There are two principal reasons for including some knowledge of history among the recommendations. One reason is that generalizations about how the scientific enterprise operates would be empty without concrete examples. Consider, for example, the proposition that new ideas are limited by the context in which they are conceived; are often rejected by the scientific establishment; sometimes spring from unexpected findings; and usually grow slowly, through contributions from many different investigators. Without historical examples, these generalizations would be no more than slogans, however well they might be remembered. For this purpose, any number of episodes might have been selected.
A second reason is that some episodes in the history of the scientific endeavor are of surpassing significance to our cultural heritage. Such episodes certainly include Galileo’s role in changing our perception of our place in the universe; Newton’s demonstration that the same laws apply to motion in the heavens and on earth; Darwin’s long observations of the variety and relatedness of life forms that led to his postulating a mechanism for how they came about; Lyell’s careful documentation of the unbelievable age of the earth; and Pasteur’s identification of infectious disease with tiny organisms that could be seen only with a microscope. These stories stand among the milestones of the development of all thought in Western civilization.
All human cultures have included study of nature—the movement of heavenly bodies, the behavior of animals, the properties of materials, the medicinal properties of plants. The recommendations in this chapter focus on the development of science, mathematics, and technology in Western culture, but not on how that development drew on ideas from earlier Egyptian, Chinese, Greek, and Arabic cultures. The sciences accounted for in this report are largely part of a tradition of thought that happened to develop in Europe during the last 500 years—a tradition to which people from all cultures contribute today.
The emphasis here is on ten accounts of significant discoveries and changes that exemplify the evolution and impact of scientific knowledge: the planetary earth, universal gravitation, relativity, geologic time, plate tectonics, the conservation of matter, radioactivity and nuclear fission, the evolution of species, the nature of disease, and the Industrial Revolution. Although other choices may be equally valid, these clearly fit our dual criteria of exemplifying historical themes and having cultural salience.