Revolutions in Modern Science

The enormous growth of science during the classical period engendered an optimistic attitude on the part of many that all the major scientific discoveries had been made and that all that remained was the working out of minor details. Faith in the absolute truth of science was in some ways comparable to the faith of earlier centuries in such ancient authorities as Aristotle and Ptolemy. This optimism was shattered in the late 19th and early 20th cent. by a number of revolutionary discoveries. These in turn attracted increasing numbers of individuals into science, so that whereas a particular problem might have been studied by a single investigator a century ago, or by a small group of scientists a few decades ago, today such a problem is attacked by a virtual army of highly trained, technically proficient scholars. The growth of science in the 20th cent. has been unprecedented.

In much of modern science the idea of progressive change, or evolution, has been of fundamental importance. In addition to biological evolution, astronomers have been concerned with stellar and galactic evolution, and astrophysicists and chemists with nucleosynthesis, or the evolution of the chemical elements. The study of the evolution of the universe as a whole has involved such fields as non-Euclidean geometry and the general theory of relativity. Geologists have discovered that the continents are not static entities but are also evolving; according to the theory of plate tectonics, some continents are moving away from each other while others are moving closer together.

The Impact of Elementary Particles

Physics in particular was shaken to the core around the turn of the century. The atom had been presumed indestructible, but discoveries of X rays (1895), radioactivity (1896), and the electron (1897) could not be explained by the classical theories. The discovery of the atomic nucleus (1911) and of numerous subatomic particles in addition to the electron opened up the broad field of atomic and nuclear physics. Atoms were found to change not only by radioactive decay but also by more dramatic processes—nuclear fission and fusion—with the release of large amounts of energy; these discoveries found both military and peaceful applications.

Quantum Theory and the Theory of Relativity

The explanation of atomic structure required the abandonment of older, commonsense, classical notions of the nature of space, time, matter, and energy in favor of the new view of the quantum theory and the theory of relativity. The first of these two central theories of modern physics was developed by many scientists during the first three decades of the 20th cent.; the latter theory was chiefly the product of a single individual, Albert Einstein. These theories, particularly the quantum theory, revolutionized not only physics but also chemistry and other fields.

Advances in Chemistry

Knowledge of the structure of matter enabled chemists to synthesize a sweeping variety of substances, especially complex organic substances with important roles in life processes or with technological applications. Radioactive isotopes have been used as tracers in complicated chemical and biochemical reactions and have also found application in geological dating. Chemists and physicists have cooperated to create many new chemical elements, extending the periodic table beyond the naturally occurring elements.

Biology Becomes an Interdisciplinary Science

In biology the modern revolution began in the 19th cent. with the publication of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution (1859) and Gregor Mendel's theory of genetics, which was largely ignored until the end of the century. With the work of Hugo de Vries around the turn of the century biological evolution came to be interpreted in terms of mutations that result in a genetically distinct species; the survival of a given species was thus related to its ability to adapt to its environment through such mutations. The development of biochemistry and the recognition that most important biological processes take place at the molecular level led to the rapid growth of the field of molecular biology, with such fundamental results as the discovery of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the molecule carrying the genetic code. Modern medicine has profited from this explosion of knowledge in biology and biochemistry, with new methods of treatment ranging from penicillin, insulin, and a vast array of other drugs to pacemakers for weak hearts and implantation of artificial or donated organs.

The Abstraction of Mathematics

In mathematics a movement toward the abstract, axiomatic approach began early in the 19th cent. with the discovery of two different types of non-Euclidean geometries and various abstract algebras, some of them noncommutative. While there has been a tendency to consolidate and unify under a few general concepts, such as those of group, set, and transformation, there has also been considerable research in the foundations of mathematics, with a close examination of the nature of these and other concepts and of the logical systems underlying mathematics.

Astronomy beyond the Visual Spectrum

In astronomy ever larger telescopes have assisted in the discovery that the sun is a rather ordinary star in a huge collection of stars, the Milky Way, which itself is only one of countless such collections, or galaxies, that in general are expanding away from each other. The study of remote objects, billions of light-years from the earth, has been carried out at all wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, with some of the most notable results being made in radio astronomy, which has been used to map the Milky Way, study quasars, pulsars, and other unusual objects, and detect relatively complex organic molecules floating in space. The latter, coupled with the discovery of extrasolar planetary systems and possible microscopic fossils in meteorites of Martian origin, have raised new questions about the origin of life and the possible existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

Modern Science and Technology

The technological advances of modern science, which in the public mind are often identified with science itself, have affected virtually every aspect of life. The electronics industry, born in the early 20th cent., has advanced to the point where a complex device, such as a computer, that once might have filled an entire room can now be carried in an attaché case. The electronic computer has become one of the key tools of modern industry. Electronics has also been fundamental in developing new communications devices (radio, television, laser). In transportation there has been a similar leap of astounding range, from the automobile and the early airplane to the modern supersonic jet and the giant rocket that has taken astronauts to the moon. Perhaps the most overwhelming aspect of modern science is not its accomplishments but its magnitude in terms of money, equipment, numbers of workers, scope of activity, and impact on society as a whole. Never before in history has science played such a dominant role in so many areas.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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