HS-102 Readings

Science and Technology
mid-19th Century


    The last half of the nineteenth century was a period which experienced rapid progress in science and technology. There were  important breakthroughs in:

iron and steel technology,
physics and chemistry,
sociology, psychology and biology

There were numerous applications such as:

ocean liners with steel hulls,
skyscrapers, suspension bridges, (all these required high tensile steel
which could be produced in quantity in the Bessemer steel furnace and the
open hearth furnace.)

electric trolley cars, the first subway, central power stations, electric
lights, telephones, motion pictures,

long range artillery, the machine gun, battlewagons, dynamite. (Wars
would become much more devastating as a result of these inventions.)

    In the study of physics, there was a much improved understanding of the
nature of matter :

    Dalton, an English schoolmaster, postulated a theory in which the atom was conceived as being a tiny billiard ball. Material of the same atom were elements. Material combining different elements were compounds.  Dalton theorized that elements always combined in fixed ratios into compounds, as for example, in water, two atoms of hydrogen
always combined with one atom of oxygen. Atoms were the smallest indestructible parts of matter.

    Around mid-century, Mendeleev began to develop the table of elements which helped in the discovery of new elements.

    In the last decade of the century, the discovery of radium by Marie and Pierre Curie, and the electron by Becquerel as well as observation of radioactivity in the laboratory, challenged Dalton's theory.

    In the first decade of the 20th century, Einstein produced the theory of the conversion of mass into energy, E=mC(2), which was confirmed by laboratory observations.

    A new theory of the atom was devised by the English physicist Rutherford in 1913. He  conceived of the atom as consisting of a hard nucleus surrounded by a cloud of electrons.

    The theoretical foundations for a whole host of new inventions in electronics and nuclear power was laid.

    In the field of social sciences, the study of Sociology was conceived by Auguste Comte, who wrote of a heirarchy of knowledge:

1. Theological (fictitious)
2. Abstract (metaphysical)
3. Scientific (positivist)

Each level of knowledge was said to be more sophisticated than the preceding level.

    In Psychology, Sigmund Freud looked for explanations for individual human behavior beyond the rational level. He understood people to be motivated by a superego (a conscience), an ego (the rational mind), and an id (subconscious motivation).

    In Biology, Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution. Traveling on a long voyage on the Beagle, he had the opportunity to observe great varieties of different species of life, some of which did not exist in England. He kept voluminous records which he later used to develop his theory.

    Essentially, he said that each of the surviving species had made successful adaptations to their environments. This occurred through a process of natural selection in which those individuals having the characteristics needed for survival, passed those characteristics to the next generation, while those lacking the necessary characteristics died out.

    There is a great and growing volume of evidence that proves the theory. The science of genetics, today, describes precisely how evolution occurs.

    The theory, when applied to human beings is more difficult to prove because of the relatively long time span of a human generation and the ability of humans to adapt through their culture rather than through genetic changes. Nevertheless, recent archeological research has brought us closer to identification of the missing links in human evolution.

    The theory, when applied to human beings, was controversial because it contradicted religious beliefs. The latest challenge to the theory of evolution came in the form of a concept known as Intelligent Design or Creationism, which makes the claim that there must have been an intelligent being who designed the myriads of creatures found in nature.

There also have been distortions and misinterpretations of Darwin. Social Darwinism, which theorized a struggle for survival of the fittest within the human species, is the greatest single distortion of Darwin's theory. It has been used to argue
that one group of human beings is superior to another group.