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Table 1 Evolution of ideas across the sciences

From: Science and the Concept of Evolution: From the Big Bang to the Origin and Evolution of Life

Early ideas Middle progress Developed theory Latest refinements
Structure of matter: atomic theory
Democritus (530 bc) suggested that there was an ultimate unit of matter (atom – means “uncuttable”) Dalton—law of definite proportions. Mendeleev—periodic table. J.J. Thomson—discovery of electron showed existence of subatomic particles. Rutherford—nuclear atom N. Bohr—explained hydrogen spectrum using quantum model of the atom. Quantum mechanics was applied to study of atom. Elementary particle theory developed but not yet complete Relation between elementary particles and fundamental forces sought. Process of reductionism seeks to find a grand unified theory (GUT); superstring theory, M branes are under active research
Physics: motion and force
Aristotle thought that constant-speed motion requires a force to maintain it. He also believed that heavier bodies fall faster than lighter ones Galileo’s experiments refuted Aristotle’s theory. Newton built on Galileo’s work and quantified it. Electric and magnetic forces discovered Newton’s laws of motion and of universal gravitation hold for most human-sized objects and for speeds <10% of lightspeed. For fast, atomic- or galaxy-sized objects, Einsteinian mechanics is necessary. Electric and magnetic forces unified by Electromagnetic Theory The universal gravitational constant is hypothesized to change as the universe expands. Black holes are the ultimate condensed matter state. Strong and weak forces discovered
Chemistry: bonding and energy
Phlogiston theory, Alchemy Oxidation process discovered (Lavoisier). Basic chemical reactions known: acid-base, oxidation-reduction, bonding Laws of Thermodynamics established. Development of novel chemical syntheses created new materials: dyes, fibers, polymers, plastics, etc. Ceramics, high temperature superconductors, advanced pharmaceuticals
Supernatural creation Planets, stars, moons identified. Galaxies and red shift discovered in 20th century Big Bang theory supported by discovery of cosmic background radiation, inflation theory, high-energy particle collision expts. Dark matter & dark energy. Attempts to explain increased rate of expansion of universe. Improvements in telescopes and spectrometers advance knowledge
Solar system and astronomy
Geocentric model based on religious beliefs, but explains observed phenomena Careful observations (Brahe, Kepler) point to Heliocentric Model first suggested by Copernicus. Telescope confirms model 9 planets eventually discovered. Discovery of Neptune confirms Newton’s theory of universal gravitation. Anomaly in orbit of Mercury resists solution with Newton’s laws Precession of Mercury’s orbit is solved by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Theory and observations agree. Pluto is demoted to non-planet status (Resolution 6 from the XXVIth General Assembly in Prague: Definition of a Planet in the Solar System 2006)
Earth science: geology
Earth thought to be 6,000 years old (Bible) Hutton—Earth is old Lyell—established geology as a science. Radioisotope dating establishes age of earth at 5 billion years. Understanding of Earth’s formation and composition. Plate tectonics; seismology used to get more accurate picture of interior structure of earth. Early atmosphere and conditions better understood.
Life sciences: evolution of the theory of evolution
Great chain of being (Aristotle again)—all living things are immutable as they were created by God Buffon—species not fixed. Hutton—there is time for evolution. Lamarck—inheritance of acquired characteristics. Cuvier—fossils Darwin—Origin of Species. Wallace—independent discovery of the Theory of Evolution Discovery of the DNA double helix, RNA; the mechanism of inheritance was detailed; gene sequencing & mapping. Prebiotic chemistry and origin of life hypotheses: Miller—Urey, RNA World, Lipid World, etc.