Part Four

The Scientific Revolution

32. Alamogordo, 16 July 1945, 05:29:53. Eight seconds after the first atomic bomb was detonated. The nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer, upon seeing the explosion, quoted from the Bhagavadgita: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’

Chapter 14.

The Discovery of Ignorance

WERE, SAY, A SPANISH PEASANT TO HAVE fallen asleep in AD 1000 and woken up 500 years later, to the din of Columbus’ sailors boarding the NiñaPinta and Santa Maria, the world would have seemed to him quite familiar. Despite many changes in technology, manners and political boundaries, this medieval Rip Van Winkle would have felt at home. But had one of Columbus’ sailors fallen into a similar slumber and woken up to the ringtone of a twenty-first-century iPhone, he would have found himself in a world strange beyond comprehension. ‘Is this heaven?’ he might well have asked himself. ‘Or perhaps – hell?’

The last 500 years have witnessed a phenomenal and unprecedented growth in human power. In the year 1500, there were about 500 million Homo sapiens in the entire world. Today, there are 7 billion.1 The total value of goods and services produced by humankind in the year 1500 is estimated at $250 billion, in today’s dollars.2 Nowadays the value of a year of human production is close to $60 trillion.3 In 1500, humanity consumed about 13 trillion calories of energy per day. Today, we consume 1,500 trillion calories a day.4 (Take a second look at those figures – human population has increased fourteen-fold, production 240-fold, and energy consumption 115-fold.)

Suppose a single modern battleship got transported back to Columbus’ time. In a matter of seconds it could make driftwood out of the NiñaPinta and Santa Maria and then sink the navies of every great world power of the time without sustaining a scratch. Five modern freighters could have taken onboard all the cargo borne by the whole world’s merchant fleets.5 A modern computer could easily store every word and number in all the codex books and scrolls in every single medieval library with room to spare. Any large bank today holds more money than all the world’s premodern kingdoms put together.6

In 1500, few cities had more than 100,000 inhabitants. Most buildings were constructed of mud, wood and straw; a three-storey building was a skyscraper. The streets were rutted dirt tracks, dusty in summer and muddy in winter, plied by pedestrians, horses, goats, chickens and a few carts. The most common urban noises were human and animal voices, along with the occasional hammer and saw. At sunset, the cityscape went black, with only an occasional candle or torch flickering in the gloom. If an inhabitant of such a city could see modern Tokyo, New York or Mumbai, what would she think?

Prior to the sixteenth century, no human had circumnavigated the earth. This changed in 1522, when Magellan’s expedition returned to Spain after a journey of 72,000 kilometres. It took three years and cost the lives of almost all the crew members, Magellan included. In 1873, Jules Verne could imagine that Phileas Fogg, a wealthy British adventurer, might just be able to make it around the world in eighty days. Today anyone with a middle-class income can safely and easily circumnavigate the globe in just forty-eight hours.

In 1500, humans were confined to the earth’s surface. They could build towers and climb mountains, but the sky was reserved for birds, angels and deities. On 20 July 1969 humans landed on the moon. This was not merely a historical achievement, but an evolutionary and even cosmic feat. During the previous 4 billion years of evolution, no organism managed even to leave the earth’s atmosphere, and certainly none left a foot or tentacle print on the moon.

For most of history, humans knew nothing about 99.99 per cent of the organisms on the planet – namely, the microorganisms. This was not because they were of no concern to us. Each of us bears billions of one-celled creatures within us, and not just as free-riders. They are our best friends, and deadliest enemies. Some of them digest our food and clean our guts, while others cause illnesses and epidemics. Yet it was only in 1674 that a human eye first saw a microorganism, when Anton van Leeuwenhoek took a peek through his home-made microscope and was startled to see an entire world of tiny creatures milling about in a drop of water. During the subsequent 300 years, humans have made the acquaintance of a huge number of microscopic species. We’ve managed to defeat most of the deadliest contagious diseases they cause, and have harnessed microorganisms in the service of medicine and industry. Today we engineer bacteria to produce medications, manufacture biofuel and kill parasites.

But the single most remarkable and defining moment of the past 500 years came at 05:29:45 on 16 July 1945. At that precise second, American scientists detonated the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico. From that point onward, humankind had the capability not only to change the course of history, but to end it.

The historical process that led to Alamogordo and to the moon is known as the Scientific Revolution. During this revolution humankind has obtained enormous new powers by investing resources in scientific research. It is a revolution because, until about AD 1500, humans the world over doubted their ability to obtain new medical, military and economic powers. While government and wealthy patrons allocated funds to education and scholarship, the aim was, in general, to preserve existing capabilities rather than acquire new ones. The typical premodern ruler gave money to priests, philosophers and poets in the hope that they would legitimise his rule and maintain the social order. He did not expect them to discover new medications, invent new weapons or stimulate economic growth.

During the last five centuries, humans increasingly came to believe that they could increase their capabilities by investing in scientific research. This wasn’t just blind faith – it was repeatedly proven empirically. The more proofs there were, the more resources wealthy people and governments were willing to put into science. We would never have been able to walk on the moon, engineer microorganisms and split the atom without such investments. The US government, for example, has in recent decades allocated billions of dollars to the study of nuclear physics. The knowledge produced by this research has made possible the construction of nuclear power stations, which provide cheap electricity for American industries, which pay taxes to the US government, which uses some of these taxes to finance further research in nuclear physics.

The Scientific Revolution’s feedback loop. Science needs more than just research to make progress. It depends on the mutual reinforcement of science, politics and economics. Political and economic institutions provide the resources without which scientific research is almost impossible. In return, scientific research provides new powers that are used, among other things, to obtain new resources, some of which are reinvested in research.

Why did modern humans develop a growing belief in their ability to obtain new powers through research? What forged the bond between science, politics and economics? This chapter looks at the unique nature of modern science in order to provide part of the answer. The next two chapters examine the formation of the alliance between science, the European empires and the economics of capitalism.

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