gerald_holton's picture
Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Professor of the History of Science, Emeritus, Harvard University; Author, Einstein for the 21st Century: His Legacy in Science, Art, and Modern Culture

The Discontinuity of Science and Culture

From time to time, large sections of humanity find themselves, at short notice, in a different universe. Science, culture and society have undergone a tectonic shift, for better or worse—the rise of a powerful religious or political leader, the Declaration of Independence, the end of slavery—or, on the other hand, the fall of Rome, the Great Plague, the World Wars.

So, too in the world of art. Thus, Virginia Woolf said famously, "In or about December 1910, human character changed", owing, in her view, to the explosive exhibition of post-impressionist canvases in London that year. And after the discovery of the nucleus was announced, Wassily Kandinsky wrote: "The collapse of the atom model was equivalent, in my soul, to the collapse of the whole world. Suddenly, the thickest walls fell...", and he could turn to a new way of painting.

Each of such world-view changing occurrences tend to be deeply puzzling or anguishing. They are sudden fissures in the familiar fabric of history that ask for explanations, with treatises published year after year, each hoping to provide an answer, seeking the cause of the dismay.

I will here focus on one such phenomenon.

In 1611, John Donne published his poem, "The First Anniversary", containing the familiar lines "And new Philosophy has all in doubt,/ the Element of fire is quite put out..." and later, " ...Is crumbled out againe to his Atomies/ 'Tis all in peeces, all cohaerence gone/ All just supply and all Relation." He and many others felt the old order and unity had been displaced by relativism and discontinuity.

The explanation for his anguish was as an entirely unexpected event the year before: Galileo's discovery of the fact that the moon has mountains, that Jupiter has moons, that there are immensely more stars than had been known.

Of this happening and its consequent findings, the historian Marie Nicolson wrote: "We may perhaps date the beginning of modern thought from the night of January 7, 1610 when Galileo, by means of the instrument he developed [the telescope], thought he perceived new planets and new, expanded worlds."

Indeed, by his work Galileo gave a deep and elegant explanation for the question how our cosmos is arranged—no matter how painful this may have been to the Aristotelians and poets of his time. At last, the Copernican theory, formulated long ago, had more credibility. From this vast step forward, new science and new culture could be born.