General Question

troubleinharlem's avatar

How did the early scientists figure out all of these scientific facts (gravity, planetary motion, etc.) without the technology we have today, and how can we trust them?

Asked by troubleinharlem (7976points) December 22nd, 2010

Okay… bear with me here on this one. It’s kind of complicated, and I don’t know if it will come out right.

How is it that people readily believed (okay, for the most part, if they weren’t put in jail for being heretics or something) that what scientists said was true? For example, for Newton, he went and “discovered” gravity when the apple hit his head. How did he get from an apple to the planets? Why can we believe him?

I know that now we can figure it out with technology and everything, but how/why did we trust him? What if I was back in his time and decided that because a banana, for example, hit my head, that the planets (unlike the banana) stayed in orbit?

Does that make any sense, or did I completely confuse all of you?

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31 Answers

TexasDude's avatar

None of these discoveries were made in a vacuum.

Oftentimes, new discoveries were made as replacements or responses to old lines of thinking that simply did not work or weren’t true.

And more often than not, people didn’t trust the scientists at the time, but history has vindicated most of them.

PhiNotPi's avatar

Well, Newton didn’t discover gravity. People knew about gravity for a long time, they just didn’t understand why/how it happened.
In your question, you sound like you think that the apple hitting his head was the reason that he figured out how the planets stay in orbit. It was simply his inspiration. The apple didn’t give him any information that he didn’t already have.
The reason he could get people to beleive him was by finding flaws in the accepted theories. But, like @Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard said it took history to prove them.

submariner's avatar

People accepted the new science because it fit the observed phenomena better, or because it provided more parsimonious (simpler) or more complete explanations for things.

Before Newton, people still wanted to know why some things fell to earth, other things rose, and the heavenly bodies stayed in the same paths year after year. Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton gave better answers than Aristotle and Ptolemy, and Aristotle & Ptolemy gave better answers than the old myths. But people have never been satisfied with “just because”—they had to have some kind of answer, which they accepted until something better came along (although some people got attached to the older answers and didn’t want to give them up).

Note that even without complex instruments, some people were able to find flaws in the older theories, so they kept looking for better answers.

For a more complete answer to your question, read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn (but it’s not an easy read—you may want to wait until you go to college to tackle it).

WestRiverrat's avatar

Most of it was trial and error. They picked a hypothesis and did everything to prove it wrong. When no one could prove it wrong, it must be true. And many of them were ridiculed for years until someone else found the one thing that proved them correct.

kess's avatar

The things that are hidden are far greater than the things that are revealed.

What is revealed leads you to asking more and more questions indefinitely….

For it has been doctor to achieve such.

Now the things that are hidden, will have a hard time, before it can be accepted, but little by little they will be and would transform this word.

All our socalled learned mathematician and scientist would see that what they studied was mostly Junk.

Take for instance, our mordern word boast of so much advancement in education,technological advancement.
but when they go back into history, they are completely baffled as to the things already accomplished…

food for thought

troubleinharlem's avatar

@submariner : Okay, I’ll look for it.
I just started college, but I should be okay. Science just isn’t one of my best subjects. xD

JLeslie's avatar

As people have said above, a lot of scientists were not believed readily. Two things stick out in my mind as working against scientific discoveries and theories being accepted; religion, and simply people’s resistance to change. Most people have a hard time accepting something they have believed for a long time is actually incorrect. Religion tries to preach being all knowing, that all answers are in the bible, so when a scientific discovery contradicts what the church clergy have preached for years, they don’t want it to be true. It ruins their ability to say they are all knowing.

Also, scientists themselves are suppose to challenge their ideas and each others until proven. So sometimes there is conflict even within the scientific community. All of these things I have named are still part of today’s society.

I don’t know enough about Newton to explain how he came to his hypothesis, and his methods of proving his theories. But, you might want to invesigate not only him but Galileo and Einstein as well. They were all incredible mathmaticians and physicists. They used mathematical equations to make sense of our solar system. There are some fantastic movies about Einsteins life and his theories, you might take a look at those also. I think the most recent one I saw was on PBS. I can try to search for it.

bkcunningham's avatar

@troubleinharlem to me, what you are asking shows the importance of history. Just using Isaac Newton as the example, you can read historical accounts of his life and his writings and the writings and theories of others in his period. You can read about the things that existed at that time and the same things that Newton had at his disposal like the writings of Galileo Galilei, Lazarus Zetzner’s Theatrum Chemicum, The Marrow of Alchemy by Eiranaus Philalethes, Boyle’s Experiments Touching Colours, the birth of Swiss mathematician (Newton’s closest friend) Nicolas Fatio De Duillier (sp?), mathematician Richard Bentley…you get my point.

While attending school, Newton lived with an apothecary who helped spur his interest in chemistry. Newton has an interest in math and for whatever reason he loved optics. By just chance or an act of God, Newton has to stay at his university during an outbreak of the plague. This is when he develops the fundamentals of today’s calculus and nearly blinds himself conducting his own experiments in optics.

There were other people with scientific experiments and theories who Newton studied. Newton made the claim of the falling apple falling in his university orchard decades later as what sparked his interest in gravity. At the time, people like Kepler and his Third Law, about the relationship between the distance of planets from the Sun, and their orbital periods et al, were the things taught in universities. Newton used this theory and the falling apple and develooped his theory of univeral gravitation. But it took him 20 years to do this.

Science just seems more real to me, and I struggle with it, when I look at the historical part of the people and what was going on at the time. It makes it easier to see why they may have decided to conduct this particual experiment and how things changed throughout history and continue to change.

By the way, Newton was a Christian and very religious.

JLeslie's avatar

About trusting them. Some of these scientists would calculate when a meteor would return for instance, using math. When it came back to earth on time, they would prove their estimates and calculations were correct, and then could also estimate the next time it would return. Observing the past helped predict the future. Once a calculation was considered valid, then the same mathematical principles could be applied to other objects in space.

The more knowledge someone has, the more likely they can come up with answers to the question why. Scientists are by nature curious. Curious how things work. And, generally, do not believe in the supernatural. Back in history when disease like Plague killed millions of people, many believed the devil did it. A scientist would look for the root cause, how it is being transmitted, and if the people who survive have anything in common. They would not accept a supernatural being was cursing or possesing people.

submariner's avatar

OP: Oh you’re in college already! You should definitely read Kuhn, then. He’s the guy who gave us the concept of “paradigm shift”.

But remember, science answers all questions except for the ones that matter most.

bkcunningham's avatar

@JLeslie it was thought at the time that the plague was caused by cats and dogs. Perhaps some people thought, like some people today with other illnesses, that the devil did it, but the common belief in 1665 was that is was caused by cats and dogs. Author Daniel Defoe in his Journal of the Plague Years estimated that 40,000 dogs and 200,000 cats were killed. The real effect of this was that there were fewer natural enemies of the rats who carried the plague fleas, so the germs spread more rapidly.

JLeslie's avatar

@bkcunningham I did not mean to imply the majority of people believed the devil did it, good you wrote a response. Just saying scientists would not accept a supernatural explanation like that. Similar to the rumblings heard about God inventing AIDS, because He dissaproves of homosexual behavior. I did not know the cats and dogs were suspected and killed. Very interesting.

Qingu's avatar

@bkcunningham, Newton did not believe Jesus was the son of God, so he was not a Christian by many people’s definition.

Also, a lot of people didn’t believe Galileo and Newton. Up until the 1800’s—more than a century after Newton—a lot of people still believed the sun revolved around the earth. Like the OP said, many scientific “facts” aren’t at all obvious without thinking deeply about it. A major reason Newton’s ideas became accepted among the scientific/philosophical community was because they were elegant and unifying—things on Earth didn’t follow completely different laws of motion than things in “heaven,” it all worked the same. But for many people, “magic laws of heaven” were a perfectly acceptable explanation, just like many people today believe that “God created all Earth’s organisms” is a perfectly acceptable explanation.

JLeslie's avatar

I just realized I wrote in an answer above when a meteor would return to the earth, and it should be a comet returning.

bkcunningham's avatar

@Qingu I’m getting ready to go to bed, but if you could give me a source for your information, I’d love to take a look at it tomorrow. Have you read the Fitzwilliam Notebook or the Pierpont Morgan Notebook?

ETpro's avatar

@submariner and others mentioned how each scientist built on the revaluations of one another. That is how science proceeds. And as to trusting it, true scientists do not—ever! Way back in anciant Greece, Ptolemy came up with a complex set of circles orbiting around other circles orbiting around still other circles that pretty accurately predicted the motion of the known planets. Galileo Galilei using the newly invented tool, the telescope, gave us a much more accurate model of actual planetary motion. Newton came very close to explaining why the planets move as they do. But when it came to the Planet Mercury, his predictions were just slightly off. Scientists knew this for centuries before they one came along who explained why. Einstein’s theory of relativity showed that space itself is distorted by huge masses, and this produces the appearance of gravity. His equations slightly modified Newtons, but only when near massive bodies such as the Sun, which Mercury certainly is. Taken together, Newton and Einstein accurately predict the motion of all the planets and many other celestial bodies.

Qingu's avatar

@bkcunningham, there was a biography of Newton I read a while ago called The Last Sorcerer that went into it, but here’s the wiki, here’s the Catholic encyclopedia’s entry on Arianism, if you want the religious perspective on the heresy.

Newton was obsessed with the Bible, but more of in the sense that he thought it was a magic book that contained secrets that could be teased out. He did not have a “literal” interpretation of it in the sense that he believed what it straightforwardly said.

gasman's avatar

The remarkable thing about the history of science is that wrong theories eventually were discarded in favor of right ones. Phlogiston, luminiferous ether, spontaneous generation, medical humors, Lamarckism, steady-state cosmology, etc.—all relegated to the landfill of bad ideas because they were contradicted by physical evidence & replaced by better ideas that worked.

The point of Newton’s legendary apple insight was that gravitation works between celestial bodies the same way it does with ordinary objects at Earth’s surface.

Odysseus's avatar

LMAO, I love your question, I get what your asking , lol peeing my pants with the way you worded it though. :)

Odysseus's avatar

Scientists don’t just get attacked by fruit then stand on a podium in the city center and announce a new theory that gets accepted by the world.
Their theories have to be unable to be mis-proven and accepted by other great thinkers (peers) from around the world. Only then does the theory or whatever filter down through the mental hierarchy to the layman.
(I still dont trust all of them though, many are paid by big corps to manipulate data and agree with each other)

LostInParadise's avatar

Scientists may not have had the same technology that we do now, but they were still able to do measurements and perform experiments. The Catholic church finally let go of its earth-centered beliefs because the predictions of the moon’s positions, and hence the determination of Easter, were so much more accurate. A neat experiment, which I confess not to understand fully, was the accurate determination of the gravitational constant by Henry Cavendish

bkcunningham's avatar

@Qingu if you are interested, you can read Newton’s actual writings, in his own words, on why he thought the beliefs held by the Catholic Church were wrong and how this lead him to believe the sun was the center of our universe.

Newton devoted his life to studying the Bible in the original Greek and devoured the ancient texts. He spent a great amount of time writing about his findings and his beliefs related to the consecrated fire for burnt offererings to the true God . He talks about the true religion from the time of Creation and Adam to the times of Noah and the population of the earth to the religion of Noah being the same as Moses.

Newton believed in Jesus and that Jesus was all the things He says He is. He believed in the Christian God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Like any true scientist and thinker, Newton challenge beliefs and methodically studied the Scriptures and concluded, much like the Protestants, that true religion had been corrupted and tarnished as the nations grew. He looked to the heavens and stars to understand things like Stonehenge and Prytaneums.

Anyway, his writings are very interesting. He didn’t think the secrets in the Bible could be teased out. He knew, like any scientist, it had to be studied and understood.

JLeslie's avatar

When I was little there was a cartoon that had the apple fall on Newton’s head. I keep picturing that every time this question pops up again. It’s like a brain, like a song you can’t get out of your head.

flutherother's avatar

I don’t think people did believe it at first. But what Newton said corresponded more closely to what was observed in Nature and predicted results that turned out to be true and so people in the end believed what he said. The truth of his theories just kind of percolated down until it was accepted by almost everyone. Apart from Einstein that is.

troubleinharlem's avatar

@Odysseus : Ehheh, thank you. ^^;

ETpro's avatar

@bkcunningham I know you probably meant to type solar system instead of universe, but the sun is not the apparent center of the Universe. As far as we can currently discern, it has no apparent center. From any point within it, you will find objects equidistant in every direction.

Qingu's avatar

@bkcunningham, can you cite Newton’s writings that show he believed in the Trinity? Everything I’ve read about him, including some quotes from primary sources, says otherwise.

bkcunningham's avatar

@Qingu here is a link to a fantastic website devoted to Newton and his wrtings:

In the menu (on the left column of the main page) you can find electronic texts, religious writings, scientific papers, notebooks and alchemical writings. It is a treasure trove of insightful reading.

Newton used the words God, Jesus Christ and Holy Ghost.Newton believed that God created Jesus for a purpose. He didn’t believe that Jesus was God. He takes you step-by-step in his reasonings.

Qingu's avatar

I’m not sure what you’re claiming anymore… earlier you seemed to resist the notion that Newton was not a Trinitarian.

mattbrowne's avatar

There’s plenty of material on the ancient Greek scientists. Some scientific discoveries for example made by Einstein who was just thinking very hard only require technology for verification.

Rock2's avatar

They were smart weren’t they?

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