By Natural Philosopher Mike Prestwood

The Natural Philosophy Timeline

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Great thinkers, their ideas, and publications

Philosophy Series: 1. Big Picture | 2. Ideas | 3. Philosophers | 4. Publications

Natural Philosophy includes the great philosophers and their ideas and publications. This timeline focuses on the empirical, rational, and irrational as well as understanding their philosophical context. Philosophical context includes understanding the timing of discoveries and rediscoveries as well as the philosophers behind them and their publications. For the companion timeline for the book: “30 Philosophers: A New Look at Timeless Ideas,” go to Book Timeline: 30 Philosophers.

The Natural Philosophy Timeline

The Birth of Logic
The Birth of Logic
624 BCE
Circa 624-546 BCE

In the vibrant intellectual climate of Ancient Greece, the 6th century BCE marks the embryonic stage of formal logic, attributed to the philosopher Thales of Miletus (around 624-546 BCE). Thales, recognized as the first of the Seven Sages of Greece, embarked on a quest that laid the foundational stones of logical thought. He shifted the explanation of natural phenomena away from mythological interpretations towards rational principles.

Hourglass on the Beach

Hourglasses, also known as sandglasses or sand timers, were first used in the 14th century, although it is unclear exactly when they were invented. The earliest written reference to an hourglass dates back to the early 14th century in Europe, but they may have been used earlier in other parts of the world. Hourglasses were used as a reliable way to measure time, especially for tasks that required precise timing such as navigation at sea, cooking, and scientific experiments.

Relativity Principle
Relativity Principle

The Relativity Principle states that the laws of physics are the same for all observers in uniform motion relative to one another. This means that the passage of time, the length of objects, and the speed of light are the same for everyone, regardless of their relative motion.

Introduced by Galileo Galilei and detailed in his 1632 work “Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences,” the Relativity Principle posits that the laws of physics are the same in any system moving at a constant speed in a straight line, regardless of its particular speed or direction. This principle laid the groundwork for understanding that motion is relative to the observer’s frame of reference.

Protozoa Discovered: Microbiology Founded
Protozoa Discovered: Microbiology Founded

Although protozoa evolved from eukaryotes about 2 billion years ago, it was 1674 that humanity saw them for the first time. That’s when Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, using his meticulously crafted microscopes, discovered protozoa—the first microscopic observation of single-celled organisms. His detailed observations and descriptions of what he called “animalcules” in a drop of pond water opened a completely new world to scientific study, fundamentally transforming our understanding of life on Earth. This discovery not only marked the birth of microbiology as a science but also challenged existing views on the complexity and diversity of life, laying the groundwork for the exploration of biological processes at the cellular level. Little did Antonie know, he was looking at the descendants of the ancestor to plants, animals, and fungi! Later, in the 1990s, scientists put together the following timing:

  • 1.7 billion years ago: Plants diverge from the common protozoa ancestor.
  • 1.5 billion years ago: Fungi and animal branch emerges.
  • 1.3 billion years ago: Fungi diverge from the common fungi-animal ancestor.

Analysis: The discovery of protozoa brought to light the vast, previously invisible world of microorganisms, reshaping biological and medical sciences by introducing the concept that life extends far beyond what is visible to the naked eye. This revelation had profound implications, leading to advances in disease control, understanding ecological interactions, and even prompting discussions on the origins of life. 

The Invention of Calculus
geometry, mathematics, volume

Invented by Newton in the 1660s (pub. 1687) and independently by Leibniz in the 1680s (pub. 1684). Both built on Galileo’s popularizing the idea of the infinitesimal.

Calculus, the mathematical study of continuous change, introduced the concepts of differentiation and integration, providing tools to model and analyze motion, growth, and the infinitesimal. Newton, working primarily in England, utilized calculus to formulate his laws of motion and gravitation, fundamentally altering our understanding of the physical universe. Simultaneously, Leibniz developed a similar set of mathematical tools, contributing a notation system that remains in use to this day. He introduced the integral sign (∫) and the differential operator (d), foundational in calculus for representing integration and infinitesimal changes, respectively. His “dy/dx” notation for derivatives elegantly describes rates of change, all of which remain central to calculus today.

Electromagnetic Radiation Theory
Electromagnetic Radiation Theory
James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

James Clerk Maxwell predicted electromagnetic waves, but he did not perform experiments to prove their existence. His prediction was based on his work on the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, which unified electricity, magnetism, and light as different manifestations of the same phenomenon. Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetism predicted the existence of waves of oscillating electric and magnetic fields that travel through empty space at a speed that could be predicted from simple electrical experiments. The existence of electromagnetic waves was later experimentally confirmed by Heinrich Hertz in 1887.

  • 1831: Michael Faraday discovers electromagnetic induction: electric current in a wire.
  • 1864: James Clerk Maxwell publishes “A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field,” where he predicts the existence of electromagnetic waves, including radio waves.
  • 1887: Heinrich Hertz experimentally demonstrates the existence of radio waves, confirming Maxwell’s theories.
  • 1895: Guglielmo Marconi, first practical use, radio waves to transmit Morse code without wires.
  • 1906: Reginald Fessenden, first radio broadcast of audio (both music and speech) on Christmas Eve.
  • 1920s: Radio becomes a popular medium for entertainment and news
Radiometric Dating
Iodine 131(I-131)Radioactive isotopes used for hyperthyroidism treatment are stored in Lead boxes
5 Generations Ago

In 1905, radiometric dating was discovered. It is a method used to date rocks and other objects based on the known decay rate of radioactive isotopes. This technique is used to date rocks. Paleontologists regularly order discoveries in chronological order and estimate their age. Knowing the age of rocks allows paleontologists to assign known values to rocks and fossils to firm up the known historical calendar.

Special Relativity
Special Relativity

Special Relativity explains the relationship between space, time, mass, and energy. It shows that time and space are not separate entities but are connected as a single entity called spacetime. Additionally, it introduced the famous equation E=mc², which demonstrates that mass is engergy, energy is mass. They are equivalent and can be converted into each other. 

Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, published in June 1905, revolutionized physics by introducing concepts like time dilation and length contraction, showing that the speed of light in a vacuum is constant and independent of the motion of all observers. It showed that as objects approach the speed of light, time slows down, lengths contract, and mass increases. This theory provided a new framework for all of physics by proposing that space and time are interwoven into a single continuum known as spacetime.

General Relativity
General Relativity

General Relativity incorporated gravity into the mix. It describes gravity not as a force, but as the curvature of spacetime caused by massive objects. According to General Relativity, the curvature of spacetime around an object like the Earth causes objects to fall towards its center, which we experience as gravity. 

In November 1915, Einstein expanded on his Special Theory of Relativity with his General Theory of Relativity, which he published formally in 1916. This theory introduced the concept that gravity is not a force as traditionally conceived but rather a curvature of spacetime itself, caused by mass and energy. General Relativity provides a comprehensive description of gravitational phenomena and has been confirmed by numerous experiments and observations, including the bending of light by gravity and the precise orbit of planets.

Electron Microscope = Nanoworld Discovered!
pathogen virus background

Starting in 1931 with the invention of the electron microscope, the nanoworld became visible to us. The nanoworld contains items as small in diameter as 1 micrometer (1 micron) to a diameter 1,000 times smaller, a diameter of 1 nanometer. The nanoworld includes the smallest single celled organisms, the smallest bacteria as well as viruses, proteins, and molecules.

Note: The virus was discovered in 1892 through scientific experiments and first seen in the 1930s.

Radiocarbon Dating
We all need a little CAFFEINE

In 1946, Willard Libby created the method for dating organic materials by measuring their content of carbon-14, a newly discovered radioactive isotope of carbon. This dating technique provides objective age estimates within a few decades for carbon-based objects that originated from living organisms.

Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB)
Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB)

In 1965, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, two radio astronomers at Bell Telephone Laboratories, stumbled upon a mysterious and persistent background noise that pervaded their radio telescope. After much investigation and the elimination of potential terrestrial and instrumental sources, they concluded that this noise was cosmic in origin. Their findings, published on May 20, 1965, identified this radiation as the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) — the afterglow of the Big Bang, providing critical empirical support for the Big Bang theory of the universe’s origin. This discovery, serendipitous as it was, marked a monumental advancement in cosmology, transforming our understanding of the universe’s earliest moments.

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Philosophy Series: 1. Big Picture | 2. Ideas | 3. Philosophers | 4. Publications

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May 26, 2024 Edition
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