Natural Philosophy: #2 Who was the first REAL scientist?

Who would you guess at as the answer to my question in the title of this post, who was the first REAL scientist? Isaac Newton, Aristotle, Copernicus, Archimedes, Galileo? All are famous men with connections to science though in quite different eras, but only one of them can be “first”. But we need to begin with what we mean by a REAL scientist, as someone who seeks absolute TRUTH using FACTS from experience, experiments and observations. Up to and until the 16th century most of our “scientific knowledge and beliefs” was received wisdom, this means common knowledge that was held to be true …. but may not be. For example most knowledge handed down from “the ancients” had been deduced by “thinking” and associating events with the gods or indeed God himself as interpreted from the bible.

As a clear example, until the time of Galileo it was asserted that when a pair of different weight objects were dropped from a height, then the heaviest object would fall faster and hit the ground first. This had been handed down for hundreds of years, but astonishingly nobody had put this to the test. It took an argument between Galileo and some of his detractors for him to issue a challenge to them to prove their assertion by demonstrating the truth of their claim. They lost of course, because both objects will fall at the same rate and hit the ground simultaneously irrespective of weight! Galileo was seeking proof via a controlled experiment, something he believed in and applied to many areas and hypotheses related to the planets, the stars, pendulums and balls rolling up an inclined plain.

Galileo’s key contribution to the birth of science lay precisely in emphasizing the need for accurate, repeated experiments to test hypotheses, and not to rely on the old ‘philosophical’ approach of trying to understand the workings of the world by pure logic and reason – precisely the approach that had led people to believe that a heavier stone will fall faster than a lighter stone, without anyone bothering to test the hypothesis by actually dropping pairs of stones to see what happened.

We had now entered a period where natural philosophers were confident to challenge the teaching of the likes of Ptolemy and Galen, seeing them as “human” and just as capable as anyone else as making mistakes or propagating erroneous beliefs. It was Galileo and particularly Isaac Newton who didn’t just open the doors for a science revolution, they blew the doors off completely!

The first real scientist was …..

Historically speaking, neither Galileo nor Newton can be given the prize for being the first REAL scientist! This honour must go to William Gilbert, 1544-1603, and you’ve probably never heard of him!

Gilbert was an extremely successful and eminent physician, who held just about every office in the Royal College in turn, culminating in his election as President in 1599. The following year, he was appointed as the personal physician of the Queen, Elizabeth I, and later knighted by her. He died in 1603.”

Science:A History (John Gribben)

In spite of his fame as a medical man, Gilbert made his mark on science in physics, through his thorough investigation of the nature of magnetism. He was “classed” as a gentleman scientist, someone who dabbled as a hobby beyond his employment as a physician. His dabbling culminated in 1600, after some eighteen years of study, with the publication of a great book, De Magnete Magneticisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure (Concerning Magnetism, Magnetic Bodies, and the Great Magnet Earth), usually known simply as De Magnete. It was the first significant work in the physical sciences to be produced in England!

The most important feature of his work, though, was not what Gilbert had discovered, but how he had discovered it, and how he set out this scientific method as an example for others to follow. De Magnete had a direct influence on Galileo, who was inspired by the book to carry out his own investigations of magnetism, and who described Gilbert as the founder of the experimental method of science. These investigations were so thorough that, after Gilbert, nothing new was added to scientific knowledge of magnetism for two centuries, until the discovery of electromagnetism in the 1820s and the subsequent work of Michael Faraday.

So there you have it, William Gilbert the first REAL scientist, who, in his study of magnetism gave birth to the “scientific method”, empiricism, in which NOTHING could be accepted as TRUE unless it were proven through experimentation and factual evidence.


My blogging has focused a great deal on Wine for the past couple of years and with the occasional dash of philosophy (including Buddhism) and photography. For my regular followers you may have noticed that in some of my most recent wine posts I have referenced my science background in education and experience, and in particular gaining an MSc and PhD in Analytical Chemistry. It has been the analytical chemist within me that has slanted my approach to tasting and understanding wine, and only recently writing about it too.

It is this rekindling of my “earlier self” that has stimulated my current reading in the history of science, in particular the years from 1543 to around 1900, a period that includes The Enlightenment as well as the Industrial Revolution and marks the shift away from a cultish belief in everything emanating from the time of Aristotle, plus a breaking of the knot that tied every phenomenon, including movement of the planets, gravity, diseases etc, to “the will of God”. “Scientists” were known as alchemists and then as natural philosophers and were persecuted as heretics if they discussed or wrote something that was different from the prevailing order/view. They were shunned, lost their jobs, lost their wealth and property, and were sometimes imprisoned or worse at the hands of The Inquisition. Of course, this sort of thing couldn’t happen today?

So, I intend to share a few tales and events from 1543 onwards, not deep science stuff, but inspiring as well as weird science stuff from Newton, Boyle, Hooke, Halley, Wren, Faraday as well as the earlier Copernicus and Galileo and onwards to the “engineers” including Watt, Newcomen, and Brunel. All mixed in with a few personal experiences too.

Categories: Natural Philosophy, Philosophy

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