You advocate un-learning the science that we know. Why?
In school they teach us a lot of things, but we learn them without really understanding them. For example, that the Earth is round or that it moves around the Sun. When we are older, we take these things for granted, as if they were obvious, but they are not at all obvious and the majority of us really have no idea how to explain why they are that way. If we had to convince a skeptic, we wouldn’t be able to. The fact is that many times what kills scientific curiosity is education itself: they give us a bunch of answers before we have even asked the questions, which takes away all the fun. That’s why I begin my book by inviting the reader to un-learn, to look at the world with the eyes of a Greek from the sixth century BC, who knows nothing of what we are taught at school about the Earth, the Sun or the stars, but who has his/her eyes wide open, observes what is around him/her and tries to understand it. That Greek is going to “do” science and the reader can identify with him/her and “do” science too, thinking for him/herself and discovering things even before I tell them about them.
With the eyes of a Greek who, more than knowing science, understands it, right?
Yes, it is one thing to know the content of science and another to understand it. In the university, for example, we have students who have studied a lot of material, entire syllabi of Physics and Chemistry, but who have a very weak and often mistaken idea of what science is.
So then, what is science?
Above all, it is a way of looking at the world and thinking about it. It is common to identify science with its results, with the entire enormous repertoire of knowledge that we have been given. That is the idea that students usually have, because they have spent years studying the results. This happens with a lot of people, who say that this thing or that is “a scientific fact” or that something is “scientifically proven”, as a synonym for “this is a truth that leaves no room for doubt”. But I believe that looking at science this way is a mistake. For one thing, it tends to mythologize it too much, to identify science as the only truth, as if there were no other valid ways to approach reality; and at the same time, this weakens science, because it leaves out all of its dynamics, all of its humanity, everything that makes it something that is alive. Science is a human activity, not a catalogue of results, or dead dogmas.
When was science born?
It is really like what happens with humans: they have a date of birth, but it takes a few years before their personality is defined and they reach adulthood. The birth certificate for science comes from ancient Greece, but it didn’t become an adult until Newton. Thus, the title of the book, which attempts to tell about those formative years that defined science’s personality.
Was it dangerous to “do” science in that era?
There is a certain tendency to present the great scientists of the past as heroes or martyrs, as champions in the struggle of the light against the darkness. Carl Sagan wrote many pages with this argument, pages that were very emotional, but also very deceptive. It makes no sense to present the history of science as a fight between the good guys and the bad guys. Historically it has almost always been dangerous to fly in the face of the dominant beliefs, but science is about how the natural world is, and ideas about Nature have never been as controversial as ideas about politics or religion. Cases like Galileo’s have been more the exception than the rule; in most cases the main danger to scientists has been that they were not understood or were marginalized by their peers. And even then, the ideas that have triumphed have almost always been the ones that deserved to triumph.
These great scientists also made some mistakes, of some importance…
Of course they did, but many times what we see as like mistakes were really good ideas in their time, and vice versa. The greatest astronomers from ancient times, like Hipparchus or Ptolemy, were opposed to Aristarchus, who, in the third century BC, defended the idea that Earth is not immobile but rather rotates around the Sun. Were they wrong? Today we know that they were indeed wrong, but in reality they were doing the best science that could be done at that time. In light of the physics and evidence that were available to them, Aristarchus’s theory was implausible and it was more rational to believe that the Earth was motionless in the center of the universe. Furthermore, we have cases like that of Kepler, who came up with his famous laws regarding the orbits of the planets using reasoning that was erroneous in almost all of its steps. Or that of Galileo, who made extraordinary contributions to Physics and Astronomy, but scorned Kepler’s laws and insisted that the tides proved that the Earth moved, an error that complicated his situation in the face of the Inquisition even more. These kinds of missteps are almost never mentioned, but to me they are fascinating because I think they teach us a great deal more about science than conventional history, which only tells us about the successes, as if we should be ashamed that scientists are human…