10 Cool Things I Learned from 'History of Science,' Episode 1

Last night 8 p.m., KCET aired the first episode of the new series "The History of Science," a fascinating look at how we learned what we know about the world around us. The first episode, "What Is Out There?", had host Michael Moseley discussing the people who have shaped the way we look at the area around earth, and how we shifted away from believing that everything revolves around us, at least celestially.

Here are ten nifty bits of knowledge we learned.

Tycho Brahe has a metal nose. For the non-science-minded, he's maybe not quite as famous as the other physics bigwigs in this episode -- Kepler, Newton and Galileo -- and that's too bad, because he's fascinating. This sixteenth-century Danish nobleman kept company with a dwarf whom he believed to be clairvoyant, and he also had a pet elk... until it died from falling down the stairs after Tycho got it drunk. But easily the most outlandish Tycho fact is that he wore a metal nose prosthetic after badly injuring his nose in a duel. You can kind of see it here.

People believed that the earth was the center of the universe because that made sense, obviously. I mean, think about it: You live in ancient times. You've noticed that the wind picks up when you move quickly. If Earth were truly hurtling around the sun, why wouldn't wind be whipping off all of existence into the sky? Humans today can easily pick that logic apart, but there's no reason why it wouldn't make perfect sense that Earth sat still, with the rest of creation spinning around it.

Astrology figured into science more than you might guess. Just in the way that alchemy gave way to modern physics and chemistry, astrology -- the superstitious belief that stars and celestial bodies govern goings-on on Earth -- once figured largely into the scientific world. In fact, famed mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler was the No. 1 astrologer for Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. The association seems strange today, but in Kepler's day -- 1571 to 1630, a time period that's not all that long ago -- people didn't distinguish between astronomy and astrology.


Astrology lingers on in the English language in ways you might not realize. When we use the word "lunatic," we're hearkening back to a time when people thought the moon could make you crazy. When we say "disaster" -- etymologically "ill-starred" -- we're recalling the days when people truly thought that a bad astrological lineup could bring about misfortune.

Ellipses were heretical. The long-held belief was that planets and celestial objects moved in perfect circles. After all, God made them, so why should they be any less than perfect? However, perfectly circular orbits can't explain why planets, when viewed from Earth, sometimes appear to move irregularly. Thus, the theory of elliptical orbits took a while to catch on.

Galileo should give hope to all of us who have yet to hit our stride. Before he became a scientific luminary, Galileo Galilei wasn't off to a hot start. He was just a middle-aged math professor who had aspirations, but no means of achieving them, and three illegitimate kids. See? You don't seems so bad off now! You could yet become the next Galileo!

Venice's geographic location was key to Galileo's success. Galileo first stepped into the spotlight when he invented the telescope -- or, to be specific, radically re-invented the Dutch model for the telescope. He'd later use this tool to observe the heavens. However, he only made a telescope in the first place because this would be useful to Venetians. Being a city on the sea, Venice was susceptible to attack by ship, and a long-distance viewing device would allow citizens to spot approaching threats much sooner than they could before.

Galileo liked chickpeas. In preparing to make the first telescope, Galileo jotted down a shopping list that included organ pipes and glass panes. He also included items he needed for non-scientific purposes, including slippers for his son and chickpeas. How do we know? The list survives even today.

Isaac Newton's "apple story" was a fiction, though one invented by Newton himself. He only began to tell it as he got older, according to Michael Mosely on the show, though for the record, sources are still debating the story's truth. You have to admit, however, that it makes for a clever way to illustrate the mystery that its gravity.

Michael Moseley pronounces "cosmos" weird. Maybe I'd just never heard a British person pronounce the word "cosmos" before, but every time Mosely says it in this episode -- and he says it often -- it sounds like "cause-moss." Huh.

And be sure to tune in next Tuesday at 8 p.m. to see the second episode of "History of Science," "What Is the World Made of?"


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