Great Minds That Were Ahead of Their Time; Part I

Manila Bulletin, April 29, 2007 | Go to article overview

Great Minds That Were Ahead of Their Time; Part I


Byline: Ricardo M. Lantican National Scientist, Academician, NAST, and Professor Emeritus, UP Los Banos

THE significance of the original discoveries of these great minds was not readily grasped and appreciated because the underlying concepts were far too advanced for the scientific and intellectual frame of mind of people during their generation. To be accepted as truth, ideas had to fit into the hub and scheme of things and those that did not, suffered the fate of rejection. Thus, many new discoveries were initially met with skepticism and even derision or ridicule. Worse, some discoveries were considered heretical, if they seriously challenged theological and other well-established beliefs. The historical train of events in the growth of civilizations and scientific thought is replete with such accounts.

Consequently, discoveries of the past encountered a long lag-time before they were finally accepted and recognized. Recognition would happen only after they had passed the test of time through peer reviews, replication of results by other investigators, verification of supporting evidences or proofs, etc. Once a significant breakthrough in science had been confirmed, a redeeming act by the scientific community usually followed by conferring rightful acclaim and a meritorious award such as the Nobel Prize. In a number of instances, scientific institutes would be named after these illustrious persons.

Let me proceed by citing a few illustrative cases of significant discoveries and personages involved and how they were perceived by society during their time.

1. The geocentric vs the heliocentric view of the structure of the heavens.

From the time of Aristotle (384-322 BC) in ancient Greece and Ptolemy (AD 150) of Alexandria, Egypt, up to the period of Copernicus (14731543), the "geocentric" or "earth-centered" view of the system of the universe persisted. Aristotle was a Greek scientist and renowned philosopher and teacher to Alexander the Great. Ptolemy, on the other hand, was an Egyptian geographer and astronomer, while Nicholaus Copernicus was a Polish astronomer.

Aristotle believed in a spherical and motionless (nonrevolving) earth, and an unchanging universe with Earth at its center. Ptolemy systematized and synthesized the best of the Greek attempts for planetary motions in a treatise, the Almagest. The Ptolemic hypotheses were more elegant and superior to previous ones. The resulting geocentric system of planets had placed a motionless earth at the center, with the sun, moon and planets revolving around it in circular motions. The Christian world had espoused this concept that was consistent with the centrality of humans in the whole of creation as mentioned in biblical texts. As the Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, described it in 1321, the movements of the sun, moon and planets were powered by the Creator.

The geocentric system of planets endured for 1,500 years in the Western world, until it was supplanted by the "heliocentric" or "sun-centered" system of Copernicus, which was published in 1543.

Copernicus realized that there were flaws in the Ptolemic system so that it could not provide accurate positions of the sun and the planets. A more acceptable explanation of the planetary motions arose from supposing the sun to be at the center, instead. Copernicus retained the many features of the Ptolemic concept of planetary movements through their respective "epicycles" or smaller circles, the center of which was revolving in a larger circular orbit around the sun. I guess he did it for strategic reasons of not wanting to rock the boat too much! Copernicus also theorized that the earth was rotating around its axis. This was a radical departure from the Ptolemic system, which believed that the earth would disintegrate if it did revolve on its axis.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), an Italian physicist and astronomer, supported the view of a sun-centered planetary system but discarded the more complicated Copernican-Ptolemic concept of planetary movements.

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