Brief History of Physics
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Why is this a Western European History?

Ever since Civilization was invented some 10,000 years ago, it has advanced rapidly in some parts of the world and stagnated in others. As civilizations rose and fell, these roles have constantly shifted from one region to another. Western Europe was the dominant economic and political power in the most recent historical era, and for that reason a great deal of our culture, including our science, was developed there. But history did not start with the renaissance.

Before the ascendance of Europe, the center of knowledge and learning was the Moslem world, which was dominated by Arab people in the region we call the Middle East. Arab scholars in places like Damascus and Baghdad developed the mathematics that made the European advances possible, and they preserved the works of the ancient Greek philosophers at a time when Europe was stuck in the intellectual vacuum of the Dark Ages. I should mention that China was also very active in science and mathematics, but its geographic isolation severely limited its influence on the western world. There is some, though.

Ancient Greece is often treated as the birthplace of math and science, but this is not true. The Greeks made many critical advances, but they were expanding on earlier work done by the Egyptians and Babylonians. It is simply an accident of fate that History has left us many of the Greek writings, but very little of the Egyptians’. We don’t know a lot about ancient Egypt, but clearly their mathematics was highly developed, and as engineers they truly excelled.

And so we see the torch of knowledge passed from Egyptian to Greek to Arab to European and finally to you. At each step the knowledge was expanded and clarified, with the result that modern science and mathematics are the result of thousands of years of work by countless individuals in several continents. So while it often sounds as if science were a European invention, the European scientists whose names permeate our subject are only the most recent links in a very long chain.

The Aforementioned Western European History

Western physics as we know it today mostly started with one man, Galileo Galilee of Florence, Italy. I say this because he was the first to clearly state the scientific method, the essence of which is that every theory must be tested by experiment or observation. This may seem obvious, but it couldn’t have been too obvious because it took a long time for someone to think of it. Galileo showed how to really get somewhere with an investigation, and soon things really took off.

Isaac Newton was born in England the same year that Galileo died, and in the mid-1600s he took Galileo’s ideas and made them into a complete theory of mechanics. Along the way he invented Calculus and developed the theory of Gravity. He was a very busy man, and by the time he was finished he had produced most of the physics that we are going to learn this semester. The ideas were refined and added to over the following centuries, but remain primarily the work of Newton.


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Copyright 2000-2001
  James W. Brennan
Selland College of Applied Technology
Boise State University

Last Updated 07/08/04 by JWB