Almost everyone imagines that science has had a profound impact on the world. We tend to think of amazing inventions and our sophisticated understanding of how planets and cells and atoms work. We think about antibiotics and automobiles and weather satellites and wonder how hard life must have been for people before. We find it odd or curious that people used to believe the world was flat or that getting bled at the barber’s would cure a fever or that everything was made out of earth, air, fire, and water. We think of the great scientists like Galileo, or Darwin, or Newton, or Einstein, or Pasteur as enlightened geniuses leading the world forward. A story of slow progress and better understanding.
But it is so very much more complicated than that.
The changes wrought by science are not just in faster inventions and more accurate information. They can be gut-wrenching blows to how human beings see themselves—what humans are, where humans are, how important humans are, where humans are going, and what humans should do next. Science can create existential shock. But it’s hard to see that from the perspective of now. We might have some vague idea, for instance, that Galileo’s ideas were controversial because they challenged religious doctrine. But do we understand why the idea that the sun went around the earth was so terribly important that teaching the earth went around the sun deserved life imprisonment and death threats? Or why Giordano Bruno was burned alive for saying the sun was a star? Or why Harvey’s claim that the heart was a pump made his own patients abandon him? Or why Wohler’s laboratory synthesis of urea threatened the idea that life was special? Or why Willis became frightened of his own discoveries in neuroanatomy?
And what about that picture of the forward-thinking scientist? Does it confuse things to discover Newton spent most of his time in alchemy and decoding Bible prophecies and that his critics accused him of promoting magic? To discover that Darwin did not come up with the idea of evolution? That the “Big Bang” was a Christian idea that atheist physicists ridiculed? That in an effort to be strictly scientific, Skinner thought we didn’t need to study the brain?
In the 2014 Great Topics course, we are going to plunge into the history of science—not as a list of important discoveries or encyclopedic facts but as a soul-searching (or should that be brain-registering?) inspection of how humans used to see themselves and how science shook their worldviews. Taking in pivotal moments from astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and medicine, we will find out not only what happened, but why it happened, and most importantly, why it mattered. And in the end, we won’t let ourselves off the hook. We will take a look at what is happening now in science, asking ourselves if some cherished part of our own worldview is being threatened as much as Pope Urban VIII’s geocentrism was.
Established in 1988 and made possible in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Leadership Seminars in the Humanities bring together Millsaps professors in the humanities with corporate, volunteer and professional leaders in the community. To better reflect the current philosophy of these seminars, the name has been changed to Millsaps Great Topics Seminars: Studies in the Humanities and Sciences. These seminars offer an opportunity for serious engagement with intellectual issues affecting society and the individual.
For more information on the Great Topics Seminars, contact the Millsaps College Office of Continuing Education at 601-974-1130.