-
ralists such as Thomas Burnet (1635-1715) and
John Woodward (1665-1728). They used the idea
of a universal Flood to explain phenomena such as
the formation of mountains and valleys, irregu-
larities in strata, and the existence and location of
fossils. These ideas stimulated the collection of
fossils as evidence of Biblical veracity. In Italy
where volcanoes were active, the Venetian priest
Anton Moro suggested in 1740 that the Flood was
a more localized event, and that rock strata formed
from a series of volcanic eruptions that entombed
plants and animals, forming fossils in the rocks.
These views were sometimes viewed as
complementary, but by the late eighteenth century
they led to a controversy between the Neptunists
stressing the role of water, and the Vulcanists em-
phasizing heat.
In 1749 Georges Buffon (1707-1788),
Keeper of the King’s Gardens in Paris, suggested
an evolutionary theory of the Earth that was quite
speculative, but important in proposing a vastly
expanded time scale. Instead of a six-day creation
some six-thousand years ago, he proposed seven
epochs of development over a span of about
seventy-five thousand years, adding a new
dimension of history to nature. To understand the
history of plants and animals, he began with a
history of the Earth in the first volume of his 36-
volume Histoire Naturelle (1749-85). Using a
calculation of Newton for the rate of cooling of
comets, Buffon experimented with the cooling of a
red-hot globe of iron, and extrapolated to the size
of the Earth to arrive at precisely 74,832 years for
the Earth to cool to its present temperature.
By the time he finished his Les Épochs de
la Nature (1779), Buffon had divided his history
of nature into seven “epochs” as metaphors of the
seven “days” of creation in Genesis. In the first
epoch, the Earth formed out of matter ejected from
a collision of a comet with the Sun. As the Earth
solidified in the second epoch, its crust wrinkled to
form the mountain ranges. In the third epoch,
vapors condensed as the Earth cooled, covering the
Earth with a flood in which fishes flourished and
sediments formed, enclosing fossils and organic
deposits like coal. The fourth epoch began after
further cooling produced subterranean openings,
causing a rush of waters, earthquakes, and volca-
noes that produced dry lands. Land animals and
plants appeared in the fifth epoch, and the conti-
nents moved apart in the sixth after migrations of
animals had separated various species. Finally
humans appeared in the seventh epoch, in which
Buffon concludes, “The power of man has sec-
onded that of Nature.”

Vulcanism and Neptunism
Although Buffon’s theories were highly
speculative, some of his contemporaries in France
began making the kind of field observations that
would turn geology into an empirical science. The
French physician Jean Guettard (1715-86)
produced in 1746 the first maps showing the sur-
face distribution of minerals and rocks, extending
them throughout France in the 1760s with the help
of the chemist Lavoisier. He found that rocks and
minerals run together in bands, in some cases even
across the English Channel.
In 1752, Guettard discovered that the
highlands of Auvergne were a group of extinct
volcanoes, supporting Vulcanist views. But his
work on the Degradation of Mountains demon-
strated the effects of water in shaping the topogra-
phy of the land, thus tending toward the Neptunist
view that rocks had an aqueous origin. In 1770 he
suggested that the basalt rocks forming the
columns of the Giant’s Causeway on the northern
coast of Ireland had formed by crystallization from
The observations of Guettard in Auvergne
were followed up in 1763 by Nicolas Desmarest
(1725-1815), a director of manufactures in France,
who discovered basalt columns among the lavas of
old volcanoes that were similar to those of the
Giant’s Causeway. In 1777, he suggested that
these prismatic structures were formed by solidify-
ing molten rock, thus supporting the Vulcanist
view. He described evidence of widespread but
now extinct volcanic action by extrapolating from
the location of basalt outcrops. But he also devel-
oped a theory of the formation of valleys by the
action of streams of water. Thus both Guettard and
Desmarest combined Vulcanist and Neptunist
Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 164

The British geologist Sir William Hamil-
ton (1730-1803) developed in more detail the
implications of Vulcanism with respect to the
action of volcanoes. He also identified basalt and
other rocks found near volcanoes as products of
lava flows, suggesting that the prismatic nature of
basalt resulted from slow cooling. He argued that
volcanic action played a constructive role in
uplifting new land from the sea, shaping the land-
scape, and providing a safety valve for excess
pressure below the crust.
The German physician Georg Füchsel
(1722-73) used a Neptunist view to work out a
historical succession from vertical layers of rock
strata, which he viewed as sedimentation from an
earlier sea. Primary rocks without fossils formed
the core of mountains, followed by secondary
deposits containing simple sea fossils. Finally, the
tertiary rocks formed last with fossils of land
animals and plants.
A purely Neptunist school was estab-
lished by the German mineralogist and geologist
Abraham Werner (1749-1817), who became direc-
tor of the Freiberg School of Mines after his
publication in 1774 of a book on mineral classifi-
cation. He accepted the idea of geological suc-
cession in sedimentary deposits, but did not
develop its historical implications, since he clas-
sified rocks by mineral content rather than fossils.
Secularizing earlier Flood theories, Werner held
that rock strata formed from a universal primeval
ocean, which produced four types of rocks by
sequential processes of crystallization, precipita-
tion, sedimentation, and weathering.
In Werner’s Neptunist theory, primitive
rocks such as granite, crystallized out of the pri-
meval ocean, and contained no fossils. Transi-
tional rocks, such as micas and slates, followed by
chemical precipitation, containing only a few
fossils. Sedimentary rocks were next, rich in
fossils such as coal and limestone. Finally deriva-
tive rocks, such as sand and clay, formed from the
other three by processes of weathering. He
believed that volcanoes resulted from the burning
of underground coal, and was not an important
geological force.
In the tradition of German nature phi-
losophy, Werner viewed all rocks as originating
from a common source and belonging to four fun-
damental types, similar to the view of German
biologists at the time on the origin of species. His
theory was very influential, even though it was
based on limited observations and could not
explain the disappearance of the primeval ocean
after rock strata had formed.

Uniformitarianism and Catastrophism
Werner’s theory about the origin of sedi-
mentary rocks was largely upheld, but most other
rocks were eventually shown to have an igneous
origin from a molten state. This later idea was
developed by the Plutonist school of geology,
which stressed the geological activity of the inter-
nal heat of the Earth, in addition to the volcanic
eruptions of the Vulcanists. This view was devel-
oped by the Scottish amateur geologist James Hut-
ton (1726-87), who trained as a physician, but ran
a chemical factory rather than practicing medicine.
He published The Theory of the Earth in 1795, ten
years after presenting his ideas to the Royal
Society of Edinburgh.
Hutton believed that the geological forces
seen in the present operated in the same way and at
the same rate in the Earth’s past, and that this
should be the basis of geological explanations. The
present is the key to the past. This “uniformitarian
principle” contrasted with Werner’s idea of a
primeval ocean, which was a catastrophic event
confined to the past and unobservable in principle.
Hutton carefully observed the slow and steady
erosion of the land as rivers carried silt into the
sea. He examined the weathered beds of gravel,
sand and mud brought down by the rivers, as well
as the crystalline granites of the Scottish
mountains. He concluded that sedimentary rocks
formed from beds of mud and sand compressed by
overlying seas and heat pressure from below,
while crystalline rocks came from molten material
inside the Earth and brought to the surface by
volcanic action.
Developing the idea that the interior of
the Earth is molten, Hutton suggested that molten
rock pushes into cracks beneath the Earth’s crust,
tilting up sedimentary strata and solidifying to
form granites. Thus mountains were built with a
crystalline core and sedimentary surface. This
Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 165

principle of injection was apparent in some granite
intrusions into crevices in sedimentary rocks
above, indicating that the granite was younger.
Granites of differing ages were contrary to
Werner’s assumptions. In some cases, Hutton
found horizontal sedimentary strata covering tilted
strata near the base of mountains, suggesting long
periods of time since the strata tilted (Figure 7.4).
The age of the Earth appeared to be indefinitely
long, leading him to conclude that, “We find no
vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”
Two of Hutton’s friends developed his
system. The Edinburgh professor John Playfair
(1748-1819) published Illustrations of the Hutto-
nian Theory (1802), clarifying the theory and
adding his own view of the importance of glacial
flows in moving masses of rocks. The amateur
scientist Sir James Hall (1762-1831) conducted
experiments in support of the idea that slow cool-
ing would form crystalline rocks. He melted lava
in a blast furnace and showed that fast cooling
made it glassy like lava, but slow cooling made it
crystalline like basalt. He also found that loose
sand heated in a pot with sea water became hard
like sandstone, as suggested by Hutton’s theory.
But this support was not enough to overcome
religious objections to the theory, delaying its
In France, Georges Cuvier (1769-1832)
opposed Hutton’s idea of slow geological
processes in much the same way that he opposed
Lamarckism. He applied his theory of
“catastrophism” to geological development of the
Earth in the introduction to his Researches on
Fossil Bones (1812). Since there was no apparent
continuity between successive strata and their
fossils, he believed that a series of catastrophic
floods must have occurred, rather than
continuous forces, each flood wiping out many
species and eroding the Earth. These catastrophes
also tilted strata left by earlier floods, ending
with Noah’s Flood some six thousand years ago.
Cuvier’s catastrophism applied Neptunism to the
vast time scale of Hutton. His influence delayed
both biological and geological evolution in
France for several decades.
In England, Cuvier’s catastrophism and
Werner’s Neptunism were well received since
they seemed to fit Biblical ideas of creation better
than Hutton’s eternalistic views. An Eng-lish
translation of Cuvier’s textbook The Theory of
the Earth appeared in 1813 by the Scottish
geologist Robert Jameson (1774-1854). In a pre-
face he claimed a correlation between geology
and the Genesis account of creation by repre-
senting the “six days” as six long periods of time
in the so-called “age-day theory” of creation.
The first Oxford professor of geology,
the Rev. William Buckland (1784-1856), also at-
tempted to combine geology and theology in his
Reliquiae Diluvianae (Relics of the Flood), pub-
lished in 1823. He suggested a “gap theory” in
which several million years intervened between
creation and the first day of Genesis, and it was
during this pre-Adamite period that the geological
catastrophes of Cuvier occurred. He based his
argument for the historicity of the Biblical Flood
in large part on his study of an assumed antedilu-
vian hyena den, the famous Kirkdale Cave, con-
taining the bones of extinct animals. He later
abandoned the idea of a “universal deluge” in
favor of glacial action to explain his findings.

Igneous intrusion

Figure 7.4 Hutton’s Geological Processes
Geological cross section showing two sedimentary
episodes separated by igneous intrusion and
erosion. Sedimentary strata covering tilted strata at
the foot of a mountain indicated its great age.
Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 166

Fossils and Stratification
In England and France the systematic
study of strata was made easier by many well-
exposed horizontal layers rich in fossils. These
were systematically studied by Cuvier in France
between 1808 and 1811, and earlier in England by
the English land surveyor and geologist William
Smith (1769-1839). In 1793 Smith toured England
in a survey of canals and discovered that each
stratum had its own characteristic form of fossils,
different from those in other strata no matter how
the strata were inclined or interrupted.
Furthermore, he found that the order of the strata
as identified by their fossil content was the same in
all localities, leading to the principle of faunal
succession (Figure 7.5). In 1799, Smith published
his method of rock classification with a geological
map of the Bath region of England, the first to
show succession of strata. In 1815 he published A
Geological Map of England and Wales, showing
the horizontal strata across the country, and in
1817 he published a chart of the vertical succes-
sion of strata in England.
From the work of Smith and Cuvier, it
became evident that strata nearer the surface were
younger than those farther down, and a history of
life forms could be worked out from their fossils.
Smith had studied the later strata above the coal
series (Carboniferous). The first Cambridge geol-
ogy professor, the Rev. Adam Sedgwick (1785-
1873), studied ancient Welsh rocks containing
few or no fossils, and identified the Cambrian
series (from an ancient name for Wales), which
turned out to be the oldest fossil-bearing rocks.
Both Sedgwick and his friend the Scottish
amateur geologist Roderick Murchison (1792-
1871) found that the rocks of Devonshire
belonged to the age of fishes, and that this
Devonian series was just below the coal series.
Murchison also discovered the Silurian system
(named from a Welsh Celtic tribe) with the earliest
land plants between the Cambrian and Devonian.
By 1829 after studying continental rocks to-
gether, both men concluded that the oldest rocks
were igneous, switching from Neptunism to
The discoveries of the
so-called “heroic age of geology”
(1790-1830) were summarized
and generalized by one of
Buckland’s former students at
Oxford, the Scottish lawyer
turned geologist Charles Lyell.
He revived Hutton’s uniformi-
tarian ideas and applied them to a
much greater range of obser-
vations than Hutton had done.
Lyell published his main work in
three volumes from 1830 to 1833,
entitled The Principles of
Geology: being an Attempt to
Explain the Former Changes of
the Earth’s Surface by reference
to Causes now in Operation.
Assuming indefinitely
long periods of time, Lyell in-
sisted that geological forces had
always been the same as they are
now. Where the earlier mechan-
ical philosophers had assumed
that the material systems of

Figure 7.5 Smith’s Correlation of Fossil Beds with Rock Strata
William Smith used fossil beds to match rock strata in widely
separated and different localities, as shown here in a simplified
sketch for a canal, a hill, and a quarry. This led to the type of
section diagram shown at the right.
Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 167

nature remain fixed, Lyell now took the forces to
be constant, but changing the material systems of
the Earth. Nearly one hundred years after Steno,
Giovanni Arduino (1760) had classified rocks in
northern Italy into three categories: primary
crystalline rocks, secondary stratified rocks, and
tertiary strata containing numerous fossil shells.
Now Lyell (1833) defined the Eocene, Miocene,
and Pliocene Series within the tertiary strata on
the basis of the relative proportions of the living
and extinct fossils each contained. Although the
other categories of Arduino are no longer in
general use, the “standard geologic column” and
time scale (determined from modern studies using
radioactivity) has been greatly expanded and
revised since Lyell as shown in the table below:
Geologic Column and Time Scale
(Based on modern data)
Era Period
life forms
Yrs. ago
Pleistocene Human 1
Cenozoic Pliocene Primates 5
(“recent Miocene Mammals 23
life”) Oligocene Carnivores 37
Eocene Modern birds 50
Paleocene Mod. plants 65
Mesozoic Cretaceous Placentals 140
(“middle Jurassic Dinosaurs 195
life”) Triassic Reptiles 230
Permian Insects 280
Paleozoic Carboniferous Ferns 345
(“ancient Devonian Fish 395
life”) Silurian Vertebrates 435
Ordovician Mollusks 500
Cambrian Invertebrates 700

Lyell’s book influenced many scientists
and shifted them away from Cuvier’s catastro-
phism. The erosion of high mountains to sea-level
and the deposition of many thousands of feet of
successive strata by sedimentation implied the vast
time spans needed for a viable theory of evolution.
Lyell himself was so committed to the uniformity
of natural law that at first he rejected the changes
necessary for organic evolution, since they
smacked of creationism. But the succession of
fossils in the strata that revealed geological
changes seemed to imply either creative acts or the
organic changes of biological evolution.
Older geologists like Sedgwick recog-
nized the evolutionary implications of Lyell’s
work. He expressed opposition to it in 1831
because it seemed to require spontaneous genera-
tion and transmutation of species. The young
Charles Darwin also recognized the implications
of Lyell’s ideas, and within a few years Lyell came
to change his opinion, realizing that organic evo-
lution paralleled the idea of a changing and
evolving Earth. But few of Lyell’s contemporaries
accepted his ideas before Darwin developed them,
preferring the mechanistic concepts of Cuvier’s
catastrophism and his idea of multiple creations.
One of Cuvier’s later associates, the
Swiss-American naturalist Louis Agassiz (1807-
73), helped to modify the extreme uniformitarian-
ism of Lyell. Between 1833 and 1844 he published
a five-volume work on fossil fish. But his most
important work was on glacial action in the Swiss
Alps. From the distribution of boulders and the
grooves scratched on solid rock, he showed in
1837 that Alpine glaciers had once stretched from
the Alps across the plains to the west and up the
sides of the Jura Mountains. He demonstrated their
slow motion, leading him to his Ice Age theory
that several thousand years ago glaciers covered
much of Europe. In 1847 he accepted a position at
Harvard University, and in North America he
found evidence glaciers had also overrun its
northern half. The Ice Age theory gradually won
acceptance over more catastrophic flood theories,
and evidence for several long ages of advancing
and retreating ice over millions of years was
eventually found.
The Darwinian Synthesis
The ideas of slow geological change, the
successions of species in the fossil record, embryo-
logical development, and plant and animal
breeding were first brought together by Charles
Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 168

Darwin (1809-82) in his theory of organic evolu-
tion by natural selection. Darwin began to study
medicine at Edinburgh in 1825, but eventually left
to prepare for the clergy at Cambridge. There
Sedgwick introduced him to geology, and Darwin
accompanied him on a field trip to Wales. His
growing interest in natural history won out over
theology, leading to an invitation to the post of
ship’s naturalist aboard H.M.S. Beagle. Late in
1831 he joined a five year expedition to survey the
coasts of South America and islands of the Pacific,
taking with him the first volume of Lyell’s
Principles of Geology, from which he learned the
sequence of geological events and Lamarck’s the-
ory of evolution.
With a growing interest in Lyell’s views,
stimulated by the second volume of the Principles
reaching him by mail in South America, Darwin
was deeply impressed “by the manner in which
allied animals replace one another in proceeding
southward on the continent.” Even more striking
were his observations during five weeks in the
Galápagos Islands, some 600 miles west of South
America, although their significance did not regis-
ter with him until later. Here he was struck by the
South American character of the animals “and
more especially by the manner in which they differ
slightly on each island of the group; none of the
islands appearing to be very ancient in a geological
sense.” Unique adaptations were evident under
similar conditions. Residents claimed they could
tell which island in the chain was home to a certain
giant tortoise by just looking at it.
Darwin took special note of a variety of
birds, now called “Darwin’s finches,” which he
confused with wrens, gross-beaks and blackbirds.
The English ornithologist John Gould (1804-81)
later identified them as a dozen different species of
closely related ground finches in spite of wide
differences in their beaks. All were more closely
related to each other than to a similar species on
the mainland. Darwin identified three types of
mockingbirds and noted that, “Each variety is
constant in its own Island. This is a parallel fact to
the one mentioned about the Tortoises.”
On his return to England, Darwin pub-
lished his observations, beginning with A Natural-
ist’s Voyage on the Beagle (1839), which began to
establish his reputation. He also published Coral
Reefs (1842), a theory of coral-reef formation by
the accumulation of coral skeletons, which im-
proved on a theory of Lyell and led to their close
friendship. He started a systematic study of the
diversification of species, beginning with artificial
breeding. In his Autobiography he wrote:
My first notebook was opened in July 1837.
I worked on true Baconian principles, and
without any theory collected facts on a
wholesale scale, more especially with
respect to domesticated productions, by
printed inquiries, by conversation with skil-
ful breeders and gardeners, and by extensive
reading.... I soon perceived that selection
was the keystone of man’s success in mak-
ing useful races of animals and plants. But
how selection could be applied to organisms
living in a state of nature remained for some
time a mystery to me.
The key to understanding a possible
mechanism of selection in nature came in 1838
from reading an Essay on the Principles of Popu-
lation, published anonymously in 1798 by the Rev.
Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) and expanded in
1803. In an attack on the idea of progress and its
darker side in the industrial revolution, Malthus
argued that populations increase exponentially, but
the food supply at best increases only
arithmetically. Thus unrestrained population
increase must end in famine, disease, or war.
Darwin thought that this must hold for other forms
of life as well, and that those in an excess
population that survived would be those best able
to compete for food. He saw that this struggle for
existence was the means of what he called “natural
selection” and might lead to the possibility of the
transmutation of species:
It at once struck me that under these cir-
cumstances favourable variations would
tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones
to be destroyed. The result of this would be
the formation of a new species. Here then I
had at last got a theory by which to work.
For the next twenty years, Darwin care-
fully developed this theory. From breeding of
Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 169

pigeons and other experience with domesticated
animals, he knew that there are random variations
among the offspring of any species in such fea-
tures as size, strength and color; and some features
are reinforced while others are suppressed by
artificial selection. Now he realized that in nature
environmental pressures would play the same role
over long periods of time, and by such natural
selection more efficient groups should replace less
efficient ones in various environmental niches.
Thus the giraffe’s long neck was not an
“acquired characteristic” from stretching, as La-
marck suggested, but resulted from random vari-
ations and natural selection, in which giraffes with
longer necks would thrive and leave more
descendants with longer necks. This also explained
its blotched coloring, which would hardly be
acquired by some kind of effort, but could result
from the natural selection of random variations
that provided camouflage to help it survive. To
explain how such random variations would carry
over in succeeding generations, rather than being
averaged out by random matings, Darwin later
suggested that “sexual selection” would reinforce
desirable characteristics. Thus the most vigorous
males and females would breed together,
producing more offspring, and animal ornamen-
tation would provide greater attraction even if it
has little survival value.

The Origin of Species
In 1844, Darwin began what he intended
to be a multi-volume book describing his theory
and the evidence that supported it. In the same
year, a book appeared by an anonymous author
entitled Vestiges of the Natural History of Crea-
tion, describing a theory of evolution based on the
idea of progression from lower forms to higher
ones. The book was written by the self-educated
Scottish publisher and naturalist Robert Chambers
(1802-71), who mixed science with folklore and
included human mental capacity as a product of
evolution. It drew a storm of scientific and relig-
ious protest and ridicule, and may have reinforced
Darwin’s caution in any premature publication of
his more rigorous approach. But it did serve to
bring evolution to the attention of the English-
speaking world.
For nearly ten years, Darwin studied bar-
nacles to sharpen his theory. He observed how
small changes had to be functional at every stage
to be preserved in the process of evolution. Lyell
urged him to publish his work before others
developed the same ideas. Then in 1858 a letter
came from Malay, where the English naturalist
Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) had arrived
on a long expedition similar to Darwin’s two dec-
ades earlier. In the Malay Peninsula, Wallace
observed the same variations among species of
neighboring islands, and came to the same
conclusion of natural selection, even deriving his
ideas from Malthus like Darwin before him.
Wallace also noted that the animals of Australia
seemed more primitive than those of Asia, and
suggested that Australia had separated from the
mainland before the more advanced species devel-
When the idea of natural selection oc-
curred to Wallace, he immediately sketched a draft
of the theory during a short period of illness, and
sent it to Darwin for his opinion without spending
additional time to collect evidence. The letter
forced Darwin to take action or risk losing his
priority. On the advice of friends, he arranged to
have Wallace’s paper published together with one
of his own in the Journal of the Linnaean Society
in 1858, putting an inronic end to the Linnaean
concept of fixity of species. He acknowledged
Wallace’s independent discovery, and Wallace
credited Darwin’s long years of labor. The brilliant
insight of Wallace was just the opening
introduction to Darwin’s theory, in which the
fossil record and the geographic distribution of
species now took on a new and meaningful order.
A year later, in 1859, Darwin published
his “Principia” of biology with the complete title
On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural
Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races
in the Struggle for Life. It was a long book of 400
pages, but not the many volumes he had hoped to
produce. The first printing of 1250 copies sold out
in a day. His main arguments for evolution
involved the fossil evidence for the distribution of
extinct species in time, and the geographic evi-
dence for the distribution of living species in
space. To a lesser extent he discussed the em-
Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 170

bryological and morphological evidence, including
the vestigial organs, which were useless remnants
that appeared to be left from some earlier useful
function in a previous stage of evolutionary
Darwinism marked a new and threatening
stage in the history of science. The idea of natural
selection from random variations clashed with the
concept of predetermined design. Of the many
variations in organisms, a few changes benefit
survival and are preserved, but there is no higher
and lower. Gills permit a fish to adapt and survive
as well as the lungs of a mammal, and only a series
of fortuitous modifications accompanied by many
failures eventually changed the swim bladder of
the fish into lungs. Natural selection was an
argument against intelligent design. Purpose gave
way to blind chance. A growing tree of
genealogical descent replaced the linear
progression of creatures in French thought and the
ideal forms of the Germans.
As Copernicus ended the fixity of the
Earth, Darwin ended the fixity of species, both
relating many observations that appeared to be
mere coincidence. Where Newton had established
purposeful design, Darwin introduced fortuitous
development, but both described a dynamic force
governed by natural laws. Like Newton, Darwin
could not explain a mechanism for the production
of variations any more than Newton could for uni-
versal gravitation. He believed that such variations
were small, leading to gradual and continuous
evolution. He also borrowed from Lamarck the
idea that selection was “aided in an important
manner by the inherited effects of the use and dis-
use of parts,” but he did not accept any inner
driving force tending toward higher forms, as
Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck had supposed. Al-
though Charles Darwin never claimed proof for
the transmutation of species, he argued that if
evolution has occurred it explains many otherwise
inexplicable facts.
In The Origin of Species, Darwin did not
develop the sensitive issue of human evolution.
But this did not prevent conflict over the issue of
human descent from apes. In 1863 Lyell published
The Antiquity of Man, using Darwinian arguments
for the evolution of humans, and evidence for
prehistoric humans from stone tools found in
ancient strata. In the same year, the English
biologist Thomas Huxley (1825-95) gave
anatomical evidence relating humans to higher
mammals in Man’s Place in Nature, showing that
ape anatomy was closer to that of humans than to
monkeys. Even Wallace was disturbed by this
extension of the theory, feeling that natural selec-
tion could not account for the human mind.
In answer to the argument that mind
required design and creation, Darwin published
The Descent of Man in 1871. Here he presented
evidence for human descent from lower forms of
life, including such vestigial organs as the four
bones at the bottom of the spine that appeared to
be the remnant of a tail. He also showed mental
similarities between humans and higher animals,
claiming that natural selection of small variations
could account for the human mind. It was in this
book that he added the new factor of sexual
selection to his general theory to account for
secondary sexual characteristics such as horns and
spurs used in fighting rivals.

Reception and Reaction to Darwinism
Even before Darwin published his theory,
the English sociologist Herbert Spencer (1820-
1903) had speculated that human society and cul-
ture evolved from a simple to a complex level,
similar to the development of an embryo. When
The Origin of Species appeared in 1859, Spencer
extended the idea of natural selection beyond
Darwin’s theory to human society. He popularized
the term evolution, seldom used by Darwin, and
coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” to
describe not only the mechanism of evolution, but
also the mode of human progress. In his Synthetic
Philosophy (1862-93) he used Social Darwinism to
justify economic competition as the social form of
natural selection consistent with the evolving
cosmos. This helped to establish the popularity of
evolution among the middle class in Victorian
The chief defender of Darwinism was
Thomas Huxley. His interest in natural history
grew out of a voyage to Australia as a ship’s doc-
tor. He opposed the Social Darwinists in a series of
lectures and essays, asserting that human progress
Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 171

is not the result of “imitating the cosmic
process...but in combating it.” He also led the
attack against the anti-evolutionists among the
Anglican clergy, who especially opposed human
evolution. In a famous debate in 1860 with the
Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, he asked
Huxley if he traced his own descent from the apes
through his father or mother. Huxley prevailed
with his reply that he would rather choose a mis-
erable ape for an ancestor than an educated man
who reduces serious scientific discussion to ridi-
cule. His devotion to science took on the dimen-
sions of religion, which he promoted and preached
for the rest of his life.
Darwinism was not only opposed on
religious grounds. In France Cuvier’s followers
opposed Darwinian evolution, as did Claude Ber-
nard and Louis Pasteur, who associated it with
spontaneous generation. When French theories of
evolution did appear in the 1880s, they leaned
toward Lamarckian views. The foremost biologist
in both England and America opposed Darwin,
London zoologist Richard Owen (1804-92) and
Harvard professor Louis Agassiz (1807-73), who
were both disciples of Cuvier. Kelvin’s calculation
of the age of the Earth based on the time for it to
cool had not yet been refuted, and his estimate of
100 million years was too short for the slow
processes required by evolution.
Darwin’s theory was rejected by most of
the older scientists in Germany, who were steeped
in the ideas of nature philosophy. But in its later
stages, nature philosophy became more materialist
and empirical, and a few younger biologists tried
to combine evolution with the German traditions
of embryology, comparative anatomy and cell the-
ory. The cell-theorist Matthias Schleiden (1804-
81) and the anatomist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919)
were among the first to accept Darwinism.
Haeckel combined Darwinism with elements of
nature philosophy and Lamarkism in his General
Morphology (1866), suggesting that the inheri-
tance of acquired characteristics was due to the
“memory” of the atoms in the seed of the off-
spring. In his History of Man (1874) he carried to
an extreme the idea that the developing embryo of
each organism follows the stages of its evolution,
popularizing the descriptive phrase “ontogeny
recapitulates phylogeny.” His work was important
in assimilating embryology and cell theory into the
Darwinian system.
In America, although Agassiz and some
church leaders opposed evolution, it was strongly
supported by the Harvard botany professor Asa
Gray (1810-88), a colleague of Agassiz and corre-
spondent with Darwin. Gray was an active Pres-
byterian layman, who believed that evolution did
not necessarily conflict with Christianity, and tried
to develop a “Christian Darwinism.” He suggested
that natural selection was not a random force but
was guided by God, making the process of
evolution itself the object of design by the Creator.
Darwin’s response in his Variation of Plants and
Animals Under Domestication (1868) was un-
relenting: “However much we may wish it, we can
hardly follow Professor Asa Gray in his belief
‘that variation has been along certain beneficial
lines’ like a stream ‘along definite and useful lines
of irrigation.’”
Theologians in America were also di-
vided in their response to Darwin. Princeton Uni-
versity president James McCosh (1811-94) be-
lieved that evolution was not incompatible with
Christian doctrine, suggesting that, “Supernatural
design produces natural selection.” Other theo-
logically orthodox evolutionists included George
Frederick Wright of Oberlin College and Benjamin
B. Warfield at Princeton Seminary. But the more
conservative Princeton theologian Charles Hodge
(1797-1878) concluded, after a careful study of
The Origin of Species, that the issue was whether
one believed that history was an intellectual proc-
ess guided by God, or a material process ruled by
chance. He believed that chance cannot generate
design and that, “Denial of design in nature is vir-
tually the denial of God.”
Warfield and the Scottish theologian
James Orr were both contributors to the 12-volume
Fundamentals (1910-15). They taught that
evolution was God’s way of creating plants,
animals, and even the human body, and did not
believe that evolution was inconsistent with Bibli-
cal inerrancy. The systematic theologian A. H.
Strong (1836-1921) at Rochester Theological
Seminary regarded evolution “as only the method
of divine intelligence.” He also accepted the brute
Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 172

ancestry of humans: “The wine in the miracle was
not water because water had been used in the
making of it, nor is man a brute because the brute
has made some contributions to his creation.”
An interesting extension of evolutionary
ideas to astronomy was worked out by George
Darwin (1845-1912), second son of Charles Dar-
win, in his theory of the evolution of the Earth-
Moon system beginning in 1879. He showed that
the frictional effect on the ocean bottom caused by
the tidal action of the Moon on the oceans was to
slow the rotation of the Earth, compensated by an
increasing distance of the Moon from the Earth.
Eventually the Earth would
slow to where its rotation
would be equal to the Moon’s
revolution at 55 times the
length of the present day, with
one side of the Earth per-
petually facing the Moon.
Working backward, Darwin
calculated that when the
Earth’s rotation was six times
its present speed (4-hour day)
it would have been in contact
with the Moon.
These calculations
led George Darwin to propose
the first evolutionary theory of
the Earth-Moon system based
on mathematical laws. He sug-
gested that the Moon was
formed out of the crust of the
Earth and thrown into orbit by
centrifugal action. This “fis-
sion theory” explained why the
Moon is less dense than the
Earth and why the granite layer of the Earth’s crust
was not continuous. He also tried to work out a
theory of the evolution of stellar systems based on
tidal friction. A generation later his ideas were
further developed, and new approaches to stellar
evolution were discovered.
The German geologist Alfred Wegener
(1880-1930) introduced a new approach to the
evolution of the Earth’s surface in 1912. He pro-
posed the theory of continental drift based on the
similarity of the coast lines of South America and
Africa, suggesting that all the continents had
formed from a single land mass called “Pangaea”
about 200 million years ago (Figure 7.6). This
made it possible to explain the unity of life on
continents that have now widely separated as
implied by the theory of organic evolution, as well
as the divergence of the various forms of life.
Continental drift was eventually confirmed, lead-
ing to the modern theory of plate tectonics, in
which sections of the Earth’s crust form moving
plates that carry the embedded continents.
Wegener also developed a theory of lunar cratering
by meteor bombardment.
Genetics and Neo-Darwinism
The missing link in Charles Darwin’s
theory was the mechanism by which random vari-
ations were produced and inherited, leading to
revised versions of the theory. In his Mechanical-
physiological Theory of Evolution (1884), the
Swiss botanist Karl Nägeli (1817-91) rejected
random forces and proposed that an inner pro-
gressive force drove evolutionary changes in a
definite direction, an idea called “orthogenesis.”
He also believed that small continuous variations

Figure 7.6 Wegener’s Theory of Continental Drift
The dashed line between the western and eastern hemispheres shows
the similar shapes of the coastlines on the two sides of the Atlantic
Ocean that led to Wegener’s idea of continental drift away from an
original contiguous relation.
Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 173

were not enough to explain the evolution of higher
organisms, and suggested that the inner force fol-
lowed a dialectical pattern of discontinuous jumps,
later called “mutations.” Unfortunately, when
Nägeli received the results of research on pea
plants from the Moravian monk and plant breeder
Gregor Mendel (1822-84) that would have
supported his ideas, he considered them “empirical
rather than rational” and ignored them.
Mendel studied mathematics and science
at the University of Vienna and became a science
teacher at Brünn (now Brno in the Czech Repub-
lic) in 1854. He began a decade of research in
1857 that combined botany and mathematics in
growing sweet peas in the monastery garden. By
self-pollinating various plants, he was able to en-
sure that any inherited characteristics such as size,
color or texture, were from a single parent. Seeds
planted from dwarf pea plants “bred true” in that
they produced only dwarf plants in succeeding
generations. But only about one third of the tall
plants bred true, while the other two thirds of the
tall plants were not true, producing tall plants and
dwarf plants in a ratio of three to one.
When Mendel cross-bred dwarf plants
with true-bred tall plants, every hybrid seed pro-
duced a tall plant (Figure 7.7). When he self-
pollinated these hybrid tall plants, they produced
one quarter true-bred tall plants, one quarter true-
bred dwarfs, and one half non-true-bred tall plants.
He interpreted his results to mean that each plant
had two height factors, one from each parent. The
tallness factor (T) was dominant over the recessive
shortness factor (d) in that all first-generation
cross-bred plants were tall (Td). When these were
self-pollinated, the height factors combined to give
offspring with either two tallness factors (TT), or
two shortness factors (dd), or a tall and a short
(Td), or a short and a tall (dT). The first two
combinations always bred true, while the second
two combinations would give tall and short plants
in the ratio of three to one. These results were
consistent with the predictions of mathematical
Mendel obtained similar results for other
characteristics than height, showing in every case
that mixtures of characteristics did not average out,
but retained their identity. Although he did not
realize it, this was an important result for Darwin’s
theory. Natural selection of a given characteristic
from random variations would fail if unrestricted
mating blended varying characteristics in
succeeding generations. Mendel’s discovery
showed that varying characteristics did not blend,
but remained distinct, suggesting that natural
selection could work effectively on random
variations. After failing to obtain Nägeli’s spon-
sorship, Mendel published two papers in 1866 and
1869 in the Proceedings of the Brünn Natural
History Society, where it remained dormant for
thirty years.
Meanwhile, the German biologist August
Weismann (1834-1914) began in 1882 to attack
the Lamarckian idea of inheritance of acquired
characteristics. Darwin had assumed that
“elements” from an entire organism unite in the
germ-cell (pan genesis), so that any change in the
organism might alter its germ-cells and be inher-
ited. In his “Essay on Inheritance and Related
Biological Questions” (1892), Weismann argued
that the body of higher animals is mortal, but
pure tall pure dwarf
Td Td dT dT x
TT Td dT dd
3 talls
1 dwarf
3 tall
1 dwarf
3 tall
1 dwarf
dd x

Figure 7.7 Diagram of Mendel’s Pea Plants
Cross breeding (x) of a true tall plant (TT) with
a dwarf plant (dd) results in hybrid talls (Td).
The self-pollination of hybrid tall plants results
in true tall plants, hybrid plants, and dwarf
plants in proportions of 1:2:1, making a total of
3 talls and one dwarf.
Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 174

“germplasm” is passed from one generation to an-
other. The germplasm determines the form and
characteristics of the body and is nourished by it,
but the body has no effect on the germplasm, so
that acquired characteristics would not be inher-
ited. He cut the tails off of 1592 mice over 22
generations and observed that none produced
offspring with shorter tails.
Weismann went on to suggest that vari-
ations resulted from the union of two germplasms,
one from the mother and one from the father. In
1887 he recognized that the germplasm of each
parent must split into two halves when eggs or
sperms are formed, so that the union of egg and
sperm will not double the germplasm of the off-
spring. This prediction of what was later called
“meiosis” was eventually confirmed empirically.
He also proposed that the germplasm was con-
tained in the chromosomes described by Walther
Flemming five years earlier. Again Weismann’s
idea was eventually shown to be correct. But in
viewing the germplasm as the real essence of life,
periodically growing an organism about itself as a
kind of self-protection, Weismann seemed to allow
no room for variation at all. If from generation to
generation the germplasm was unchanged,
evolution seemed impossible.
At the end of the century, the solution to
the evolutionary impasse finally appeared with the
rediscovery of Mendel’s theories. For some twenty
years, the Dutch botanist Hugo De Vries (1848-
1935) conducted plant breeding experiments in
Amsterdam and thought about the problem of
variations. By 1900 he devised a theory for the
combinations of hereditary traits that matched his
work on plants. In preparing for publication, he
discovered Mendel’s papers after working out his
own theory in detail. In the same year, two other
European botanists independently rediscovered the
laws of inheritance and found Mendel’s papers, all
three publishing their results as a confirmation of
Mendel’s laws.
Nearly fifteen years earlier, De Vries had
noticed some unusual variations in a wild colony
of evening primroses. He bred them separately and
together with the usual results, but found that
sometimes a very different variety would be pro-
duced and perpetuate itself. By 1894, the English
biologist William Bateson (1861-1926) found ad-
ditional and more reliable examples of such large
variations. In 1901 De Vries published Die Muta-
tionstheorie, proposing that evolution was not
continuous but occurred in occasional jumps that
he called “mutations.” In the next three years, De
Vries and several other biologists noted that the
combinations of Mendel’s inheritance factors cor-
responded to that of chromosomes when the egg
and sperm are produced and unite. Thus they
suggested that the chromosomes carry the Men-
delian factors (now called genes), in agreement
with Weismann’s germplasm theory.
In 1905, Bateson introduced the term
“genetics” for the study of heredity and variations.
In the same year, experiments on sweet peas
showed that some characteristics are inherited
together, indicating that Mendel’s genetic factors
are sometimes linked together. This “gene-
linkage” was clearly demonstrated by the work of
the American geneticist Thomas Morgan (1866-
1945). At Columbia University in 1907 he intro-
duced the use of the genetic study of fruit flies,
whose cells had only four pairs of chromosomes.
He found many cases of mutations and showed
that some characteristics were inherited together.
This gene-linkage implied that the asso-
ciated genes were on the same chromosome. Oc-
casional separation of these inherited characteris-
tics led Morgan in 1911 to the idea that the uniting
of broken chromosomes could result in “cross-
overs” that would separate the corresponding
genes. When this was demonstrated in 1912, it
became possible to map the gene locations on the
chromosomes by assuming that the frequency of
linkage between two genes was determined by
their distance apart on the same chromosome.
Morgan published The Theory of the Gene in
1926, but the determination of the molecular
structure of the gene required the use of new
techniques in chemistry and physics developed
over the next two decades.
The concept of an evolving world implies
the unity of all living creatures in the growing tree
of life, an idea as grand as the cyclical order of the
mechanical universe or the pulsating activity of the
energistic universe. Although molecular biology
tries to reduce life to the mechanisms of chemistry
Chapter 7 ▪ An Evolving Universe 175

and physics, the laws of mechanics now appeared
to operate within the larger framework of history,
which has no predictable laws. Our universe is an
evolving system with a past and a future, not just a
machine with constantly recurring motions.
But even chance variations fit within the
regular patterns of nature. The mechanistic con-
fidence in design gives way to the continuity and
richness of history. In place of the comforting
arguments of natural theology with its Cosmic
Designer, an evolving universe suggests a Cosmic
Planner and Sustainer who gives the world a po-
tentiality and integrity of its own, balanced within
the finely tuned laws of created order. In this view,
God not only created the universe and its laws, but
continues to create through the possibilities
provided by “chance” within the framework of
natural laws that He sustains.


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Doubleday, 1958.
Ghiselin, Michael T. The Triumph of the Darwin-
ian Method. Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1969.
Gillespie, Neal C. Charles Darwin and the Prob-
lem of Creation. Chicago: University of Chi-
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Gillispie, Charles. Genesis and Geology: A Study
in the Relations of Scientific Thought, Natural
Theology and Social Opinion in Great Britain
1790-1850. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Uni-
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Glass, Bentley, Owsei Temkin and William L.
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Goodfield, Jane. The Growth of Scientific Physi-
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Greene, John C. The Death of Adam: Evolution
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Hull, David L. Darwin and His Critics: The Re-
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Watson, James D. The Double Helix: A Personal
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DNA. New York: Atheneum, 1968.

Although the concepts of an energistic
and evolving universe challenged the mechanistic
assumptions of the eighteenth century, the me-
chanical view of the universe continued to domi-
nate the physical sciences in the nineteenth cen-
tury. But the study of active phenomena, such as
those associated with electricity and magnetism,
began to increasingly challenge the prevailing
mechanical view of passive matter acted upon by
external forces. As these topics were developed in
the nineteenth century, every effort was made to
explain them in terms of mechanical laws and to
reduce them to mechanistic models. But new con-
cepts like electric charge and field required radical
revisions in ideas about matter and space, and
could not be completely reduced to mechanical
laws. The growing complexity of these phenomena
eventually led to a new electromagnetic view of
the universe that opened up new horizons never
imagined by Newton and his followers.
From antiquity many records describe
active phenomena such as lightning, the jolting
sting of the “torpedo fish” (electric eel), the glow
of “St. Elmo’s fire” as sometimes seen on the
points of Roman spears during stormy weather,
and the attracting power of amber when rubbed.
But no connection between these various phenom-
ena was recognized until the eighteenth century.
Plato described the ability of amber to attract bits
of straw and other light materials in his Timaeus,
and some accounts say Thales observed it. The
Greek word for this pale yellow fossil resin was
elektron, from which the word electricity was later
derived. Plato refers to both “the wonderful
attracting power of amber and the Heraclean
stone” or lodestone, linking electricity and mag-
netism. The lodestone was a naturally magnetic
iron ore found near two ancient towns in Asia
Minor called Magnesia, leading to the name mag-
netism for rocks that attract pieces of iron.
In The City of God (De Civitate Dei, AD
428), Saint Augustine gives a good factual account
of amber and magnetic phenomena as they were
then known, characteristically distinguishing
between verifiable and unverifiable knowledge:
For my own part, I do not wish all the mar-
vels I have cited to be rashly accepted, for I
do not myself believe them implicitly, save
those that have either come under my ob-
servation or that anyone can readily verify,
such as...the magnet, which by its mysteri-
ous or sensible suction attracts the iron, but
has no effect on a straw.


An Electromagnetic Universe

Electric Charge and Field Concepts

Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 177

Augustine saw in these “mysterious” and unex-
plained phenomena an answer to the question of
the inexplicability of miracles by human reason.
The early Christian view of a purposeful universe
saw such moral and religious lessons as being
more important than dubious rational theories.
In the 12th century, interest in secular
knowledge began to revive. By this time, Europe-
ans knew that the lodestone or a magnetized iron
needle placed on a short piece of wood floating in
water would point toward the north. Application of
this fact to the mariner’s compass led to renewed
interest in the lodestone and the amber effect, and
to the recognition that amber does not point in a
particular direction. About this same time it was
found that the hard compacted form of coal
known as jet also exhibited the amber effect
when rubbed. In 1269 Pierre de Maricourt
(Peregrinus) published his Magnete,
describing the similarity of a rounded lodestone
to the celestial sphere in attracting a needle along
lines which “meet in two points, just as all the
meridian circles of the World meet in the two
opposite poles of the World.” He called these
two points the poles of the magnet.

The Concept of Electric Charge
The systematic study of electricity and
magnetism began with the English physician
William Gilbert (1544-1603), who studied medi-
cine at Cambridge University and later became
president of the Royal College of Physicians and
one of Queen Elizabeth’s physicians. He published
the results of more than fifteen years of research
in his book On the Magnet (De Magnete, 1600),
including a chapter on the amber effect. He
carefully distinguished magnetism from the amber
effect, showing that the lodestone required no
rubbing, would only attract iron, and could act
through screening materials like paper. He formed
a spherical lodestone called a “terrella,” and
showed that a magnetic needle near its surface
would align with its poles, confirming his idea that
the Earth is a large magnet.
Gilbert began the modern study of elec-
tricity with his discovery that many materials
besides amber and jet can be electrified by fric-
tional rubbing. These included many different
gems, several kinds of glass, sulfur, sealing wax,
hard resin, and “a feeble power of
rock salt, mica, rock alum...when in midwinter the
atmosphere is sharp and clear and rare–when the
emanations from the Earth hinder electrics less,
and the electric bodies are harder....” Thus Gilbert
introduced the word electric into the language,
coined from the Greek name for amber. He also
showed that most materials could be attracted by
“electrics.” He designed a kind of electroscope,
which he called a versorium, consisting of a metal
needle resting on a pointed support that would
rotate when electrics were brought near. With this
first electrical instrument, he showed that some
materials could not be electrified by rubbing,
especially metals, leading him to identify two
classes of substances, electrics and nonelectrics.
He tried to explain attraction by emission of
material “effluvia,” released by rubbing, that “lay
hold of the bodies with which they unite, enfold
them, as it were, and bring them into union with
The Jesuit preacher Niccolò Cabeo (1586-
1650), who taught mathematics in Genoa, may
have been the first to observe electrical repulsion,
even while denying that electrics transfer their
power to other objects. In his book Philosophia
Magnetica (1629), he pointed out that attracted
bodies sometimes rebound from an electric, but he
viewed this as merely a side effect of attraction.
He suggested that the effluvia thin the air, causing
a kind of breeze to drive light bodies toward the
electric and sometimes bounce from it. By the
1660s in England, Robert Boyle (1627-91) used
his newly perfected air pump to show that
electrified amber could attract chaff in an
evacuated glass vessel. He also demonstrated the
mutuality of electrics by suspending amber on a
thread and noting its attraction to other bodies.
The German engineer Otto von Guericke
(1602-86), burgermeister of Magdeburg, devel-
oped a mechanical approach to the study of elec-
trical effects. In his Experimenta Nova (1672) he
described the first frictional electric machine,
which he devised with a sulfur globe that could be
rubbed with one hand while rotating it on a crank-
turned shaft with the other hand. He showed that it
would attract light objects, and more surprisingly,
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 178

that it could repel a feather and keep it suspended
in air above the globe even when the globe was
moved about. He also observed that the rubbed
globe would glow in the dark, describing these
various properties as “virtues” unique to such
electrics. The Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens
(1629-95) repeated these experiments with an
amber globe and clearly demonstrated repulsion
between two electrified objects. He explained
these phenomena with the vortex ideas of
Descartes, but did not publish his results.
An uneducated instrument maker and
demonstrator at the Royal Society named Francis
Hauksbee (1666-1713) revived interest in electric-
ity in England in the eighteenth century. Encour-
aged by Newton, who was serving as the new
president of the Society, Hauksbee developed an
evacuated glass globe that could be rubbed while
rotating it with a hand crank. In 1705 he demon-
strated the power of his globe to glow strongly
enough to illuminate a book in a dark room. It
appeared that frictional electricity might provide a
link between the study of the two great divisions
of Newtonian science, mechanical and optical
To further study these effects, Hauksbee
enhanced his electrical experiments by using a
long glass tube in place of amber and quickly
rediscovered electrostatic repulsion. When he
rubbed the glass tube, it not only attracted bits of
matter, but they “would sometimes adhere to the
tube...and sometimes would be thrown violently
from it to good distances.” Suspending threads
from a circular frame over the glass tube, he
showed that their attraction was radially toward
the center of the glass tube. In all these phenom-
ena, he reverts to the old explanation of emitted

Electric Conduction and Fluids
The Englishman Stephen Gray (1666-
1736), a dyer by trade, discovered the conduction
of electric charge, and the distinction between
conductors and insulators. In 1708, Gray trans-
mitted to the Royal Society the results of his
experiments with a glass tube like that used by
Hauksbee, some of which the latter claimed as his
own while suppressing the rest. Gray became a
pensioner in 1719 at Charterhouse in London, an
institution that provided schooling for “charity
boys” and a living for “poor brethren.” His first
paper appeared in the Philosophical Transactions
in 1720. It described light and sparks from a glass
tube when rubbed in the dark. A second paper in
1729 resulted from his suspicion that, “...since
such a tube communicated light to bodies when it
was rubbed in the dark, whether it might not at the
same time communicate an electricity to them.”
After placing corks in the ends of the tube to keep
out dust, he found that the cork attracted and
repelled a down feather, and concluded that,
“There was certainly an attractive Vertue com-
municated to the cork by the excited tube.” This
hypothesis led to several more discoveries.
In his 1729 paper, Gray described a series
of experiments on conduction of “electric vertue.”
He inserted a rod into one of the corks and
observed attraction to an ivory ball on the other
end of the rod. He then found that metal wire from
the cork in the glass tube would conduct electricity
to the ivory ball or to a lead ball, contradicting
Gilbert’s classification of metals as “nonelectrics.”
Working with gentlemen friends, he was able to
observe attraction by the ivory ball suspended on
34 feet of “pack thread” from the glass tube. He
then “made several attempts to pass the electric
virtue along a horizontal line” suspended by pack
thread from a roof beam, but his lack of success
led him to conclude that the electricity escaped
through the beam. He finally succeeded by using
silk thread to support his “horizontal line,”
assuming that its thinness would prevent the
escape of electricity through the beam to the
ground (now called grounding).
Gray continued his experiments in a barn,
succeeding with a pack thread line up to 293 feet;
but when he used metal wire to support the heavier
weight of the line, the experiment failed. With
more silk supports, he then succeeded in
transmitting electricity up to some 650 feet. Thus
he finally recognized the basic distinction between
insulators like silk (Gilbert’s electrics) and con-
ductors like metals (Gilbert’s nonelectrics) as the
important factor in his success, rather than thick-
ness of the support. By suspending a small boy
from silk threads, he was able to transmit electric-
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 179

ity from his feet to his face. In a 1732 paper, he
reported on the electrification of materials without
direct contact, now called “electrical induction.”
In this paper he is finally designated as a “Fellow
of the Royal Society” (F.R.S.).
Electrical studies were soon begun in
Paris at the French Académie des Sciences by
Charles Dufay (1698-1739), a self-trained scientist
who became superintendent of the Royal Gardens.
In 1733 he repeated Gray’s experiments and
obtained better results by using wet pack thread
supported on glass tubes, reaching 1256 feet of
conduction. He was the first to cite Otto von
Guericke’s work, repeating his experiment on
electrical repulsion of a feather and showing that,
“The same effects were all electri-
fied bodies whatsoever.”
Dufay sent his work to the Royal Society,
where it was translated into English and published
in the Philosophical Transactions in 1734. Here
he reports his discovery of two distinct electrici-
ties, calling them “vitreous” and “resinous” elec-
tricity. “The first is that of glass, rock crystal,
precious stones, hair of animals, wool, and many
other bodies. The second is that of amber, copal,
gum lac, silk, thread, paper, and a vast number of
other substances.” He then notes that, “A body
of, say, the vitreous electricity repels all such as
are of the same electricity; and on the contrary,
attracts all those of the resinous electricity.” Al-
though Dufay never referred to fluids, his discov-
ery was called the “two-fluid theory of
electricity,” with its basic principle that bodies
with like “electric fluids” repel and those of
unlike “fluids” attract.
Correspondence between Dufay and Gray
led the latter to a further study of electric sparks
and the suggestion that, “In time there may be
found a way to collect a greater quantity of...this
electric fire, which by several of these experiments
seems to be of the same nature with that of thunder
and lightning.” In the 1740’s experimenters in
Germany found that a bottle of liquid held in one
hand could be electrified enough to give a large
shock when touched by the other hand. This so
called “electric condenser” was improved in
Holland by setting the bottle on a metal support, so
that it could then be discharged by touching the
metal with one hand and the top of the bottle with
the other. In Paris this became known as the
“Leyden jar,” and in England it was found that the
liquid was unnecessary if the inside and outside of
the jar were covered with metal foil and dis-
charged by a wire from the outer coating brought
near a metal rod extending from the inner coating.
The Leyden jar led to dramatic experiments with
electric shocks, culminating in a demonstration
before the king by Dufay’s former collaborator,
the Abbé Jean-Antoine Nollet (1700-70), in which
a Leyden jar was discharged through 180 gen-
darmes holding hands in a circle.
Demonstrations of electric phenomena
eventually reached Colonial America, where
Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) was a spectator:
In 1746, being at Boston, I met there with a
Mr. Spence, who was lately arrived from
Scotland, and show’d me some electric
experiments....Soon after my return to
Philadelphia, our Library Company re-
ceived from Mr. P. Collinson, Fellow of the
Royal Society of London, a present of a
glass tube, with some account of the use of
it in making such experiments. I eagerly
seized the opportunity of repeating what I
had seen in Boston; and, by much practice,
acquired great readiness in performing
those, also, which we had an account of
from England, adding a number of new
Apprenticed to an older brother as a printer at the
age of 12, Franklin later established himself in the
printing business in Philadelphia. He spent two
years (1724-26) in London as a printer, where he
befriended Peter Collinson, F.R.S. In America he
became a leading representative of the Enlight-
enment, leaving his Quaker religion to become a
deist with utilitarian morals, and eventually be-
coming financially independent as a publisher in
After purchasing Mr. Spence’s electrical
equipment and acquiring or making additional
apparatus, including a Leyden jar, Franklin wrote
to Collinson in 1747: “For my own part, I never
was before engaged in any study that so totally
engrossed my attention and my time as this has
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 180

lately done...” Two months later he wrote a sec-
ond letter describing “the wonderful effect of
pointed bodies, both in drawing off and throwing
off the electrical fire.” He then outlined his “one-
fluid theory” of electricity based on experiments
with two persons standing on wax, in which one
rubs the tube and the other “draws the electrical
fire,” so that both appear electrified to a third
person on the floor until the first two touch each
These appearances we attempt to account for
thus. We suppose, as aforesaid, that
electrical fire [fluid] is a common element,
of which every one of the three persons
aforementioned has his equal share.... A,
who stands on wax and rubs the tube, col-
lects the electrical fire from himself into the
glass; and his communication with the
common stock being cut off by the wax, his
body is not again immediately supply’d.
B...receives the fire which was collected by
the glass from A.... To C, standing on the
floor, both appear to be electrized... If A and
B approach to touch each other, the spark is
stronger, because the difference between
them is greater; after such touch there is no
spark between either of them and C, because
the electrical fire in all is reduced to the
original equality.... We say B is electrized
positively; A, negatively. Or rather, B is
electrized plus; A, minus.
By using mathematical terms like plus and minus,
Franklin suggests the possibility that electricity is
quantitative and measurable. Later he identified
positive and negative charge with Dufay’s
“vitreous and resinous fluids,” respectively, which
he viewed as a surplus or deficiency of one electric
fluid. His assumption that electrification does not
create or destroy charge, but only transfers it from
one body to another, implies what was eventually
called the “law of conservation of electric charge.”
Adding positive charge to the inside of a Leyden
jar repels an equal quantity of charge from the
outside to the ground, leaving the outside
negatively charged, which was a result not easily
explained by Dufay’s two-fluid theory.
Franklin’s letters and papers on electricity
were published in London by Collinson in a book
entitled New Experiments and Observations on
Electricity (1751-74). It went through many
editions and translations, leading to his election as
a foreign member of the Royal Society in 1756. He
was also influential in the creation of the first
scientific society in the colonies, the American
Philosophical Society “for promoting useful
knowledge.” In a 1749 paper he suggested an
experiment for collecting electricity from clouds
with a pointed metal rod from a high tower or
steeple, and proposed the use of lightning rods to
protect buildings:
I say, if these things are so, may not the
knowledge of this power of points be of use
to mankind in preserving houses, churches,
ships, etc., from the stroke of lightning, by
directing us to fix on the highest parts of
these edifices, upright rods of iron made
sharp as a needle, and gilt to prevent rusting,
and from the foot of those rods a wire down
the outside of the building into the ground,
or down round one of the shrouds of a ship,
and down her side till it reaches the water?
Would not these pointed rods probably draw
the electrical fire silently out of a cloud
before it came nigh enough to strike, and
thereby secure us from that most sudden and
terrible mischief?
In France, the Comte de Buffon had Franklin’s
work translated into French, and in May of 1752
his group set up an insulated pole outside of Paris,
drawing sparks from the pole with an insulated
brass wire during a thunderstorm. In October of
1752, Franklin performed his famous kite experi-
ment with a pointed wire fastened to the top of the
kite, and a metal key at the lower end of the string,
which was held by a silk ribbon for insulation
(Figure 8.1). Standing under a shed to keep the silk
ribbon dry, he was able to draw sparks from the
key and charge a Leyden jar from it, doing all the
experiments “which are usually done with the help
of a rubbed globe or tube.” In 1753 at the St.
Petersburg Academy of Sciences in Russia, the
German scientist G. W. Richmann (1711-53) re-
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 181

peated the experiment suggested by Franklin and
was electrocuted.

Electric Force and Quantity of Charge
One difficulty with Franklin’s one-fluid
theory was the repulsion of negatively charged
bodies that have lost their electric fluid. In 1759
another German scientist at Saint Petersburg,
Franz Aepinus (1724-1802), suggested that parti-
cles of ordinary matter devoid of electricity repel
each other, but attract electric fluid. In this view,
uncharged matter contains its natural quantity of
electric fluid, for which the forces due to the mat-
ter and fluid balance each other, or perhaps remain
slightly attractive to account for gravitation. From
Franklin’s theory of the Leyden jar, Aepinus
concluded that insulators are impermeable to the
flow of electric fluid. He demonstrated this even
for air by showing that the metal surfaces of a
Leyden jar remain charged when he replaced the
glass with air. This led him to deny the existence
of electric effluvia from charged bodies and to
espouse a theory of electric force by “action at a
The first statement of a quantitative law
of electric forces was given by Joseph Priestley
(1733-1804), who as a Nonconformist minister
became interested in science through his belief that
God could be known by studying His creation.
After beginning a history of electricity, he made a
trip to London where he spent several days with
Franklin, who was seeking remission of the Stamp
Act. In 1767 Priestley published The History and
Present State of Electricity, with Original Ex-

Leyden jar
- - - - - - - -
charged cloud
+ + + +

Figure 8.1 Franklin’s Demonstration of the Equivalence of Lightning and Electricity
Franklin used a kite to draw electric charge from clouds. He observed the effect of charge repulsion
on the strands of the string, and was able to conduct electricity through a key to a Leyden jar by
insulating himself from the string. Frictional charging of a cloud draws opposing charges from the
ground to the highest point above the ground, such as the top of the steeple of a church.
Concentration of charge in such pointed conductors produces large discharges in the form of
lightning which often cause fires. Franklin proposed protecting buildings with conducting rods to
carry the electricity into the ground.
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 182

periments, in which he included an experiment
done by Franklin:
I shall close the account of my experiments
with a small set in which, as well as in the
last, I have little to boast besides the honor
of following the instructions of Dr. Frank-
lin. He informed me that he had found cork
balls [suspended by silk threads] to be
wholly unaffected by the electricity of [an
insulated] metal cup, within which they
were held; and he desired me to repeat and
ascertain the fact, giving me leave to make
it public.
In 1755 Franklin had written Dr. John Lining of
Charleston, S. C., describing how he “electrified a
silver pint cann [sic] on an electric stand, and then
lowered into it a cork-ball.... The cork was not
attracted to the inside of the cann as it would have
been to the outside.”
Priestley now recognized an analogy with
the inverse-square law of gravitation, for which
Newton had shown that the force of gravity on a
mass point inside a spherical shell vanishes.
Continuing the account of his experiment, Pries-
tley infers that, “The attraction of electricity is
subject to the same laws with that of gravitation,
and is therefore according to the squares of the
distances; since it is easily demonstrated that were
the Earth in the form of a shell, a body in the
inside of it would not be attracted to one side more
than another.” The analogy was not completely
accurate, since gravity does not quite vanish in a
cylindrical shell (can). Henry Cavendish (1731-
1810) performed an unpublished version of Pries-
tley’s experiment in 1773. Using hollow concen-
tric metal spheres, he found no transfer of charge
from the outer to the inner sphere to an accuracy
that implied an inverse-square force within less
than ±1%.
John Robison (1739-1805), of Edinburgh,
inspired by a visit with Franz Aepinus in St.
Petersburg, made the first direct measurement
confirming the inverse-square law for electrical
forces. Robison built a device to balance the
weight of a cork ball on the end of a pivoted rod
against the electrical attraction or repulsion of
another cork ball above or below it. He published
this work in 1801 in an article on Aepinus in the
Encyclopedia Britannica, but reports that it he did
it in 1769. Robison’s four-volume Mechanical
Philosophy, published posthumously in 1822,
gives his conclusion based on many measurements
that, “The mutual repulsion of two spheres, elec-
trified positively or negatively, was very nearly in
the inverse proportion of the squares of the dis-
tance of their centres, or rather in a proportion
somewhat greater, approaching to 1/r
The first published measurement of the
inverse-square law of electric force was in 1785 by
the French military engineer Charles Augustin
Coulomb (1736-1806) and is now known as Cou-
lomb’s law. He developed a torsion balance con-
sisting of a horizontal rod suspended at its center
by a thin wire in which he could measure the tor-
sional force when the rod rotated in a horizontal
plane. He then determined the force of repulsion
between two charges by measuring the angle that
the rod turned with a small charged sphere
attached to one end when he brought a similar
charged sphere near the first. He obtained a force
that varied inversely as the square of the distance r
between the centers of the spheres and directly
proportional to the quantities of charge q and q’ on
the two spheres, giving the equation
F = kqq΄/r
where k depends on the units chosen. In modern
Standard International (SI) units, where F is in
newtons (N) and r is in meters (m), the coulomb of
charge (C) for q and q΄ corresponds to a value of k
= 8.99×10
Although Coulomb only published three
data points, which differed from the inverse-square
law by as much as 6 percent, he evidently made
many more measurements. He also used the
torsion balance to measure an inverse-square force
between the poles of bar magnets that were long
enough to neglect the effects of their opposite
poles. This confirmed a result obtained by the
Reverend John Michell (1724-93) in 1750 with the
aid of a torsion balance, which Coulomb and
Michell invented independently. To measure the
electrical force of attraction, Coulomb modified
his apparatus to make a torsional pendulum in
which he replaced the wire by a silk thread sup-
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 183

porting the rod with a charged object on one end.
With an oppositely charged sphere brought near,
the rod could be made to oscillate and the force
calculated from the rate of oscillation, confirming
the inverse-square law. Despite his thoroughness,
Coulomb’s law was not widely accepted until after
the publication in 1801 of Robison’s earlier work.

Electric Current and the Battery
Although Coulomb’s law established a
quantitative basis for static electricity, few practi-
cal applications were possible until current elec-
tricity in the form of a sustained flow of electric
charge through a conductor became possible from
the work of the Italian scientists Galvani and
Volta. After receiving a medical degree from the
University of Bologna, Luigi Galvani (1737-1798)
married Lucia Galeazzi, the only daughter of his
anatomy professor, and eventually succeeded his
father-in-law. In the late 1770s he began a series of
experiments on electrophysiology, in which he
stimulated muscles by electrical means. By 1780
he had acquired an electrical machine and a Ley-
den jar for producing and storing electric fluid.
With a conductor from his electrical machine
attached to the exposed spinal cord of a frog, he
could observe the contractions of the muscles in
the legs when the he discharged the machine.
In 1786, Galvani observed frog-leg con-
tractions when he touched a scalpel to the crural
nerve, even though the electrical machine was
disconnected! According to some accounts, it was
his wife Lucia who noticed that this happened at
the same moment that someone discharged a spark
from the machine. To see if this induction effect
would result from natural electricity, he fastened
some prepared frogs by brass hooks in their spinal
cord to an iron railing surrounding a balcony of his
house and observed contractions when lightning
flashed. But the most surprising result was that
contractions continued to occur even after the sky
cleared, and these intensified when he pressed the
brass hook in the spinal cord against the iron
Recognizing that electric fluid activated
the muscles within the assembly of frog and met-
als, Galvani confirmed this result in his laboratory
by pressing the brass hook against the frog on an
iron plate. He showed that the strength of the
contractions depends on the metals used, clearly
demonstrating “galvanism” by producing an elec-
tric current from the action of two dissimilar
metals in the frog tissues. He believed that he had
confirmed the existence of “animal electricity,”
which he viewed as a vital force distinct from
“natural electricity” such as lightning, and the
“artificial electricity” produced by friction.
In 1791, a year after the death of his wife
at age 47, Galvani published De Viribus in Motu
Musculari Commentarius. After Volta challenged
his idea of “animal electricity” in 1793, Galvani
demonstrated contractions by merely touching
frog nerves to muscles without any metals. He
also collected marine torpedoes and showed that
their strong electrical discharge comes from
structures similar to nerves and muscles.
Although he failed to fully understand his
discovery of galvanism, he confirmed the
electrical nature of the “nervous fluid,” marking
the beginning of electrophysiology.
Alessandro Volta (1745-1827) received a
classical education at the Jesuit school in his home
town of Como in northern Italy. However, he
never attended university, devoting himself instead
to the study of electricity. Basing his work on
Franklin’s one-fluid theory, he wrote two books on
electrostatics followed by a letter to Priestley in
1775 describing his invention of the
“electrophorus.” This device consisted of a flat
insulating cake in a metal dish covered by a metal
plate with an insulated handle. After rubbing the
cake and replacing the plate, a brief touch trans-
fers electric fluid from the plate. It can then be
lifted and discharged into a Leyden jar as often as
the process is repeated. This work led to his
appointment as professor of experimental physics
at the University of Pavia in 1778. He then per-
fected a condensing electrometer by combining his
electrophorus with the electroscope to accurately
measure the “tension” on the plate, later called
In 1792, Volta repeated Galvani’s ex-
periments on the contraction of frog legs in contact
with two different metals. At first he accepted
Galvani’s view of “animal electricity,” but by the
end of the year he concluded that the electricity
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 184

was from the metals rather than the muscles. This
led to a long debate with Galvani’s nephew and
defender, Giovanni Aldini. Volta strengthened his
position by his measurements of what he called
the “electromotive force” of different com-
binations of metals with his condensing
electrometer, ranking them in what now is called
the “electrochemical series.” In 1794 he became
the first foreigner to win the Copley Medal from
the Royal Society of London, and finally took
time to marry and begin a family. By 1796 he
showed the identity of galvanic and common
electricity by using only metals in contact to
stimulate his electrometer.
After trying various combinations of
metals and moist conductors, Volta finally ob-
tained a sustained galvanic current by placing a
moist cardboard between two different metals. He
increased this effect by stacking pairs of silver and
zinc cells to form an electric pile, multiplying the
flow of current (Figure 8.2). In 1800 he made
these results public in a letter to Joseph Banks,
president of the Royal Society, and they were
published in its Philosophical Transactions in
French under the English title “On the Electricity
excited by the mere Contact of conducting Sub-
stances of different kinds” (1800). The letter also
described his “crown of cups,” consisting of a ring
of cups filled with brine and connected by
bimetallic arcs dipping into the liquid. He might
have published his work earlier but for the French
invasion of Italy in 1796 and the closing of the
university in 1799 for a year. Both he and Galvani
were deeply religious men who saw science and
Christianity as allies, and Volta even wrote a
confession of faith in 18l5, defending religion
from scientism.
Volta’s electric battery provided the first
useful form of electricity and led to the electrical
revolution of the nineteenth century. The battery
produced a sustained electric current (I) defined as
the flow of charge per unit time (I = q/t), with a
unit now called the ampere (A) defined as one
coulomb per second (C/s). Shortly after Volta’s
announcement in 1800, the English chemist Wil-
liam Nicholson (1753-1815) and surgeon Anthony
Carlisle (1768-1840) built a “Voltaic pile” and
used it to decompose water into hydrogen and
oxygen by passing a current through it, publishing
their results even before the publication of Volta’s
Sir Humphry Davy (1728-1829) then
constructed a powerful electric battery of 500
plates at London’s Royal Institution and began
work on the electrolytic decomposition of sub-
stances such as lime, magnesia, potash and soda.
By 1808 he had discovered the elements potassium
(K), sodium (Na), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg),
barium (Ba), strontium (Sr), and chlorine (Cl). In
1810 Davy demonstrated the first electric light
with an arc discharge using charcoal electrodes
with a battery of 2000 cells.
Cu Zn
damp -
Voltaic Pile
Equivalent circuit

Figure 8.2 Volta’s Electric Battery
Volta established an electric voltage across two
dissimilar metals such as copper (Cu) and zinc
(Zn) by inserting them into a weak acid solution.
This voltage multiplies by connecting the zinc
plate (-) in one container to the copper plate (+)
in the next container. He also formed a series of
electric cells by stacking zinc-copper pairs
separated by damp cardboard fillers to form a
“voltaic pile.” In an equivalent circuit diagram,
the dissimilar metals of an electric battery are
represented by parallel lines of unequal length.
The battery voltage (V) produces a current (I)
from positive to negative through a conductor
with resistance (R) shown by a zig-zag line.
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 185

Davy theorized that the source of such
electric energy was from chemical reactions in the
electrolyte of the pile. In 1813 the French
mathematician Siméon-Denis Poisson (1781-1840)
established the basic (differential) equation of
electrostatics in terms of the electric energy (W)
per unit charge (q), later called “electric potential”
or voltage (V = W/q). Among the many honors
paid to Volta was the international agreement in
1881 to name the unit of electric potential the volt
(V), defining it as a joule of electric energy per
coulomb of charge (J/C) available for doing work.


Magnetic Effects of Electric Current
The connection between electricity and
magnetism was finally established in 1820 by the
Danish physics professor Hans Christian Oersted
(1777-1851) during experiments with electric cur-
rent at the University of Copenhagen. Earlier in his
career he had met the German romantic phi-
losophers Frederick Schelling (1775-1854) and
Johann Fichte (1762-1814). Influenced by nature
philosophy and the romantic ideas of the unity of
the forces of nature, Oersted began a course of
lectures in the winter of 1819-20 on “Electricity,
Galvanism and Magnetism.”
Having observed variations of a magnetic
needle during a thunderstorm, Galvani tried to
obtain a similar effect by placing a compass needle
at right angles to a wire carrying an electric current
during a lecture, but observed no effect. After the
lecture, he tried placing the wire parallel to the
needle, and immediately obtained a definite
deflection of the needle transverse to the wire. He
confirmed this result with a more powerful battery,
and published it in July 1820 in a pamphlet
entitled Experimenta circa effectum conflictus
electrici in acum magneticam. He concluded that
this transverse magnetic effect of an electric cur-
rent “takes place in the conductor and in the sur-
rounding space,” and he called it the “conflict of
electricity,” describing it as follows:
From the preceding facts we may likewise
collect that this [electric] conflict performs
circles; for without this condition, it seems
impossible that the one part of the uniting
conductor, when placed below the magnetic
pole, should drive it towards the east, and
when placed above it towards the west.
This transverse electromagnetic effect (Figure 8.3)
differed from Newtonian and Coulomb forces,
which always acted along a line between the cen-
ters of two interacting objects.
Oersted’s discovery was presented to the
Académie des Sciences in Paris on September 11,
1820, by François Arago (1786-1853) after he
returned from a trip abroad, leading to further
investigations in France. The first quantitative
analysis of the electromagnetic force from the cur-
rent in a straight wire on a magnetic pole was an-
nounced by Jean-Baptiste Biot (1774-1862) and
Félix Savart (1791-1841) at a meeting of the
Académie on October 30, 1820. They stated the
Biot-Savart law as follows:
Draw from the pole a perpendicular to the
wire; the force on the pole is at right angles
to this line and to the wire, and its intensity
is proportional to the reciprocal of the dis-
current I

Figure 8.3 Oersted’s Electromagnetic Effect
Oersted observed the deflection of a magnetic
compass needle at right angles to an electric
current in a wire, in opposite directions above
and below the wire. (North is up.)
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 186

Biot also showed that each element of the wire
contributes to the magnetic force in proportion to
the current and inversely proportional to the
square of the distance from the element. Shortly
after this, Arago showed that electromagnetism
could induce magnetism in iron, and Oersted
himself showed that a current-carrying wire is
moved by a magnet.
The French mathematician and chemist
André-Marie Ampère (1775-1836) reported the
direct action of electromagnetism between two
electric currents to the Académie on September 18,
1820, just one week after Arago’s announcement
of Oersted’s discovery. Ampère showed that two
parallel wires attract each other if they carry
currents in the same direction, and repel each other
if the currents are in opposite directions (Figure
8.4). Later he measured the strength of such forces
for various arrangements of the wires.
Ampère also distinguished clearly be-
tween electric potential (voltage) and electric cur-
rent, defining the direction of the current as that of
a positive fluid. He noted that the electric potential
of a voltaic pile was observable with an elec-
trometer before he closed the circuit, but that he
could detect current only after connecting the
terminals. He found that he could measure current
best by its magnetic effect in what he called a
“galvanometer,” consisting of a pivoted coil of
wire free to rotate between the poles of a U-shaped
magnet when it carried current. It was later used as
in the ammeter and voltmeter.
For three years Ampère continued a series
of careful experiments on the interactions between
current carrying wires, and in 1825 he published
his famous Memoir on the Mathematical Theory of
Electrodynamical Phenomena Uniquely Deduced
from Experiment. Here he developed the law of
force between two current elements from many
experiments on a variety of wire arrangements.
The force between two parallel wires of length L
with currents I and I΄ separated by a distance d is
given by:
F = 2k΄I I΄L/d.
In modern SI units, the unit of current is defined as
the ampere (A) for F in newtons (N), L and d in
meters, and the constant k΄ = 10
Ampère also showed that the magnetic
actions outside of a permanent bar magnet are
exactly equivalent to those of a cylindrical coil of
wire carrying a current, except that the
electromagnetism of such a “solenoid,” as he
called it, can be turned off by interrupting the
current (Figure 8.5a). In Ampère’s electrical
theory of permanent magnetism, a substance such
as iron has molecules that contain perpetually
flowing closed currents, all oriented alike; but this
theory was too advanced for his contemporaries to
accept (Figure 8.5b).
The German school teacher Georg Simon
Ohm (1787-1854) worked out the relationship
between electric voltage and the resulting current
in a conductor, and published his results in a series
of papers beginning in 1826. Using Fourier’s
theory of heat, published in 1822, Ohm proposed
that the flow of electric current is proportional to

Figure 8.4 Ampère’s Current Measurement
Ampère measured the forces between two
current-carrying wires, finding attraction for
currents in the same direction (as shown) and
repulsion for opposing currents. He established
that the strength of the force F for currents of
equal magnitude I separated by a distance d is
proportional to the square of the current and
inversely proportional to their separation:
F = 2k΄ I²L/d.
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 187

the potential difference, just as the flow of caloric
is proportional to the difference in temperature.
Constructing his own galvanometer, he showed
that the current is proportional to the number of
electric cells placed in series in a circuit, so that
the resistance of a circuit is the ratio of voltage
divided by current (R = V/I or V = IR).
From Ohm’s law, a conductor in which
one ampere flows when one volt is applied has one
unit of resistance, now called the ohm. Ohm also
drew wires from various metals with differing
lengths and thicknesses, and showed that the cur-
rent varies with the metal and is proportional to the
cross-sectional area of the wire and inversely
proportional to the length of the wire. His work
was ignored in Germany, or else criticized by
idealistic philosophers for being too empirical,
until he was awarded the Copley Medal by the
Royal Society in 1841. Finally in 1849, he re-
ceived an appointment as a professor at the Uni-
versity of Munich.

Electromagnetic Force and the Electric Motor
Ampère is sometimes called the “Newton
of electricity” for developing the mathematical law
describing how electric currents produce magnetic
forces. Although he expressed his laws of
electromagnetism in terms of action-at-a-distance
forces, he did allow for the possibility that such
forces may be due to “the reaction of the elastic
fluid which extends throughout all space, whose
vibrations produce the phenomena of light.” This
was a prophetic insight, which was eventually
realized through the development of the field
concept. In the meantime, electromagnetic force
was dramatically demonstrated about 1823 by the
English physicist William Sturgeon (1783-1850),
who developed Ampère’s solenoid into a practical
of permanent magnetism
(a) Coil-wound
(b) Amperian-current theory

Figure 8.5 Electromagnet and Ampère’s Electrical Theory of Permanent Magnetism
(a) A current-carrying coil wound on a cylindrical core to form a solenoid produces magnetism
equivalent to a bar magnet with the advantage that it can be turned on and off with a switch.
(b) Ampère proposed that permanent magnetism could be explained by the alignment of internal
electric current loops, all circulating in the same direction. Adjacent currents in these loops will be in
opposing directions and thus cancel each other, leaving only a single loop around the outside
equivalent to the coil of an electromagnet.
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 188

electromagnet. Sturgeon found that he could
greatly increase the electromagnetic force by
wrapping a coil of wire on an iron core, which he
varnished to insulate it from short-circuiting the
wires. By bending his electromagnet into the form
of a horseshoe, he was able to lift nine pounds
while the current was running.
Most of the electricians of the nineteenth
century followed Ampère in trying to develop a
mathematical law of force between currents or
moving charges. This attempt to reduce electro-
magnetism to Newtonian physics was followed by
several German physicists, including Wilhelm
Weber (1804-91) and Franz Neumann (1798-
1895). In 1846 at the University of Göttingen in
Germany, Weber worked out a logical system of
units for electricity in terms of the fundamental
mechanical units of mass, length and time. In
many cases they were able to find formulas that
described the experimental facts of electromagnet-
ism in terms of action at a distance, but these for-
mulas were limited in their application. The
breakthrough leading to the successful synthesis of
electricity and magnetism was achieved largely
through the work of Faraday and Maxwell by
introducing the field concept as a medium through
which electromagnetic forces propagate.
Michael Faraday (1791-1867) was one of
the finest experimentalists in the history of sci-
ence. He was born in the village of Newington,
now a part of London, one of ten children of a
blacksmith. His formal education ended at the age
of 13 when he was apprenticed to a bookbinder,
giving him opportunity to read many books and an
interest in performing simple chemical
experiments. In 1812 he attended a series of
scientific lectures by Sir Humphry Davy at the
Royal Institution. He took careful notes and bound
them into a book, presenting them to Davy with
his application for a job as an assistant.
Davy hired young Faraday in 1813, at a
salary less than the one he earned as a bookbinder,
and shortly thereafter he took him on a grand tour
of Europe as his secretary and valet. For a period
of 18 months Faraday had opportunity to meet
scientists such as Ampère, Arago and Volta, and
began to learn about different approaches to sci-
ence in the French mechanistic and German nature
philosophy traditions. With Davy’s encourage-
ment, Faraday published his first paper in 1816 on
the nature of caustic lime in Tuscany.
Faraday spent the rest of his life at the
Royal Institution, becoming the director of the
laboratory in 1825 and professor of chemistry in
1833. Over the course of his career, his laboratory
notes included more than sixteen thousand entries,
the most famous of which were published in his
Experimental Researches on Electricity (1839-55).
His research included work on alloys of steel
(1818-24), a study of compounds of chlorine and
carbon (1820), electromagnetic rotations (1821),
the liquefaction of gases (1823, 1845), the discov-
ery of new carbon compounds including benzene
(1825), electromagnetic induction (1831), the laws
of electrolysis (1832), the study of dielectrics and
discharges in gases (from 1835), and the study of
diamagnetism and electromagnetic effects on light
(from 1845).
In 1821, shortly after Oersted’s discovery
of the electromagnetic force, Faraday invented the
first electric motor. His interest ignited when the
English physician turned researcher, William Wol-
laston (1766-1828), attempted to make a current-
carrying wire rotate around its own axis in the
presence of a magnet. After repeating many of the
experiments of Ampère, Wollaston and others,
Faraday suspended a current-carrying wire with its
lower end in a mercury bath free to rotate about a
magnet as described in his abbreviated laboratory
Magnets of different power brought per-
pendicularly to this wire did not make it re-
volve as Dr. Wollaston expected, but thrust
it from side to side.... The effort of the wire
is always to pass off at a right angle from the
pole, indeed to go in a circle round it;
should make the wire continually turn
round. Arranged a magnet needle in a glass
tube with mercury about it and by a cork,
water, etc., supported a connecting wire so
that the upper end should go into the silver
cup and its mercury and the lower move in
the channel of mercury round the pole of the
magnet.... Very Satisfactory, but make more
sensible apparatus.
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 189

Faraday soon improved his rotating wire apparatus
and even demonstrated rotation in the Earth’s
magnetic field. He also arranged one end of a sus-
pended bar magnet to rotate around a vertical
current-carrying wire. Having demonstrated the
possibility of such a device but he left the devel-
opment of practical electric motors to others.
Faraday was a deeply religious man with
strong Christian principles. He belonged to a small
dissenting church started by Robert Sandeman, a
Presbyterian minister, and known as the Sande-
manians. In 1821 he married Sarah Barnard who
was also a member of the Sandemanian
fellowship, in which they remained active
throughout their lives. Three years later he was
elected a fellow of the Royal Society over the
opposition of Davy, who was then president of the
Society and had apparently become embittered
with Faraday’s success.
As a matter of religious conviction, Fara-
day declined most honors offered to him, including
an offer in 1857 of the presidency of the Royal
Society. He participated in few public activities,
devoting himself mostly to experimental research.
He had a long history of headaches, dizziness and
loss of memory, and was forced to take a long va-
cation in the early 1840s to recover from a serious
illness. His symptoms appear to be the result of
mercury poisoning similar to those suffered earlier
by Newton and other scientists.

Electromagnetic Induction and the Generator
Shortly after his invention of the electric
motor, illustrating how an electric current could
produce magnetic effects, Faraday began to think
about the possibility of using magnetism to induce
electricity. A notation in his laboratory notebook
in 1822 indicated, “Convert magnetism into elec-
tricity.” An entry dated December 28, 1824,
described an experiment in which he placed a
magnet inside a solenoid, “But in no case did the
magnet seem to affect the current so as to alter its
intensity as shewn upon a magnetic needle placed
under a distant part of it.” Again, on November
28, 1825, his notes describe a current-carrying
wire “parallel to which was another similar wire
separated from it only by two thicknesses of paper.
The ends of the latter wire attached to a galva-
nometer exhibited no action.” Even when he
replaced either of the straight wires with a helical
coil, he detected no induced current.
Several other scientists at the time were
also trying to induce electricity from magnetism,
including Ampère and Arago in France, but no one
seemed to have any appreciable success. The
problem was that they were all looking for the
induction of a constant current. In 1824 Arago
suspended a magnetic needle over a rotating cop-
per plate and observed that the end of the needle
began to revolve. He even noted that this dragging
effect depended on the conductivity of the rotating
plate. Faraday repeated this experiment in 1825,
but neither he nor Arago suggested the possibility
of induced currents in the plate. On April 22, 1828,
Faraday suspended a copper ring by a thread and
placed a bar magnet inside the ring, but still could
detect no induced current.
Finally, on August 29, 1831, Faraday
made the long-sought discovery of electromag-
netic induction that had eluded so many attempts.
On that day he made the following notation:
Have had an iron ring made (soft iron)....
Wound many coils of copper wire round one
half, the coils being separated by twine and
calico.... Will call this side of the ring A. On
the other side but separated by an interval
was wound wire in two pieces together
amounting to about 60 feet in length, the
direction being as with the former coils; this
side call B. Charged a battery of 10 pr.
plates 4 inches square. Made the coil on B
side one coil and connected its extremities
by a copper wire passing to a distance and
just over a magnetic needle (3 feet from iron
ring). Then connected the ends of... A side
with battery; immediately a sensible effect
on needle. It oscillated and settled at last in
original position. On breaking connection of
A side with Battery again a disturbance of
the needle.
Faraday’s discovery of this inductive action led
him to an appreciation of the importance of
changing current and its associated changing
magnetism. On October 1 he repeated this induc-
tion experiment with a wooden core. Again he
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 190

obtained the same effect, but enough weaker that
he had to use a galvanometer instead of a magnetic
needle near an indicating helix. Thus he concluded
that, “There is an inducing effect without the
presence of iron.”
On October 17, 1831, Faraday described
his most important experiment on electromagnetic
induction, using a hollow helical coil in the form
of a cylinder:
A cylindrical bar magnet ¾ inch in diame-
ter and 8½ inches in length had one end
just inserted into the end of the helix cylin-
der–then it was quickly thrust in the whole
length and the galvanometer moved–then
pulled out and again the needle moved but
in the opposite direction. This effect was
repeated every time the magnet was put in
or out and therefore a wave of Electricity
was so produced from mere approximation
of a magnet and not from its formation in
This result was the basis for Faraday’s invention of
the electric generator, or dynamo, in which the
mechanical energy required to move the magnet is
converted into electrical energy in the form of
changing voltages and currents. On October 28,
1831, he described the first direct-current genera-
tor, consisting of a copper disk rotating between
magnetic poles at its edge. As the circumference of
the disk moved through the magnetic field lines, a
radial current was generated. He now saw that
similar currents generated in Arago’s experiment
would produce magnetic lines to drag the magnetic
needle. As the electric generator was developed by
others over the next few decades, it became the
prime source of electric energy from mechanical
sources, and a contemporary poet (Herbert
Mays) even celebrated Faraday’s fame in verse:

Around the magnet Faraday
Is sure that Volta’s lightnings play;
But how to draw them from the wire:
He took a lesson from the heart;
‘Tis when we meet--’tis when we part,
Breaks forth the electric fire.

Mutual and Self-Induction
The American physicist Joseph Henry
(1797-1878) independently discovered electro-
magnetic induction, perhaps even before Faraday.
Henry missed receiving credit because he delayed
publication until 1832 and this, along with his
geographical isolation, made his work much less
influential. Like Faraday, Henry came from a poor
family, was apprenticed at age fifteen to a
watchmaker, and was an active Presbyterian lay-
man throughout his life. In 1819 he entered the
Albany Academy, and seven years later he began
teaching mathematics and science there. In 1827
Henry read about electromagnetism and began to
develop more powerful electromagnets. In 1831 he
designed a telegraph with one mile of wire,
through which he could send current to activate an
electromagnet, but he never sought a patent.
After reading about Faraday’s discovery
of electromagnetic induction, Henry reported his
own independent work “On the Production of
Currents and Sparks of Electricity from Magnet-
ism” in the American Journal of Science (July
I commenced, last August, the construction
of a much larger galvanic magnet than, to
my knowledge, had before been attempted,
and also made preparations for a series of
experiments with it on a large scale, in ref-
erence to the production of electricity from
He first described the mutual induction in a coil,
wound around a large electromagnet but insulated
from it, when he switched the current in the elec-
tromagnet on or off. He then described how a
changing current in a coil can induce another cur-
rent in the same coil, an effect called “self-
induction.” This was observed when a moderate
current in a coil was interrupted, causing a surge of
current and a spark at the break in the circuit,
induced by the diminution of the original current.
Faraday independently discovered self-
induction two years later, but the unit for the
inductance of a coil, in which one volt is self-
induced by a current change of one ampere per
second, is now called the henry. The Russian
physicist Heinrich Lenz (1804-65) was the first to
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 191

state the general principle known as Lenz’s law:
An induced current always opposes the change
that produced it. Thus in Henry’s observation of a
spark when a circuit was disconnected, the
diminishing current was opposed by the induced
current, which caused a spark by reinforcing the
original current. After demonstrating an electro-
magnet that could lift more than a ton of iron,
Henry was appointed as a professor at the College
of New Jersey (later Princeton) in 1832. During
the next five years, he invented the electromag-
netic relay and the electric transformer, showing
how voltage could be stepped up or down by the
proper ratio of turns in the primary and secondary
coils of a transformer.
Neither Faraday nor Henry developed
their discoveries into practical applications, but
they did not hesitate to share their knowledge with
others. Samuel Morse (1791-1872) constructed his
first model of the telegraph in 1835 after con-
ferring with Henry, and applied for a patent in
1837. The corresponding work in England by
Charles Wheatstone (1802-75) in 1837 occurred
after he had a long visit with Henry on his visit to
As early as 1832 in France, Ampère’s
instrument maker, Hippolyte Pixii, constructed a
practical generator with a rotating horseshoe
magnet near two coils of wire. Such a device using
a permanent magnet is called a “magneto,” and
produces an alternating current since opposite
poles of the magnet pass the coils in each rotation,
inducing currents in opposite directions. In the
same year, Pixii invented a split metal cylinder
called a “commutator” to switch the current in
each rotation so that it would flow in only one
direction as a direct current. In 1834 a young
American blacksmith named Thomas Davenport
(1802-51) learned about Henry’s electromagnets
and constructed one of the first practical electric
motors incorporating rotating coils, called an
“armature,” fixed coils called “field magnets,” and
a commutator (Figure 8.6). The Russian physicist
Moritz von Jacobi (1801-74) independently
invented a similar device in 1834.


The Field Concept and Electrolysis
From about 1821, Faraday began to de-
velop his idea of “lines of force,” which led to the
field concept as a new way of viewing the universe
that was more flexible and useful than the me-
chanical picture of Galileo and Newton. Such
fields of force provided a unified and interrelated
way of viewing electric and magnetic phenomena,
consistent with his Christian faith in the unity of
the created order. A field was an influence filling
the space surrounding electric charges or magnets
and forming patterns like those made by iron fil-
ings sprinkled around a magnet.
Due to his lack of mathematical training,
Faraday tended to form pictorial representations of
electromagnetic phenomena like his rotating wire
motor. This led him to think in terms of curved
lines of force propagated through a medium, rather
than Newtonian straight-line forces acting at a
Field Magnet
Axis of

Figure 8.6 Direct-Current Electric Motor
In the position shown, the armature coil has a
north pole at the top and south pole at the
bottom, so it is repelled from the field magnet
poles and begins to rotate as shown. After a half
turn, the direction of the current will change due
to rotation of the commutator so that the north
pole of the armature is again at the top and the
south pole at the bottom, and thus is again
repelled from the field magnets and continues to
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 192

distance. For Faraday each line of force corres-
ponded to a unit of magnetic or electric force, and
a number of lines made up a tube of force
connecting opposite magnetic poles or electric
charges (Figure 8.7). The cross-sectional area of
these tubes increased and then decreased along
their length as the lines of force diverged from
their points of origin and converged again on op-
posite poles or charges, the cross-sectional area of
a tube of force providing a measure of the strength
of the electric or magnetic field at that section.
Faraday explained electromagnetic in-
duction in terms of an interaction of conductors
with magnetic field lines in his laboratory notes of
August 1, 1851, later refined for presentation to
the Royal Society:
Hence it follows that whether the curves are
intersected directly or obliquely makes no
difference provided they are intersected.
The effect depends upon the number of
curves intersected. A wire moving obliquely
may intersect fewer curves and therefore
have a feebler current evolved in it; but if it
intersected only the same curves directly
across, it would have no larger a current. So
with a given moving wire or with a given
wire under which a magnet is moving, the
quantity of electricity generated is directly
as the amount of curves passed over or
through. With the same curves therefore it
varies directly with the velocity of the
Thus in Faraday’s law of electromagnetic induc-
tion, the induced voltage or “electromotive force”
(emf) in a wire varies directly with the rate at
which the magnetic field changes. In an electric
generator, the induced voltage in the armature will
alternate at the same frequency as its rotation,
(a) Magnetic Field (B) (b) Magnetic Field (B) (c) Electric Field (E)
in an electromagnet in a straight wire charge (Q)
Force on
in E field
+ charge

due to current from current from positive ( I ) ( I )

Figure 8.7 Faraday’s Concept of Magnetic and Electric Fields
Faraday invented the field concept to account for the effects of electric currents and charges.
Magnetic fields arise from electric currents and circulate around them (a and b). They exert forces
on other currents and moving charges. Electric fields are produced by electric charges (c) and exert
forces on other charges.
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 193

producing an alternating current with the use of
slip rings to complete the circuit (Figure 8.8).
In 1832 Faraday announced the quanti-
tative laws of electrolysis. After devising methods
for measuring the quantity of electricity, he dis-
covered that in the electrolytic separation of ele-
ments by passing current through a solution, “The
chemical power, like the magnetic force, is in
direct proportion to the absolute quantity of elec-
tricity which passes.” His laws of electrolysis
established that the mass of an element separated
by a given quantity of electricity is proportional to
its atomic weight and inversely proportional to its
valence (combining power). This fact could be
explained by the atomic theory, but Faraday did
not take this step:
If we adopt the atomic theory or phraseol-
ogy, then the atoms of bodies which are
equivalents to each other in their ordinary
chemical action, have equal quantities of
electricity naturally associated with them.
But I must confess I am jealous of the term
atom; for though it is very easy to talk of
atoms, it is very difficult to form a clear idea
of their nature, especially when compound
bodies are under consideration.
Apparently it was easier for him to conceive of the
continuous lines of force in his field concept than
the discontinuities implied by the atomic theory. In
his electro-chemical studies, Faraday introduced
many new scientific terms, including electrolysis,
ion, electrode, anode and cathode (positive and
negative electrodes).
Faraday extended his ideas about mag-
netic lines of force associated with electric currents
to electric lines of force (fields) associated with
Field Magnet
Mechanical energy Electrical energy
(at crank) (at V)
voltage V
(rotate with
Slip rings
axis of

Figure 8.8 Alternating Current Generator/Motor with Slip Rings
An electric generator requires mechanical rotation of the crank, changing the number of magnetic
field lines through the armature coil (shown with a single turn) to produce electrical energy at V.
The induced voltage at V alternates in polarity as the armature rotates, producing an alternating
current if the armature circuit is completed with brushes and slip rings as shown.
An alternating-current electric motor requires an alternating voltage at V to produce current in the
armature coil, which causes it to rotate due to a force from the magnetic field of the field magnets,
producing mechanical energy at the crank. In each half rotation of the armature, the direction of the
current from the brushes switches, ensuring rotation in the same direction.
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 194

electric charges. In 1835 he demonstrated that
electric charge resides on the outside surface of
any conductor, with no electric force lines inside,
by entering a charged metal cage and showing that
there was no electric influence inside. He
experimented with insulators between charged
conducting bodies, and showed in 1837 that
insulators increase the capacity of such
“condensers” (capacitors) to store charge for a
given voltage, measuring the dielectric constant
for a variety of solid and fluid insulating materials.
He proposed a model to explain this effect:
The particles of an insulating dielectric
whilst under induction may be compared to
a series of small magnetic needles, or more
correctly still to a series of small insulated
conductors.... If [the condenser] were
charged, these little conductors would all be
polar; if...discharged, they would all return
to their normal state...
This model led him to deduce that the polarization
of the dielectric would be opposite to the charge
on the condenser, explaining the increase of its
capacity to store charge at a given voltage. In
honor of Faraday, the SI unit of capacitance for a
capacitor that can store one coulomb of charge at
one volt is called the farad.

Electric Circuits and Oscillations
In 1837 Joseph Henry visited Faraday in
England and conferred with him about their work.
In the few years since their independent discover-
ies of induced electricity from changing magnet-
ism, development of the alternating-current gen-
erator (Figure 8.8) and the transformer (Figure
8.9) made it possible to exercise increasing con-
trol over electric circuits. Further applications of
circuits came from Henry’s study of the discharge
of a Leyden jar condenser through a coil and its
effect on a magnetic needle, leading him to rec-
ognize in 1842 the oscillatory nature of the result-
ing spark:
The discharge, whatever may be its nature,
is not correctly represented by the single
transfer of an imponderable fluid from one
side of the jar to the other. The phenomena
require us to admit the existence of a prin-
cipal discharge in one direction, and then
several reflex actions backward and forward,
each more feeble than the preceding, until
the equilibrium is obtained.
He explained this oscillatory discharge as the
result of self-induction in the coil reinforcing the
current from the condenser enough to reverse its
charge, followed by an alternating series of con-
denser rechargings and dischargings. He also
noted that the effect of the spark in causing vari-
ations in a compass needle propagated over several
feet, and that of a lightning flash over 7 or 8 miles,
speculating that waves are excited in an electric
Field B

Figure 8.9 Mutual Induction & Transformer
In 1831 Faraday and Henry each observed
that a changing voltage V
across the turns of
a coil induced a changing voltage V
across a
second coil wrapped on the same core. From
Faraday’s field perspective, this is explained
by the changing magnetic field (ΔB) produced
by the current in the primary coil inducing a
voltage in the secondary coil. This mutual
induction effect is applied in a transformer, in
which an alternating voltage V
produces a
voltage V
increased by a factor equal to the
ratio of the turns N
of the coils.
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 195

plenum by the oscillating currents. The oscillator
made it possible to control the frequency of a
circuit by adjusting either its capacitance or
inductance (Figure 8.10). A few years after this
discovery, Henry moved to Washington, DC,
where he became the first director of the newly
founded Smithsonian Institution in 1846.
Faraday also anticipated the connection
between electromagnetism and waves, even sug-
gesting its relation to light. In 1845 he began to
investigate this relationship, guided by his belief in
the unity of the forces of nature: “This strong
persuasion extended to the powers of light, and
led, on a former occasion to many exertions, hav-
ing for their object the discovery of the direct
relation of light and electricity...” After several
attempts, Faraday finally succeeded in demon-
strating that light could be affected by a magnetic
field. Passing polarized light through a heavy glass
plate, he showed that the plane of polarization of
the light could be rotated by a magnetic field with
its lines of force parallel to the direction of
propagation. The complete connection between
light and electromagnetism, however, was not es-
tablished until after Faraday’s field concept was
developed by others into a mathematical theory.
The German physicist Gustav Kirchhoff
(1824-87) extended Ohm’s theory of electric cir-
cuits to clarify the concept of electric voltage,
showing in 1849 that Ohm’s “electroscopic force”
in a circuit is equivalent to electrostatic potential.
Kirchhoff’s circuit laws made it possible to calcu-
late the distribution of voltages and currents in
complex circuits with several loops and junctions.
His “loop law” established that around a closed
loop in a circuit the voltage increases from any
sources of electric energy (battery or generator)
must equal the voltage decreases from losses of
electric energy (resistance or motor) to conserve
energy. His “junction law” stated that the currents
in and out of any junction in a circuit must be
equal to conserve charge.
In 1853 the Scottish physicist William
Thomson (1824-1907), later Lord Kelvin (1892),
used Kirchhoff’s loop law to analyze electric oscil-
lations in a circuit containing a Leyden jar or
condenser of capacitance C (charge stored per unit
voltage), and a coil of self-inductance L (voltage
induced per unit change in current). He obtained
an oscillation frequency (vib/sec) given by
f = 1/2π LC ,
and this result was verified five years later by
Wilhelm Feddersen (1832-1918), who improved
Wheatstone’s rotating-mirror technique to obtain
photographs of spark discharges showing a se-
quence of damped oscillations. Using Faraday’s
field concept, Thomson obtained expressions for
the amount of energy stored in the magnetic field
of a coil, and showed that electric oscillations in a
circuit involve the alternating transfer of energy
between the magnetic field of the coil and the
electric field of the condenser. In 1854 he derived

Figure 8.10 Henry’s Electric Oscillator
In 1842 Henry observed that the discharge of a
Leyden jar (capacitor) through a coil pro-
duced a sustained spark at the switch as it was
being closed, which he recognized as resulting
from an oscillation of current in the circuit.
Discharge of a capacitor produces a changing
magnetic field (ΔB) in the coil that induces a
voltage to recharge the capacitor with oppo-
site polarity, leading to a series of oscillations
due to continuing discharging and charging.
Thus the energy of the electric field E in the
capacitor transfers to the magnetic field B in
the coil and back again in each oscillation.
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 196

the equation of telegraphy for underwater cables
that led to the successful design of the Atlantic
cable. He also introduced Alexander Graham
Bell’s (1847-1922) telephone into Great Britain.
In 1857 Kirchhoff showed that the speed
v with which an electric disturbance propagates
along a wire is equal to the ratio of the electro-
magnetic units (emu) based on the force between
two electric currents and the electrostatic units
(esu) based on the force between two electric
charges. This ratio has the dimensions of velocity
(length/time) since electrostatic force between
charges has the same form as electromagnetic
force between two lengths of wire carrying cur-
rents given by the charge traveling past any point
in unit time. A year earlier Wilhelm Weber (1804-
90) and Rudolph Kohlrausch (1809-58) measured
this ratio by comparing the electrostatic repulsion
of the charge of a Leyden jar with the
electromagnetic effects of the current produced by
discharging the jar. They obtained a value of about
3.1 x 10
m/sec, equal to the speed of light in
space within the limits of error. Kirchhoff rec-
ognized this coincidence and thus was the first to
discover that an electric signal propagates along a
wire at the speed of light.

Maxwell’s Electromagnetic Field Theory
James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79) achieved
the unification of electricity, magnetism and optics
in his electromagnetic field synthesis, the
intellectual equivalent of the Newtonian synthesis
of the laws of mechanics some 200 years earlier.
Maxwell was born in Edinburgh in the year that
Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction;
but he grew up in an isolated country home at
Glenlair, south of Glasgow, where his mother
died of cancer when he was eight years old. At
the age of sixteen he entered Edinburgh
University. There he began a study of color
vision that later led to the first color photograph
(1861) by using three color filters. In 1850 he
moved to Peterhouse college at Cambridge,
where William Thomson was already a fellow.
Here he completed an analysis of Saturn’s rings,
showing that they would be unstable unless they
consist of loose orbiting particles with a variety
of speeds governed by Kepler’s laws.
Maxwell was inspired to study electricity
by Thomson’s mathematical development of the
field concept and analogies with the theory of heat
flow. After reading Faraday’s Experimental Re-
searches, Maxwell wrote his first electrical paper
“On Faraday’s Lines of Force” (1856). He stated
that his goal was “to show how, by a strict appli-
cation of the ideas and methods of Faraday, the
connection of the very different orders of phenom-
ena which he has discovered may be clearly placed
before the mathematical mind.” After defining a
line of the electric or magnetic field as a curve in
space whose direction at each point is that of the
force on a positive charge or elementary north
magnetic pole, respectively, he defined the
intensity of the force at any point with a fluid-flow
If we consider these curves not as mere
lines, but as fine tubes of variable section
carrying an incompressible fluid, then, since
the velocity of the fluid is inversely as the
section of the tube, we may make the
velocity vary according to any given law, by
regulating the section of the tube, and in this
way we might represent the intensity of the
force as well as its direction by the motion
of the fluid in these tubes.
Maxwell was then able to show that these tubes of
force could give the same results for static charges
and permanent magnets as those given by the usual
action-at-a-distance formulas. He also showed that
current elements are equivalent to magnetic
dipoles. Faraday had explained the induction of
electricity from a changing magnetic field as the
result of an “electrotonic state” produced by
magnetism. Although Maxwell’s fluid analogy
could not account for this state, he was able to
define it by a mathematical rotation operator that
he called a “curl,” a concept borrowed from
Thomson, and thus gave mathematical expression
to all known electric and magnetic phenomena in
terms of Faraday’s field concept.
In 1856 Maxwell left Cambridge to teach
physics at Marischal College in Aberdeen, Scot-
land, where he married the daughter of the princi-
pal of his college, Katherine Mary Dewar. She
helped him with experiments on gases and color,
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 197

and his letters to her reflect deep Christian piety,
including many Biblical quotations. When
Marischal College closed in 1860, he moved to
King’s College in London. His second great
memoir, “On Physical Lines of Force,” was a se-
ries of three papers published in the Philosophical
Magazine (vol. 21) in 1861-62. Here he developed
an elaborate mechanical analogy to account not
only for electric and magnetic forces, but also to
explain Faraday’s law of electromagnetic in-
In Maxwell’s new model, a magnetic
field results from what he called “molecular vor-
tices” rotating around the lines of magnetic force.
Along these tubes of ether, the velocity of rotation
determines the intensity of the magnetic force,
exerting both longitudinal tension along the lines
of force and lateral pressure from the centrifugal
effect of the rotation. In this description of the
all the vortices in any one part of the field
are revolving in the same direction about
axes nearly parallel, passing from
one part of the field to another, the direction
of the axes, the velocity of rotation and the
density of the substance of the vortices are
subject to change.
For adjacent vortices to rotate in the same direc-
tion, Maxwell supposed that the tubes are sepa-
rated by rows of spherical particles that roll like
ball bearings, or what he called “idle wheels.” By
assuming that these particles constitute electricity,
it follows that a change in the magnetic field,
equivalent to one of the vortices beginning to
rotate faster than an adjacent one, will cause the
particles between them to change position, result-
ing in an electric current. In this way, Maxwell’s
model demonstrated the induction of electric cur-
rent from changing magnetism, and provided the
basis for a mathematical statement of Faraday’s
law of induced emf (voltage).
But the great value of this model was in
suggesting to Maxwell the converse of Faraday’s
law as a generalization of Ampère’s law describing
how electricity produces magnetism. If a change in
vortex motion causes a displacement of the idler
particles, then a displacement of the idler particles
should produce a change in vortex motion. Ex-
pressing this in terms of fields: a changing
magnetic field creates an electric field (Faraday’s
law), so a changing electric field should create a
magnetic field (Ampère’s law). In describing his
system, Maxwell says:
I do not bring it forward as a mode of con-
nection existing in Nature.... It is, however,
a mode of connection which is mechanically
conceivable and easily investigated, and it
serves to bring out the actual mechanical
connection between the known electromag-
netic phenomena.
After identifying electromotive force
(voltage due to magnetic effects) with electric
tension (voltage due to charge separation), Max-
well introduced his crucial distinction between
conduction current and displacement current:
Electromotive force acting on a dielectric
produces a state of polarization of its parts....
The effect of this action on the whole
dielectric mass is to produce a general
displacement of the electricity in a certain
direction. This displacement does not
amount to a [conduction] current because
when it has attained a certain value it re-
mains constant, but it is the commencement
of a current, and its variations constitute
currents in the positive or negative direction,
according as the displacement is increasing
or diminishing. The amount of the
displacement depends on the nature of the
body, and on the electromotive force.
In his model, the motion of the idler particles
could represent either the conduction current of
free charges, or displacements of bound charge.
Thus an electrical disturbance could propagate
either through a conductor, or in the form of the
displacement current transmitting field changes
through dielectric media, including air or even the
ether that Maxwell regarded as filling space.

Maxwell’s Prediction of Electromagnetic Waves
Initially Maxwell described the propaga-
tion of an electrical disturbance through an ether
medium by suggesting that a displacement of one
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 198

layer of idler particles would initiate a change in
the angular velocity of the vortices around the
adjacent tubes of ether. These would then displace
the next layer of idler particles so that the
disturbance would transmit through a sequence of
layers. By computing the energy transferred in this
process, he obtained a velocity of propagation.
This involved associating the kinetic energy with
the magnetic field and the potential energy with
the electric field, leading to a velocity for the elec-
tromagnetic disturbance governed by the electric
and magnetic force constants of the transmitting
medium. Using the values measured in air by
Kohlrausch and Weber, Maxwell obtained a veloc-
ity of 193,088 mi/sec (3.11 x 10
m/s), and
immediately recognized its significance:
The velocity of light in air, as determined by
M. Fizeau is 195,647 miles per second [3.15
x 10
m/s]. The velocity of transverse
undulations in our hypothetical medium,
calculated from the electromagnetic ex-
periments of MM. Kohlrausch and Weber,
agrees so exactly with the velocity of light
calculated from the optical experiments of M.
Fizeau, that we can scarcely avoid the
inference that light consists in the transverse
undulations of the same medium which is the
cause of electric and magnetic phenomena.
Thus Maxwell’s awkward mechanical model led to
the brilliant insight that he emphasized with italics,
linking light with electromagnetic waves even
though no one had yet detected the latter. He wrote
his friend Thomson at the University of Glasgow
in late 1861, reporting this unexpected agreement
between his electromagnetic calculations and the
speed of light:
I made out the equations before I had any
suspicion of the nearness between the two
values of the velocity of propagation of
magnetic effects and that of light, so that I
think I have reason to believe that the mag-
netic and luminiferous media are identical.
In his next paper, entitled “A Dynamical
Theory of the Electromagnetic Field” (1865),
Maxwell discarded his mechanical ether model,
which had served him so well as a scaffolding to
develop his theory, and concentrated on the
mathematical equations relating the electric and
magnetic fields. He described the properties of
these fields in terms of 20 equations. In modern
notation, they reduce to just four equations that
describe the magnitudes and directions of the
fields at any point in space and are known con-
ventionally as Maxwell’s equations.
The first of Maxwell’s field equations
generalizes Coulomb’s law by defining the electric
field E in relation to static electric charges. The
second expresses the continuity of the magnetic
field B at any point in space that results from the
fact that magnetic poles cannot be separated. The
third and fourth equations describe Maxwell’s
generalization of Ampère’s and Faraday’s laws in
terms of the electric constant ε (permittivity) and
magnetic constant μ (permeability) of the support-
ing medium, which are related to Coulomb’s force
constants (k = 1/4πε, k΄ = μ/4π). In standard in-
ternational units (SI), these equations take the
following symbolic form:
Ampère’s law: curl B/μ = i + ε ∂E/∂t
Faraday’s law: curl E = – ∂B/∂t .
The equation for Ampère’s law expresses the idea
that the circulation (mathematical curl) of the
magnetic field B around any point is proportional
to the sum of the conduction current i and dis-
placement current ∂E/∂t (rate of change of E)
through that point and perpendicular to B. The
equation for Faraday’s law states that the circula-
tion (curl) of the electric field E around any point
is proportional to ∂B/∂t through that point.
Maxwell’s equations relating E and B
take on an elegant symmetric form in free space
where the conduction current i is zero:
curl B = (με) ∂E/∂t , curl E = – ∂B/∂t .
These equations indicate that changing electric
fields generate magnetic fields, and that changes in
these magnetic fields will in turn generate electric
fields, so that the two will reinforce each other in
space. When Maxwell combined these equations
mathematically, they yield the classical
(differential) equations for the propagation of E
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 199

and B through space as a transverse wave, in
which these fields are perpendicular to each other
and to the direction of the wave propagation
(Figure 8.11). The speed of the wave appearing in
these equations is given by:
c = 1/με = k/k' = 9×10
= 3.0×10
which is the measured speed of light. This result
led Maxwell to his famous identification of light as
an electromagnetic wave, and his prediction that
oscillating charges produce the changing electric
and magnetic fields that propagate as
electromagnetic waves at the speed of light.
In 1865 Maxwell returned to Glenlair to
write his monumental Treatise on Electricity and
Magnetism, first published in 1873, in which the
Maxwell equations appear only in Chapter IX of
Part 4, well into the second of two volumes. The
book seemed inaccessible to all but a few contem-
porary physicists, much of it abstract and separated
from the earlier mechanical models. When
Cambridge University received a grant to establish
the Cavendish Laboratory, Maxwell was offered
the first Chair of Experimental Physics in 1871
and he began the development of the famous labo-
ratory. His contributions were in many fields
besides electromagnetism, including statistical
mechanics, thermodynamics, geometrical and
physiological optics, elasticity, statics, and cyber-
netics. In the fall of 1879, at the age of 48, Max-
well died of the same abdominal cancer that had
killed his mother, in the year of Einstein’s birth.
From early in his career, Maxwell leaned
toward the Kantian idea that only the relations
between things can be known. In his electromag-
netic theory, he made one of the greatest connec-
tions in the history of science: the mutual relations
between electricity, magnetism and light. Optics
and electromagnetism were now united, and the
possibility of relating these to other forms of
radiation at different frequencies was apparent in
the connection between the speed, wavelength and
frequency of a wave (c = λf). These ideas led not
only to a host of practical developments in modern
communications, but also to a whole new way of
viewing the universe. As the mechanical pictures
v = k/k' = c

Figure 8.11 Maxwell’s Electromagnetic Wave Concept
Maxwell predicted that oscillating charges would produce changing electric and magnetic fields
that would propagate as an electromagnetic wave in space at the speed of light v = c. Oscillating
charges in a vertical antenna will produce a vertical electric field and a horizontal magnetic field.
By Ampére’s law, the changing electric field will induce a changing magnetic field (ΔE→ΔB) and
by Faraday’s law the changing magnetic field will induce a changing electric field (ΔB→ΔE), etc.
Thus the fields will mutually reinforce each other as an electromagnetic wave with vertical electric
field variations and horizontal magnetic field variations.
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 200

faded into the background, the world began to look
increasingly like a system of interpenetrating fields
and energies that no machine could duplicate. This
picture would be reinforced by the special theory
of relativity, which followed almost directly from
Maxwell’s field theory.


Reception of Maxwell’s Theory
Many of Maxwell’s contemporaries were
slow to accept his mathematical formulation of the
electromagnetic field theory due to their reliance
on mechanical models of the ether. Even William
Thomson (Kelvin) exemplified this attitude, as in
the following comment in 1884, some 20 years
after the introduction of Maxwell’s equations:
I am never content until I have constructed a
mechanical model of the object that I am
studying. If I succeed in making one, I
understand; otherwise I do not. Hence I
cannot grasp the electromagnetic theory of
light. I wish to understand light as fully as
possible, without introducing things that I
understand still less. Therefore I hold fast to
simple dynamics for there, but not in the
electromagnetic theory, can I find a model.
As late as 1890, Thomson attempted to explain the
phenomena of electricity, magnetism and optics in
terms of a mechanical ether that resisted rotational
stresses but not linear displacements. He suggested
that electrical effects were due to a linear motion
in the ether, while rotations caused magnetism and
vibrations caused light waves. Many other
mechanical models of the ether were proposed in
the latter half of the nineteenth century, but none
proved to be successful.
A connection between electric oscilla-
tions in a circuit, first analyzed by Thomson in
1853, and the radiation of electromagnetic waves
predicted by Maxwell in 1861, was first suggested
by the Irish physicist George Fitzgerald (1851-
1901) in 1883. He proposed that the oscillations
produced by the discharge of a condenser through
a coil might be a good source of electromagnetic
waves, and he showed that increasing the fre-
quency of oscillations should increase the energy
radiated, making it easier to detect. In the
Fitzgerald oscillator, the condenser plates were
placed close together and served only to store
energy in the electric field between the plates
during each cycle of oscillation. The source of
radiation was the alternating magnetic field due to
the coil. But he found that if waves were produced
by such a magnetic oscillator, they were too weak
to be detected. He had the misfortune of
publishing a paper “On the Impossibility of Origi-
nating Wave Disturbances in the Ether by Means
of Electric Forces.”
Maxwell’s theory became known on the
continent largely through the work of Hermann
von Helmholtz (1821-94). After his early work on
the conservation of energy, and his important
research on the physiology of optics and sound at
Heidelberg, Helmholtz accepted the chair of
physics at the new Physical Institute in Berlin in
1871, where he began a series of papers on elec-
trodynamics. In Europe, the interaction of electric
charges was usually explained by Wilhelm We-
ber’s law of instantaneous action at a distance
rather than action mediated by a field in an inter-
vening ether. Helmholtz showed that Weber’s law
violated conservation of energy, and then he
developed a more general action-at-a-distance
theory that included Maxwell’s theory as a limit-
ing case, allowing for wave propagation at the
speed of light.
Helmholtz was a leader in the transition
of German universities from teaching academies to
research institutions. The great laboratories he
established placed Germany in the forefront of
scientific research. His students included such
famous scientists as Heinrich Hertz who finally
discovered radio waves, Max Planck who intro-
duced quantum theory, and the Americans Henry
Rowland and Albert Michelson. As a graduate
student under Helmholtz, Rowland (1848-1901)
conducted an experiment in 1876 that showed the
equivalence of moving charge and electric current.
By rapidly rotating a glass disk with charged metal
foil attached, he observed the deflection of a
magnetic needle. Thus the changing electric field
associated with the rotating charge produced a
magnetic field, confirming the prediction of
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 201

Hertz and the Discovery of Radio Waves
Heinrich Rudolf Hertz (1857-94) was a
Lutheran of Jewish descent from Hamburg, who
studied engineering at the University of Munich
and then enrolled at the University of Berlin in
1878, where he studied under Kirchhoff and
Helmholtz. After earning his doctorate, he served
for three years as assistant to Helmholtz, pub-
lishing 15 papers on both electrical and mechan-
ical topics. Using Helmholtz’s approach in 1884,
he wrote his first paper on Maxwell’s theory, sim-
plifying his equations and showing their equi-
valence with those of Helmholtz. Thus he stated
what has become the accepted modern view:
Maxwell’s theory is Maxwell’s system of
equations. Every theory which leads to the
same system of equations, and therefore
comprises the same possible phenomena, I
would consider as being a form or special
case of Maxwell’s theory; every theory
which leads to different a dif-
ferent theory.
In 1885 Hertz accepted a position at the Technical
School at Karlsruhe, where he married a profes-
sor’s daughter. The Technical School had a well-
equipped laboratory where Hertz could begin the
electrical investigations that confirmed the con-
nection between light and electricity and estab-
lished his place in history.
Shortly after arriving at Karlsruhe, Hertz
found some Ruhmkorff induction coils for pulsed
high voltages and a pair of Riess spark microme-
ters that provided variable spark gaps. He con-
nected one of the spark micrometers to an induc-
tion coil to produce an oscillating circuit, and
added conducting plates on either side of the spark
gap to increase the capacitance, much like a Ley-
den jar with opened foils (Figure 8.12). The sepa-
ration of these conductors (up to 3 m) determined
the frequency of the oscillations and allowed them
Spark Gaps
Variable frequency coil
adjustable length
f = 50 MHz
= 6m

Figure 8.12 Hertz’s Discovery of Radio Waves and Determination of their Speed
Hertz obtained oscillations at about 50 MHz with an induction coil and capacitor plates spread out
with variable separation to adjust the frequency and act as a radiating antenna. When a spark
appeared in the transmitting spark gap, Hertz observed a simultaneous spark in the spark gap of the
single-loop receiving coil with dimensions that could be varied to maximize the spark at the resonant
frequency. The spark in the receiving coil alternated in intensity as it was moved toward the
receiver, giving a measurement of wavelength at about 6 meters between positions of maximum
intensity. The speed of the electromagnetic wave was then v = λf = 6m×(50×10
Hz) = 3×10
which is equal to the speed of light c as predicted by Maxwell.
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 202

to act as a radiating dipole antenna fed by the
spark, thus providing a kind of primitive “tran-
smitter.” With the other spark micrometer
conected to an adjacent loop of wire with a
variable perimeter, he observed an induced spark
in this simple “receiver” whenever there was a
discharge across the larger spark gap of the
induction coil. By adjusting the length of the
receiving loop, he was able to increase the length
of its spark to a maximum value corresponding to
the resonant frequency for oscillations in the loop.
This discovery of radio waves occurred in
the fall of 1887 by a combination of trial and error.
Hertz began to notice the induction of sparks at
increasing distances of up to 12 m from the
primary sparks. He then realized that he could
confirm Maxwell’s prediction of electromagnetic
waves “if one could succeed in demonstrating in
air a finite rate of propagation of waves” from a
direct measurement of their frequency and wave-
length in air. In a lecture hall about 15 m long, he
set up a transmitting induction coil near one end
and covered the opposite wall with zinc so that
wave reflection would form standing waves.
By moving his receiving loop between
the walls of the lecture hall, Hertz was able to ob-
serve changes in the spark, including points
where he could detect no spark corresponding to
the nodes of the standing wave about 4.8 m apart.
Since the nodes are separated by half waves, this
gave a wavelength of 9.6 m at a calculated fre-
quency of 35.7 million vibrations/second (or 35.7
MHz, since a vib/sec is now called the hertz) giv-
ing a speed of:
c = λf = 9.6 m×(35.7×10
vib/sec) = 3.4×10
close to the measured speed of light. Later cor-
rections revealed that the actual frequency was
about 50 MHz, and the wavelength about 6 m,
giving c = 3.0×10
m/s. This work was published
in 1888 in his paper “On Electromagnetic Waves
in Air and their Reflection.”
Hertz now began to improve his equip-
ment by using a higher frequency and concave
parabolic reflectors behind his spark-fed dipole
antenna. He now observed at least four nodes with
an average separation of 33 cm, or a wavelength of
66 cm at a frequency of 455 MHz. With this
equipment he could observe sparks even in an
adjacent room 16 m from the transmitting spark,
leading him to comment that:
Insulators do not stop the ray--it passes right
through a wooden partition or door; and it is
not without astonishment that one sees the
sparks appear inside a closed room.
He also demonstrated the transverse nature and
polarization of the waves by rotating the receiving
spark gap to eliminate the sparking when it was at
right angles to the transmitting spark gap. Further
experiments showed that reflection and refraction
of the rays followed the same laws as light, leading
to his conclusion that, “The experiments described
appear to remove any doubt as to the
identity of light, radiant heat, and electromagnetic
Early in his work, Hertz made the unex-
pected discovery of what later was called the
“photoelectric effect” as described in his 1887
paper “On an Effect of Ultra-Violet Light upon the
Electric Discharge.” In a series of careful
experiments, he showed that a spark discharge was
strengthened when it was illuminated by light and
that this effect was even more pronounced with
ultraviolet radiation. These results would later
provide the basis for development of the quantum
Finally, in 1889, Hertz returned to Max-
well’s theory to show that electromagnetic waves
could be accounted for without any reference to
direct action at a distance in a paper on “The
Forces of Electric Oscillations, Treated According
to Maxwell’s Theory.” Here he obtained solutions
for dipole radiation and mapped the shape of the
resulting waves. His work greatly clarified Max-
well’s theory, leading to its wider acceptance and
further development. This finally broke the hold of
the mechanical model and helped to give birth to
relativity theory.

Applications of Radio Waves
Hertz never mentioned the possibility of
applications of radio waves in any of his papers.
He died at the age of 36 from blood poisoning
after operations on his head for malignant bones,
too early to see the results of his discovery. Radio
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 203

waves were soon confirmed by Oliver Lodge
(1851-1940) in England, who improved the
receiver in 1889 by placing the spark gap in a glass
tube connected to a battery and galvanometer. This
device, called a “coherer,” would produce a
current even when radio waves were too weak to
produce a spark.
In 1892, Sir William Crookes (1832-
1919) suggested the possibility of communication
with Hertzian waves. Earlier Crookes had discov-
ered the element thallium in 1861 from its charac-
teristic green spectrum line. He also developed the
“Crookes tube” in 1875, showing that the rays
produced by a high voltage across two electrodes
in an evacuated glass tube emanated from the
negative cathode and could be deflected by a
magnetic field. This “cathode-ray tube” led later to
the discovery of the electron and development of
the oscilloscope for television and other appli-
One of the earliest applications of radio
waves was in 1894 by the Russian physicist Alex-
ander Popov (1859-1905). He used a receiver to
detect signals from lightning strokes and then
developed an antenna in 1897 that could send a
signal some three miles from ship to shore. The
Italian engineer Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937)
was the first to recognize the commercial possi-
bilities of “wireless” communications. After
reading papers by Hertz in 1894, Marconi devel-
oped an improved coherer, consisting of a tube of
loosely packed metal filings in which radio waves
produced a substantial increase in current. By 1896
he succeeded in sending coded messages far
enough to warrant a patent, and by 1898 he
transmitted signals from Ireland to Scotland. His
greatest success came on December 12, 1901,
when he sent radio waves across the Atlantic from
Cornwall in England to Newfoundland in Canada,
using balloons to lift his antennas as high as pos-
One year later, an explanation for why
these waves followed the curvature of the Earth
was suggested by Arthur Kennelly (1861-1939) at
Harvard and Oliver Heaviside (1850-1925) in
England. Independently in 1902, they proposed the
existence of a layer of charged particles sur-
rounding the Earth that reflected radio waves back
and forth between the Earth and what is now
called the “ionosphere.”
The Canadian-American physicist Regi-
nald Fessenden (1866-1932) pioneered the modu-
lation of radio waves to carry sound. He devised a
method to vary the amplitude of radio waves to
match the lower frequency and shape of sound
waves, and he used these “amplitude modulated”
(AM) carrier waves to reproduce the original
sound waves at the receiver. In 1906 he transmit-
ted and received the first music signals along the
Massachusetts coast.
The English engineer John Fleming
(1849-1945) aided in the demodulation of radio
waves by his 1904 invention of the diode rectifier
tube. Current flowed across the two electrodes of
this vacuum tube only when the heated cathode
was negative, thus changing alternating currents
into pulsating direct currents. The American
inventor Lee Deforest (1873-1961) demonstrated
the amplification of radio waves by the invention
of the triode tube in 1906. He added a “grid” be-
tween the two electrodes in the diode, which could
control the flow of current across the tube. Using
these devices, Deforest established the first radio
station in 1916 to broadcast news and music.
Extensions of the Electromagnetic Spectrum
Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory, as
confirmed by Hertz, opened up a new understand-
ing of the whole spectrum of electromagnetic
waves, all of which traveled at the speed of light
but differed in their frequencies and wavelengths
(c = λf). By measuring temperature variations
across the colors of the visible spectrum produced
by Sunlight, William Herschel (1738-1822) in
1800 had discovered infrared radiation (IR) at
wavelengths longer than visible light beyond the
red end of the visible spectrum. A year later
Johann Ritter (1776-1810) found that chemical
reactions produced by light were even stronger
beyond the violet end of the spectrum, revealing
ultraviolet radiation (UV) at wavelengths shorter
than visible light. These wavelengths were later
measured by passing IR and UV radiation through
closely spaced slits ruled on thin glass (diffraction
grating) and observing the resulting interference
pattern. Infrared was found to have wavelengths
Chapter 8 • An Electromagnetic Universe 204

up to about 100 times longer than light waves, and
ultraviolet waves were up to 100 times shorter than
visible light.
Electromagnetic waves even shorter than
ultraviolet were first discovered by the German
physicist Wilhelm Roentgen (1846-1923) in 1895.
They were generated by a high-voltage cathode-
ray tube in which high-energy electron collisions
produced radiation that caused a glow at some
distance away on a paper covered with a fluores-
cent substance. Roentgen studied the penetrating
effect of these “x-rays” using photographic meth-
ods, and proposed their use in medicine. He
reported his work in a paper “On a New Kind of
Rays” in January, 1896:
The most striking feature of this phenome-
non is the fact that the active agent passes
through a black card-board envelope which
is opaque to the visible and the ultra-violet
rays... A further difference, and a most im-
portant one, between the behavior of cath-
ode rays and of X-rays lies in the fact that I
have not succeeded, in spite of many at-
tempts, in observing a deflection of the X-
rays by a magnet... I have observed, and in
part photographed many shadow pictures... I
possess, for instance, photographs of...the
shadow of bones of the hand.
In 1913 the English physicists William Henry
Bragg (1862-1942) and his son William Lawrence
Bragg (1890-1971) worked out a diffraction
method for measuring the wavelength of x-rays by
reflection from a crystal. Using the known atomic
spacing of the crystal lattice and the diffraction
angles of the reflected x-rays, they found wave-
lengths about 100 times shorter than ultraviolet
wavelengths. Both father and son shared the 1915
Nobel prize for their work.
After the discovery of radioactivity in
1896 by Henri Becquerel (1852-1908), further
studies showed that it consisted of positively and
negatively charged particles designated as “alpha
and beta rays,” respectively, which were deflected
in opposite directions by a magnetic field. A third
component of radioactivity called “gamma rays”
(Greek letter γ) were discovered by the French
physicist Paul Villard (1860-1934) in 1900. These
rays penetrated metal sheets, produced photo-
graphic images, and were undeflected by mag-
netism. They were identified as electromagnetic
waves even shorter than x-ray wavelengths when
their diffraction pattern from crystal reflections
was obtained in 1914.
In general, electromagnetic waves are
generated by oscillat