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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Big year - or two - for science

Charles Darwin, undoubtedly one of the greatest figures in science of all time, was born in February 1809, meaning that his 200th anniversary is coming up very soon. At the age of 50, after much thought and delay, he published On the Origin of Species in November 1859, so next year is also the 150th anniversary of that monumental event.

In fact, I scarcely need to remind my friends of these anniversaries. A lot of fuss is already being made about them in scientific circles - and also in sceptical circles, fueled in the latter case by the obvious conflict between Darwinian theory and some of the cruder forms of Christianity that deny the well-corroborated facts of biological evolution.

But while we're celebrating Darwin, let me put in a plug for a book that's almost as important as The Origin of Species, and which was published in the same year. I mean On Liberty, by Darwin's contemporary John Stuart Mill - the book that is the nearest thing to a bible for liberal thinkers, and still the greatest argument ever made not only for individual liberty in general but more specifically for intellectual freedom and freedom of speech.

Then there's, arguably, an even bigger anniversary coming up in 2009/2010. Modern science was given its kick-start 400 years before in the 17th century, when Galileo challenged the certitudes of the time by taking an instrument that extended the human senses - the telescope - and pointing it at the heavens. There is no one date when the modern methods of science first crystallised, separating out from the broader methods of rational inquiry, with which of course they are still continuous. But it is difficult to find a more dramatic point in the process than Galileo's initial observations and his dramatic reports of them.

Though Galileo was demonstrating his telescope as early as August 1609, his most critical observations were those in early 1610, when he discovered the moons of Jupiter - this shattered the geocentric assumption that all heavenly bodies must orbit the Earth. He published his early findings in March 1610, and later in the same year he demonstrated that Venus orbits the Sun. It is only a slight exaggeration to claim that 1610 was the beginning of modern science; it's close enough to the truth for us to declare science, in something like the form we now know it, to be pretty much 400 years old, with Galileo as its greatest originator.

So let 2009 be the anniversary year for Darwin and biological evolution (and don't forget John Stuart Mill, the defender of our liberties). Then 2010 is the year to celebrate Galileo and more generally the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century. These are big years coming up to celebrate science ... and more generally the life of freedom and reason.

5 comments:

Robin said...

Considering I teach Mill twice a year to Philosophy students, I'm embarassed to have not realized this important anniversary before reading your post.

I've been caught up in the Darwin-iversary from both the evobio and skeptical communities, so I appreciate the reminder of the other important things we should be celebrating! (Of course, both would be much easier to celebrate were evolution and liberty itself not still fighting battles for their continued existence - at least here in the US - so these celebrations could not have come at a more necessary time.)

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Elephant said...

Sorry I missed this when you first posted it.

Here's another plug for On Liberty, an essay as relevant today as it was at the time of its first publication, and never surpassed in the clarity and force of its argument for liberty.