A Blog for the Curious and the Scientifically Perplexed

This is the story of a great journey that started with a great thought. One day in 1895 a boy looked into a mirror and wondered what the universe would look like if he could travel on a beam of light. That sixteen year old boy was Albert Einstein and that one thought started him on the road to discover his Theory of Relativity. The great man has been reinvented as Albert 2.0 to come back and blog about a journey through space on a beam of light and explain the science behind everything from atoms, blackholes to global warming. If you've just joined and want to start at the beginning use the index on the left. If you're bored try these links below just for fun.


Saturday, June 16, 2007

The end of the Dark Ages and Invention of the Frozen Chicken

“I’ve told you a lot about science, now let me ask you a question.”

Okay, Albert fire away.

What is science?

“Science is the all the facts about how things work, space and all that kind of stuff.”

No it’s not.

“Yes it is.”

Science is not just about the facts it’s about the discovery of things. It’s a journey not a place.

“So how do you know when you’ve arrived?”

You never quite do, that’s the beauty of science. A lot of people think that all the important things have been discovered already.

“They haven’t?”

Not at all. A wise man knows how little he knows, only a fool thinks he knows everything. Science is like a travel across a vast ocean. You are happy for a while living on one island comfortable in how well you understand that island. Then someone comes along and decides to explore a little further and finds a bigger and better island just over the horizon. Facts and even reality are only what we currently think of as true.

“So you mean your theories are wrong too?”

Newton’s theories lasted over two hundred years and mine are only a little over a hundred years, so it’s too early to say. You can still fly a spaceship around the solar system using Newton’s theories or work out how the planets move pretty accurately. I really just extended his theories. If you start flying your space ship very fast or start circling a black hole then you’ll need to start thinking about my theories of gravity and general relativity but we’re getting ahead of ourselves Europe hasn’t even heard of me yet. They have barely started thinking about science properly at all.

“What date is it on Earth now then?”

We’re a little over 500 light years away so it’s the early 1500’s still on Earth. For a thousand years nothing much has happened in science in Europe. This is the end of the dark ages. Monks have been making beautiful copies of manuscripts from the ancient civilizations, keeping alive the knowledge that is over a thousand years old while most people couldn’t care less. As I told you last time, Arabic scholars were making advances in astronomy and mathematics but nothing much new was happening in Europe. The dark ages ended when Europe started thinking for itself.

“You mean no-one had any thoughts in Europe for a thousand years?”

Oh they were thinking about all sorts of things I’m sure, and fighting of course this was the age of the crusades, but not much science. Most of the ancient knowledge had been lost or forgotten in Europe. The first thing they had to do was find it all. The monasteries had some of the books from the ancient Greeks, but a lot were brought back with the Crusaders. Others were stolen back from the Arabic libraries in Spain when it was won back from the Moors.

“Why were there Arabic libraries in Spain?”

The Moors had taken over Spain for centuries and set up an Islamic culture and had brought thousands of ancient books with them. The library in Cordoba was the best in world back then, full of the best writings and ancient Greece and Arabic science.

“I thought you said the ancient Greeks got it all wrong?”

They didn’t get everything right and were certainly wrong about seeing but they had invented the art of thinking. Do you know what the word philosophy means?


It means the love of wisdom and that is what the ancient Greeks had and the Europeans had forgotten. Back then science was called natural philosophy, the love of wisdom about the natural world. When all these ancient books were recovered and read it opened their eyes to wisdom and the pursuit of knowledge. The advances made by Arabic scholars also showed them that new things could still be discovered. If you don’t believe that you’ll never discover anything new. So a few brave souls started to challenge the ancient ideas, people you’ve probably heard of like Leonardo da Vinci.

“He was just a painter. He did the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper.”

Oh he was more than that he was a brilliant architect, scientist and inventor, thinking of things that wouldn’t or couldn't be built for hundreds of years like helicopters and parachutes. This was the start of an explosion of thinking called the Renaissance or literally rebirth. Another of my heroes is Galileo, he came a little after Leonardo, and was the worlds first great scientist. He made huge discoveries in astronomy and physics. He was even the first person to talk about relativity in very simple terms.

“He invented relativity?”

No, but he introduced the concept to science. He compared the situation of someone standing on deck of a moving boat or inside a cabin on the same boat with no windows. On deck the person could tell they were moving forward, but inside the cabin apart from a little side to side sway they’d feel they weren’t moving forward at all. If you dropped a ball it would seem to fall straight down even though really it was also moving forward at the same speed as the ship as it falls. That is the simplest form of relativity, what you experience is only relative to what is around you. It just took a few hundred years more to work out the details.

“What took you so long?”

I had to be born first and that took hundreds of years. While I was waiting to be born Europeans were still busy working out what science was. Science was really given a kick start in the year 1605, when an Englishman called Francis Bacon published a book called The Proficience and Advancement of Learning. This gave birth to what would now think of science. Rather than just studying the writings of the great Greek philosophers, Bacon urged people to think for themselves and come up with new theories for how the universe worked. Bacon is now thought of as the father of modern science.

“What did Francis Bacon discover?”

Well he invented the scientific process, or at least a version of it. He thought that a theory would naturally come from examining the world. In his writings he didn’t talk much about experiments and sparks of creativity but in his last week alive he managed to invent the frozen chicken and die as a result.

“Francis Bacon died trying to create the first frozen chicken?”

In a snowy March in 1626 Bacon was visiting London with the King’s doctor when he had the spark of an idea that cold could stop meat from going off. They didn’t have refrigerators back then of course. So he got out of his warm carriage in Highgate to buy a chicken and have it stuffed with snow. Sadly the chicken probably stayed fresh as long as he did. He caught pneumonia and died a few days later.


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