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Great Scientific Ideas That Changed the World

Great Scientific Ideas That Changed the World

Course No.  1120
Course No.  1120
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Why has science so dramatically altered how we live and how we think about ourselves? What is the greatest scientific idea of all time? According to Professor Steven L. Goldman, one is tempted to speak of scientific discoveries as the source of science's power to be a driver of social change—that scientists have been discovering new truths about nature, and that the change follows from that. But I argue that it is scientific ideas that are responsible for this change. Ideas are the source of science's power—not discoveries."

And what is the greatest scientific idea of all? For Professor Goldman, that is surely the very idea of science, for as he puts it, "The idea of science itself is an idea that had to be invented."

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Why has science so dramatically altered how we live and how we think about ourselves? What is the greatest scientific idea of all time? According to Professor Steven L. Goldman, one is tempted to speak of scientific discoveries as the source of science's power to be a driver of social change—that scientists have been discovering new truths about nature, and that the change follows from that. But I argue that it is scientific ideas that are responsible for this change. Ideas are the source of science's power—not discoveries."

And what is the greatest scientific idea of all? For Professor Goldman, that is surely the very idea of science, for as he puts it, "The idea of science itself is an idea that had to be invented."

In Great Scientific Ideas That Changed the World, you will explore ideas that—when society has been willing to pursue them—have helped form the foundation of modern life. You'll interpret the term "scientific idea" broadly, so as to include ideas that made science possible at all, as well as ideas that make science immensely powerful.

You will discover there is no sharp distinction between ideas that are classified as scientific and those that are classified as philosophical or mathematical, or even between scientific ideas and political, religious, or aesthetic ideas. Alfred North Whitehead, for example, famously linked the emergence of modern science in the Christian West to the belief in a single, law-observing Creator of the universe.

The New Dot-Com World

New ideas affect society in unpredictable ways. A perfect example is the evolution of the Internet from a modest U.S. Department of Defense-funded computer network project to a global technology that has transformed commerce, industry, politics, warfare, communication, education, entertainment, and research. We are still unfolding the unexpected and sometimes disturbing consequences of a few innovative ideas that enable computers in different locations to share information in real time, ideas that underlie the Internet's astonishing capabilities.

What we do know is that science has changed our lives—but how it does so, and why it is able to do so, tells us as much about ourselves as it does about science.

Moreover, as unpredictable as science may be, Professor Goldman argues that for 200 years now the interaction of science and technology with society has been the primary driver of social and cultural change, first in the West, then globally, and at an accelerating rate. During this period, social and personal values and relationships; social, political, and economic institutions; and cultural values and activities have changed and continue to change almost beyond anything our great-grandparents (or sometimes even parents) would recognize. What has transformed entire ways of life that had previously been entrenched for centuries or millennia?

There are objects, of course—the telephone, automobile, airplane, television, computer—that appear to be causes of social change. But identifying these artifacts does not reach down to the causes of innovation itself, nor does it expose those features of the sociocultural infrastructure that enable innovations to become causes of social change. Artifacts, in spite of their high visibility, are symptoms of causes at work; they are not themselves causes.

Learn How Society Affects Ideas

It is not only television, the automobile, or the Internet that have changed society. Instead, forces at work in society have caused television and automobiles and the Internet to take on the changing forms they take. One of these forces is ideas—new scientific ideas, originating in the past and subsequently internalized by society. These ideas have shaped both our social and cultural affairs and the lines along which society is most open to change.

For instance, the notion that there are laws of nature seems to reflect a political idea. There can be no doubt that mathematical and aesthetic ideas were central to the 17th-century Scientific Revolution. Furthermore, distinguishing science and technology is fuzzy, too—especially since the late 19th century, when scientific knowledge and technological innovation began to be coupled systematically in industrial, academic, and government research laboratories.

Each of Professor Goldman's 36 lectures highlights in a provocative way a single idea or development critical to the development of science in the West. The lectures are broadly chronological, beginning with prescientific know-how and the invention of writing, and advancing through modern times all the way to the development of chaos theory. In each lecture, Professor Goldman looks at not only the content of an idea that is fundamental for science, but also how that idea arose and what its impact has been throughout the centuries.

In the first third of the course, Professor Goldman engages in a sort of "reverse engineering" of what we mean by science today, identifying the origins of features that now seem essential for the existence of modern science.

Lecture 1 begins by looking back at the already impressive prescientific skills and know-how humans had achieved by the 4th century B.C.E., and Lecture 2 discusses the invention of writing and the spread of writing systems and texts from 3500 B.C.E. to the beginning of Classical antiquity.

Who Invented Ideas?

The invention of writing may not seem a scientific idea at all. Yet there is a profound assumption underlying the invention of writing, whose controversial implications are reflected in Socrates's argument against writing, as recounted in Plato's dialogue Phaedrus. Writing is also a technology and serves as a shining example of how technologies embody ideas, even though we tend to ignore the ideas when our attention dwells only on what the technologies do, how they do it, or what the consequences have been.

Between 500 B.C.E. and 300 B.C.E., Greek philosophers developed highly specific concepts of knowledge, reason, truth, nature, mathematics, logic, knowledge of nature, and the use of mathematics to describe nature—all in ways that continue to inform the practice of science to the present day. Lectures 3–5 are devoted to these ideas and their legacies.

Lecture 6 discusses the first appearance in Western history, perhaps in world history, of the idea of techno-science—technology derived from theoretical knowledge rather than from practical know-how. This was largely a Greek idea that was applied in the context of the rising Roman Empire, and the lecture describes selected Roman-era technologies that influenced modern science and engineering.

Lectures 7–11 explore a set of interrelated developments that together constitute a bridge between the ancient and early modern eras:

  • The idea of the university and its role as a progenitor of modern science
  • Medieval machinery and Europe's first Industrial Revolution
  • The Renaissance ideas of progress, the printed book, and mathematics as the language of nature.

All of these ideas are fundamental for science as we know it, and they are also fundamental for the rise of engineering and technological innovation.

Lecture 12 discusses Copernicus's idea of a moving Earth, the cultural consequences of that idea, and its subsequent evolution into an astronomical theory. Copernicus himself was wrong about a great deal—for example, planets move in orbits that are elliptical, not circular—but his idea helped clear the way for the foundational ideas of modern science that you'll explore in Lectures 13–17. Among these are the idea of method, mathematical ideas such as algebra and calculus, ideas of conservation and symmetry, the creation of instruments that extend the mind and not only our senses. All together, these ideas created a new conception of knowledge of nature.

Lectures 18–28 explore 19th-century scientific ideas of immense social, cultural, intellectual, as well as scientific, influence:

  • Time is an active dimension of reality and not merely a passive measure of change.
  • A chemical atom is an expression of a generic idea of fundamental units with fixed properties out of which nature is composed.
  • The cell theory of life, the germ theory of disease, and the gene theory of inheritance, can all been seen as conceptually allied to the atom idea—to the powerful notion that natural phenomena can be analyzed in terms of fundamental building blocks.
  • Energy, immaterial force fields, and relationships offer a contrasting, yet equally powerful, conception of processes as the most elementary features of nature.
  • Science can be allied systematically with technology—knowing with doing—to synthesize a new world.
  • Evolution epitomizes a process-oriented approach to science and can be extended from biology to scientific thinking generally.
  • Natural phenomena have a fundamentally probabilistic and statistical character.
  • New social institutions can play a pivotal role in science's ability to transform the world.

Lectures 29–35 discuss increasingly sophisticated scientific ideas of the 20th century, including relativity, quantum theory, the expanding universe, computer science, information theory, molecular biology; as well as the idea of systems, especially chaotic systems and self-organizing systems, plus the related ideas of ecology.

Lecture 36 concludes by reviewing today's ideas about science and technology in upcoming fields such as cognitive neuroscience, bio- and nanotechnology, and physicists' search for a Theory of Everything, and considers ideas, and their likely roles as motivators of future change.

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    Knowledge, Know-How, and Social Change
    Scientific discoveries require scientific ideas. Scientific ideas primarily act on society through technology, but they also change our sense of who we are and of what the world is. Modern science is a uniquely Western cultural phenomenon, and the combination of abstract scientific knowledge with practical know-how in the 19th century made possible "techno-science," which has remained a relentless driver of social change ever since. x
  • 2
    Writing Makes Science Possible
    Writing is a core commitment of science because scientific knowledge is an abstraction—not embodied in concrete things or processes. Cultures without writing may be quite sophisticated in other ways, and cultures can be highly literate without developing an idea of science. x
  • 3
    Inventing Reason and Knowledge
    The idea of knowledge had to be invented. Plato and Aristotle defined knowledge as something universal, not linked to probabilities or context. For them, knowledge was timeless, universal, necessary, and certain, and their paradigm was deductive logical reasoning, as in geometry. x
  • 4
    The Birth of Natural Science
    Plato believed that true reality was form, which exists separately from matter. Aristotle broke decisively with Plato by declaring there is only one reality, which is nature, and that all natural phenomena are to be explained within the framework of nature. Parmenides posited that reality was manifested in changeless things, while Heraclitus said reality was change or process—and the tension between these two approaches continues to this day. x
  • 5
    Mathematics as the Order of Nature
    Pythagoras proposed a mathematical order underlying nature, and mathematics could be used to describe natural phenomena. Although Aristotle generally dismissed the value of mathematics for the study of nature, Archimedes and others followed the example of Pythagoras. x
  • 6
    The Birth of Techno-Science
    In the 1st century B.C.E., the Roman architect Vitruvius wrote about the fruitful combination of abstract knowledge with practical know-how. Today we would call a person who combines both an engineer. Vitruvius did not originate this idea, but Roman society from his time forward experienced the first heyday of machines whose invention depended on mathematical knowledge. x
  • 7
    Universities Relaunch the Idea of Knowledge
    In the 12th century, social pressure to make life better and to explore knowledge spawned universities across Europe. From the 12th through the 16th centuries, universities revived and extended Classical and Islamic learning in mathematics, philosophy, medicine, and science. x
  • 8
    The Medieval Revolution in Know-How
    Parallel with the rise of universities was an explosion of technical skills supporting the development of water mills, sawmills, blast furnaces, and the like. The most famous gear-related invention of the age was the weight-driven mechanical clock. Improved sailing and navigation technologies supported increased trade. Banks and corporations were established. x
  • 9
    Progress Enters into History
    The notion of progress did not begin with technology but with Petrarch and a concern about language. Humanist schol­ars developed scholarly techniques for re­con­structing Classical texts then sought to surpass Classical learning. The Humanist idea of progress paved the way for the idea of social reform based on scientific reason. x
  • 10
    The Printed Book—Gutenberg to Galileo
    Printing of texts and movable type were old technologies when Gutenberg introduced the latter to Europe. Unlike China and the Middle East, the West embraced metallic movable type and became "print drunk." The response triggered the creation of a vast sociotechnic system to supply, produce, and distribute texts. Institutions were created to protect and reward producers and increase literacy, promoting further increases in text production and distribution. x
  • 11
    Renaissance Painting and Techno-Science
    The technique of perspective used by Renaissance painters made visual the notion that "reality" is structured by mathematics. The rebirth of techno-science depended largely on their work, with further contributions by Renaissance mapmaking, instrument tuning (musical theory), and books illustrating the design of machines. x
  • 12
    Copernicus Moves the Earth
    Pythagoreans claimed that astronomical bodies were spheres, their orbits circles, and their motion constant because they were perfect. Copernicus replaced Ptolemy's Earth-centered model with a Sun-centered model, but it remained for his followers to make the planetary orbits elliptical, rather than circular, and posit an infinite universe. x
  • 13
    The Birth of Modern Science
    Bringing together all of the ideas discussed to this point was the 17th century's idea of modern science. A new emphasis on scientific method was a critical factor in pulling everything together, though founding figures of this period such as René Descartes and Francis Bacon championed radically different methods. x
  • 14
    Algebra, Calculus, and Probability
    During the 16th and 17th centuries, mathematics in the West took a remarkable turn. It moved from geometry, which the ancient Greeks had favored, to embrace algebra—which was as momentous as the transition from Ptolemaic astronomy to Copernican astronomy. Calculus provided an unprecedented tool for knowledge about change, and the mathematics of probability opened the way for knowledge about uncertainty. x
  • 15
    Conservation and Symmetry
    Experience suggests that nature is orderly and lawful; if so, then something has to be conserved. From this notion slowly developed the ideas of conservation of momentum, matter, and energy; Einstein's idea that matter and energy are jointly conserved; and the use of mathematical invariances to understand deep symmetries in nature. x
  • 16
    Instruments as Extensions of the Mind
    Galileo saw what he described as moons around Jupiter in the 17th century, but his description could not be verified independently for many years. If a scientific instrument gives a result that cannot be verified independently, then the result is really an extension of the mind rather than of the senses. This is no less true today: particle accelerators, for example, provide mountains of mathematical data that require interpretation. x
  • 17
    Time, Change, and Novelty
    An idea becomes a scientific idea when it functions in the context of a scientific explanation. The idea of time is an excellent example. If, as Plato claimed, both real knowledge and ultimate reality are timeless, then time is insignificant. However, by the 18th century, the idea of time was increasingly regarded as the dimension containing hope for an improvement in the human condition. This, in turn, prefigured 19th-century scientific ideas of time as both irreversible and significant. x
  • 18
    The Atomic Theory of Matter
    The theory of the atom began as an extension of Parmenides's view of reality as ultimately changeless. John Dalton in the early 19th century used a theory of changeless atoms in his examination of chemical reactions, and atomism gained prominence thereafter even as the atom was discovered to be mainly empty space and composed of parts, each with distinct properties. x
  • 19
    The Cell Theory of Life
    What is life? An 18th-century debate pitting mechanism against vitalism was resolved, literally, when new microscopes of the early 19th century were used to proclaim in the late 1830s that cells were the building blocks of all living things. The view that cells were the "atoms" of life, in turn, provoked a search for what within the cell is the essence of life. x
  • 20
    The Germ Theory of Disease
    The germ theory of disease is another instance of the atomistic style of thinking and the cornerstone of modern scientific medicine. The notion of disease caused by imbalances within the body was undermined when Pasteur and Koch showed how illness comes from the outside, an idea dating back to Hippocrates and the notion of miasmas. Resistance to the germ theory was understandable; some people had germs in their bodies but not the disease. x
  • 21
    The Gene Theory of Inheritance
    Gregor Mendel was trying to confirm a theory about evolution when his experiments with pea plants led him to realize that inheritance was owed to discrete units. Yet gene theory rests less on Mendel's work than on experiments with fruit flies showing that x-rays could alter parts of chromosomes. If x-rays could do that, then genes must be real. x
  • 22
    Energy Challenges Matter
    In the 19th century, with the rise of the science of thermodynamics, energy assumed a parallel reality to matter. Like matter, energy was seen to take many forms but was conserved. Unlike matter, the idea of energy quickly stimulated process theories in which patterns and relationships were real. x
  • 23
    Fields—The Immaterial Becomes Real
    Faraday's introduction of fields as elements of physical reality in the 19th century was a giant step for modern science. But the difficulty of formulating a plausible physical mechanism for how fields work led to Maxwell's equations of electrodynamics—and a view of scientific theories as capturing our experience of a process, rather than a final truth about objects. x
  • 24
    Relationships Become Physical
    Beginning in 1837, a few chemists came to believe that understanding a molecule required knowing not only what atoms the molecule had, but also the spatial relationships among those atoms. Pasteur relied on this insight; it forms one of the cornerstones of organic chemistry. The recognition of relationships as real also appeared in other 19th-century disciplines including symbolic logic, mathematics, and social science. x
  • 25
    Evolution as Process Science
    Evolution has proven to be a cross-disciplinary idea, bringing contingency into scientific explanation and showing how novelty can emerge. Evolution also entails making time, which moves in one direction only, a fundamental feature of reality. x
  • 26
    Statistical Laws Challenge Determinism
    Modern science was founded on determinism, but determinism was undermined by the recognition of probability in nature and by the claim that certain processes obeyed statistical laws. The kinetic theory of gases, thermodynamics, and radioactivity all showed that statistical laws had a place in scientific theory. This had far-reaching implications: If nature is probabilistic, then so, too, are theories and laws of nature. x
  • 27
    Techno-Science Comes of Age
    A qualitative divide separates important 18th-century innovations in textiles, iron, and steam power from such 19th- and 20th-century innovations as electric power, plastics, and radio: The latter were made possible by science-informed engineering. Successful innovations became increasingly dependent on scientific knowledge and formally trained engineering—as well as supportive business acumen. x
  • 28
    Institutions Empower Innovation
    Moving beyond improved versions of what already existed, such as water power, innovations increasingly appeared that could never have existed without scientific knowledge. Western societies accelerated this development by creating institutions explicitly designed to promote science-based innovation, including widespread engineering education, new ways of organizing companies, and supportive government policies. x
  • 29
    The Quantum Revolution
    Quantum physics is the most revolutionary of 20th-century theories, and it is the most predictively successful physical theory ever. But it is still controversial as well as inconsistent with the general theory of relativity. Quantum mechanics imputes randomness, probability, and uncertainty to elementary physical processes. It redefines causality, space, time, matter, energy, the nature of scientific law and explanation, and the relationship between mind and world. x
  • 30
    Relativity Redefines Space and Time
    Einstein's special theory of relativity forced a reconceptualization of Newtonian space and time, and proclaimed that matter and energy could be converted into one another. The general theory even redefined physical reality at the cosmological level. The properties of space and time are determined by the distribution of matter and energy; space and time are really names of relationships, not separate in their own right. x
  • 31
    Reconceiving the Universe, Again
    In the 1920s, the scale of the universe changed dramatically with the discovery of thousands of galaxies beyond our Milky Way and the expansion of the universe. By 1963, the expanding universe was explained with a "big bang," and by 1980, an explanation of the big bang led to the proposal that the universe was unimaginably more vast than anything we could detect. x
  • 32
    The Idea behind the Computer
    Alan Turing conceived of a machine that could solve any problem whose solution could be specified by a finite decision procedure, or algorithm. Turing recognized that increasingly powerful calculators could be reconceived as generalized problem-solving machines, even artificially intelligent machines. The computer went from being a calculator to a universal simulator. x
  • 33
    Three Faces of Information
    Information is organized data, the content in which we are all awash. But information as conceived in Claude Shannon's mathematical theory of information is independent of content, an idea at the foundation of powerful information technologies that continue to change the world. Moreover, DNA and the new view of black holes as information structures, suggest, almost like something out of science fiction, that information seems to be physically real. x
  • 34
    Systems, Chaos, and Self-Organization
    Atomistic thinking faces challenges from three closely related ideas from the 20th century: Phenomena are produced by systems; "chaotic" real-world systems are in fact orderly; and some systems are self-organizing. These systems display properties that aren't apparent in the properties of their individual constituents. That is, the wholes are more than the sums of their parts. x
  • 35
    Life as Molecules in Action
    The molecular theory of life says that life can be fully explained in terms of molecules in action, using the concepts and the tools of physics and chemistry. The discovery that DNA molecules defined every life form on Earth sealed this shift. By the 1980s, the molecular theory of life was transforming medicine as well as the meaning of life. x
  • 36
    Great Ideas, Past and Future
    Which scientific ideas will transform 21st-century life? Self-organization is fundamental to the emerging nanotechnology industry. Molecular biology and cognitive neuroscience continue their naturalization of human consciousness. Quantum chemistry makes possible molecular psychiatry and even molecular sociology. String theory controversially promises to unify the forces of nature into a comprehensive theory of everything. x

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Steven L. Goldman
Ph.D. Steven L. Goldman
Lehigh University
Dr. Steven L. Goldman is the Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Lehigh University, where he has taught for 30 years. He earned his B.S. in Physics at the Polytechnic University of New York and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from Boston University. Before taking his position at Lehigh, Professor Goldman taught at The Pennsylvania State University, where he was a cofounder of one of the first U.S. academic programs in science, technology, and society studies. Professor Goldman has received the Lindback Distinguished Teaching Award from Lehigh University. A prolific author, he has written or edited eight books, including Science, Technology, and Human Progress, and he has an impressive list of scholarly articles and reviews to his credit. He has been a national lecturer for the scientific research society Sigma Xi and a national program consultant for the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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Reviews

Rated 4.4 out of 5 by 52 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent parts, even greater whole Another excellent class by Professor Steven Goldman! The range of content was impressive and fit the length of the course well. Professor Goldman's explanations of key scientific ideas are clear and enthusiastic. He not only excels at describing individual technical topics, but also carefully places the development of ideas into the contexts of their scientific legacy and of societal acceptance. I learned a lot about many intriguing ideas, along with how so many of them interact with each other and with prevailing conditions in society as a whole. Highly recommended! (Minor quibble, so hopefully production mistake isn't repeated in later courses: at times the camera focused in too closely to Professor Goldman, moving back and forth to follow his frequent movements. His movements normally evoke energy, but that incorrect camera work was distracting.) July 26, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Blown Away Professor Goldman’s teaching is superb. His knowledge of science is vast and wide ranging. His lectures require intense concentration but the time passes quickly as information pours forth. I intend to rerun the lectures taking notes and stopping and restarting the DVD in order to compile an essay from the course for my edification. I should like him to revisit the topics in a course in 2014 as ten years on much scientific has developed. If not possible I wish him a happy retirement and/or an afterlife among the elect. February 19, 2014
Rated 1 out of 5 by Interesting content, awful presentation I am shocked that this course has been rated higher than 4 stars. I was very excited to watch these lectures as my favorite Great Course so far has been "The Joy of Science" and I thought "Great Scientific Ideas That Changed the World" would similarly be great. However, the professor completely ruins the content. You get completely lost in his rambling and I found that the individual lecture material does not even follow the lecture context. For example, in his lecture "Universities Relaunch the Idea of Knowledge" he actually only talks about universities relaunching the idea of knowledge for about ten minutes then rambles for the rest. I was very disappointed. November 4, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by fascinating journey for my "techie" mind I really enjoyed this journey through time - it really helped my "techie" mind to realize how things have evolved over a lot of time... I definitely recommend this course to anyone interested in how science has evolved and is still evolving. Enjoy ! September 3, 2013
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