The history of science is the story of how ideas travel. Science is not just a litany of facts and formulas. It is an ever-evolving story, with new characters and subplots adding complexities at every turn.
Every era of discovery leaves a legacy of scholarship that inspires and challenges successive generations. Nicolaus Copernicus, who first asserted that the sun is the center of our universe, is regarded as one of the founders of modern astronomy. But Copernicus did not develop his theory in a vacuum. He was not only influenced by the other great Renaissance scholars of his time, but he also acknowledged his indebtedness to the great minds who came before him, whose texts he consulted, and whose experiments laid a foundation for his own work.
Among those who came before him was al-Battani, whose work Copernicus cited in his landmark book, “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.” Al-Battani, a ninth-century astronomer who worked most of his life in Antioch and Syria, catalogued 849 stars and determined the solar year as being 365 days, five hours, 46 minutes, 24 seconds. Similarly, his breakthroughs were facilitated through his study of the ancient civilizations that preceded him — the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, among others. This thread of discovery passes through all ages and civilizations.
Scientific discovery happens on a continuum. Inventions of the Middle Ages paved the way for the Industrial Revolution. And the mobile devices we are becoming more and more dependent upon are made possible by algorithms that were first proposed by mathematicians centuries ago. As long as humans possess an innate curiosity about the world, there will always be advancement and new ideas.
In our modern age, science is truly a global enterprise. New technologies and societies that are more interconnected than ever provide an environment in which innovation flourishes, and the potential to improve our world is limitless. The stories of scientific achievement are an encouragement to all of us.
That is why science centers like the New York Hall of Science present exhibitions and programs that not only explain scientific concepts, but also tell the stories of the great men and women who made these important advancements. At the Hall of Science, your family can play miniature golf to learn about rocketry, and learn geometry from catapults. The exhibits are accessible to a wide audience, so everyone can understand that revolutionary scientific breakthroughs are made possible because scholars are curious about the way the world works.
A quest for understanding leads to a theory, and a series of experiments designed to test that theory. Ultimately, a new way of seeing the world emerges, and new theories develop in that context.
So, the next time a child asks you to explain something, don’t just give him the facts. Tell him the story. The information is all around, and the stories are waiting to inspire.
Margaret Honey is President and CEO of the New York Hall of Science [47-01 111th St. near 47th Avenue in Corona, (718) 699-0005], where the U.S. debut of 1,001 Inventions is currently on view. The exhibition tells the story of the scientific legacy of the Middle Ages, and its influence on scholars of the Renaissance.