Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

The map of the millennium is drawn by thinkers

The need to predict the future led humanity to look to the stars.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 28, 1999


If it were necessary to define the modern era in one word, technology would be that word. We live in a world pulsing with technology - digital phones and cameras, the Internet, the space shuttle, cloned sheep, and countless other wonders. But the scientific theories upon which human invention rests often get short shrift and are little understood. Today, in the first of the Monitor's special millennium reports, we look back over the past 1,000 years and chronicle the major scientific theories and the changes they brought. Technological progress, or advances in the human condition, guided our selections.

Skip to next paragraph

On July 4, 1054, a great light from an exploding star appeared in the constellation Taurus. Observers in China, Japan, and the Middle East recorded this bright star, or supernova, which created the Crab Nebula and was visible even in daylight. The Anasazi, or "ancient ones," in the American Southwest painted it on a canyon wall.

To these skywatchers at the beginning of the millennium, the heavens determined the fate of men. The Anasazi aligned their great houses and kivas with sacred celestial objects, whose movements determined when to plant, sacrifice, or start a pilgrimage. Chinese court astrologers kept precise records of celestial events to alert the emperor to good or bad times to come.

Such close observations of the night skies marked a giant step away from peering into the entrails of sacrificed animals to predict the future - the "science" of many ancient peoples.

But observation alone did not produce the surge of scientific discovery that marks the end of this millennium, especially in the West. That required new instruments and an openness to the culture of science, especially a capacity to share information and bring observation under the discipline of mathematics.

Other civilizations made important scientific advances, but failed to develop them. China built an astronomical clock in 1090, centuries before anything comparable in the West. Chinese astronomers recorded observations of supernovae as early as AD 185, but emperors insisted that astronomical records be kept strictly a state secret. (Those who could read the skies might use this knowledge to unsettle the empire.) And by the mid-15th century, China had sealed itself off from outside contact.

Similarly, up to about 1500, Islam had a much higher level of scientific achievement than the West. Arab thinkers developed trigonometry and algebra and made important advances in optics and chemistry. Their astronomers developed instruments to use the stars to determine absolute direction, to ensure that all mosques faced Mecca.

By the 10th century, Muslims could calculate the exact time and had observed all that could be observed in the skies without a telescope, including sun spots. Their astronomical tables were the textbooks for Europe's great astronomers.

But the Arab world was not of one mind on the usefulness of wide-ranging scientific pursuits. "The Arabs built on what they got from the Greeks, but their natural philosophers that were doing this were under a cloud and were not fully accepted," says Edward Grant, distinguished professor emeritus in the history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, who recently completed a second book on this subject.

European universities taught natural philosophy, but a student in the Arab world had to seek out a teacher. "They called the Greek sciences the 'foreign' sciences. Natural philosophers were often physically or verbally attacked by those that felt that pure Islam was under threat," he adds.

However, without the contribution of Arab thought, including passing along Greek ideas, the subsequent breakthroughs in science in the West would have been inconceivable, he says.