In this, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Robert Darwin, it is timely to consider those few individuals that set in motion truly new understandings of our place in the universe. There are but a few handfuls of individuals in all of history whose thinking was so profoundly original that each provided an absolutely new way of thinking for all who followed.
Theirs was “an original footprint” so to speak. The singular characteristic which they shared beyond genius was first recognition, then analysis, then a most significant conclusion of and about patterns.
Pertinent to this discussion, Joseph Kennedy once observed, “fifty men have run America, and that’s a high figure”. Surely truly original footprints on earth could be no more than what JFK‘s father observed in governance We follow in the shadow of but a few giant individuals. Amongst them are the following thirty-seven individuals.
The playpen of science is the entire universe. That of the layperson is more limited. That is why, in the listing of this role call, about one-half are scientists.
The Role Call
Tudhaliya I The “first constitutional monarch” (c. 1400 BC). With a king, royal family, and an aristocratic class, the Hittite New Kingdom produced the Hittite Laws which developed legislation and promoted justice. While sometimes referred to as an Empire, as is Egypt under pharaoh Menes when Upper and Lower Egypt were joined by conquest (c. 3200 BC), neither was an Empire in the sense of the Roman Empire.
Solon (c. 638 BC –c. 558 BC) The “father of democracy”, Solon was an Athenian (Greek) poet, statesman and lawmaker. In his time, the usual form of governance was tyrannical or oligarchic. Only a few owned the land. The poor with their wives and children were most often enslaved by the rich. Conflict between nobles and common people was the norm. Solon legislated for all citizens to elect officials as well as call elected officials to account. He further provided for some representative portion of all citizens to be citizen jurists. While this Athenian democracy was short lived, Aristotle and his student, Plato, would expand on early democratic principles (citizens having equal access to power and universally recognized freedoms and liberties) established by Solon.
Democritus (c. 460 BC – c. 370 BC) An ancient Greek thinker and “first physicist”, he pondered upon cutting things in half. He concluded there must be some point at which the object could no longer be cut. The Greek word atomos means “can’t be split”. Hence the origin of the atom which would ultimately be the basis of chemistry and non-classical physics.
Eratosthenes of Cyrene (c. 276 BC - c. 195 BC) Another Greek, an early scientist, mathematician, and cartographer; the “father of round earth knowledge”. Among his inventions was the use of geographical latitude and longitude. He was director of the library of Alexandria, Egypt. There he learned that on June 21, in the city of Syene to the south, at noon, the sun cast no shadow but reflected back upon itself from the city well. On the following June 21, he found a shadow did exist, at noon, in Alexandria. Curious, he had the distance paced to the well in Syene. Having done so, he reflected that the difference from no shadow to the length of his shadow was attributable to surface curvature which he calculated to be 7o. Thus he was able to calculate a circumference of the earth in stadia what would be 24,650 miles in modern terms. This calculation demonstrated the earth to be round and was within a 1% error of the true circumference as we know it today.
Tsai, Lun (c. 105 AD) “invented paper”. He served in the Chinese Imperial Court during the Han Dynasty. The secret of paper making was maintained for several hundred years until it became known to the Arabs, c. 751. Papermaking gradually spread from the middle east to Europe by the 12th century.
Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici (1360 – 1429) “God’s banker”, he was founder of the famous and powerful Medici dynasty of Florence . The Medici bank was founded in 1397 and with deposits from the Holy See would grow to be the most influential and powerful in all of Europe. Early on, it avoided the sin of usury by lending in one currency and demanding repayment in another. A charge above and beyond a fair exchange for the foreign currency substituted for interest without morale chastisement. The significance of a well established banking system was two fold. First off, it was highly profitable to the owners. Secondly it was the foundation for the development of capitalism. Capitalism simply could not otherwise exist.
Johannes Gutenberg (1440 - 1468) Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press in 1440 and “fathered the first information revolution” By reducing the cost and increasing the output, it made possible the dissemination of information in a standardized form and was key to a vast increase in literacy. About 50 copies of the 1442 printing of the Gutenberg Bible survive today.
Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (May 3, 1469 – June 21, 1527) Machiavelli “fathered political discourse”. Were he alive today, he would be in great demand as a talking head. Of Florence, he was associated with the de’ Medici’s. He was a political philosopher, Italian diplomat and author of The Prince a manual to acquire and keep political power; the “first true political junky”. In it, Machiavelli distinguishes between idealism and realism in politics. Idealism is to be nurtured but, if necessary, only as a perception for the masses. In reality, success in the pursuit or maintenance of power may require that leadership deceive or pursue whatever means that may be required; benign means such as patronage or clientelism or ruthless means such as coercion, intimidation or violence. To be Machiavellian may be considered pejorative, but only by the powerless. If asked “what is power”, Machiavelli, today, might simply reply, “power is what power does, the end justifies the means”.
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (April 15, 1452 – May 2, 1519) and Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (March 6, 1475 – February 18, 1564) Each was a “polymath and prototypical Renaissance Man”. Da Vinci’s paintings of the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, the most famous religious painting of all time, would be enough for his inclusion herein. His curiosity was unquenchable and his technological design ingenuity, flight and internally propelled locomotion among them, was so far advanced they could not be built during his lifetime; many not for several hundred years.
Michelangelo was a contemporary and competitor of da Venci. A painter, sculpture, and architect, he is most famous for his alter painting of the Last Judgment and ceiling fresco of the Sistine Chapel, his statue of David, and design of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Nicolaus Copernicus (February 19, 1473 – May 24, 1543) A Polish astronomer, mathematician, and perhaps the “worlds first secularist”, his book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres printed in 1543 was the first evidence that removed the earth from the center of the solar system. He concluded the earth and other planetary objects rotated around the sun and that the sun rotated as well. The earth centered universe continued, however, an axiom of the Church of Rome as it had from the time of Aristotle.
Galileo Galilei (February15, 1564 – January 8, 1642) A Tuscan (Italy), astronomer and mathematician, Galileo is considered the “father of classical physics and science”. His support of Copernicanism was reinforced by his improvements to the telescope which enabled him to make many major astronomical observations and discoveries. This eventually led to his being tried by the Church of Rome for heresy and the necessity of his subsequent recantation. He was exonerated by Pope John Paul II in 1992 following some 350 years of church error.
Adam Smith (June 5, 1723 – July 23, 1790) The “father of economics” his seminal publication, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, was issued in 1776. The corrections and benefits provided by the “invisible hand” of the free market as individuals pursue their wants and needs and “meritocracy“, the ability to better oneself through knowledge and will are two concepts that continue today.
Charles Robert Darwin (February 12, 1809 – April 19, 1882) Darwin is the “father of the theory of evolution”. Having neglected his medical studies, Darwin, the English naturalist, embarked on a 5 year (1831 - 1836) survey and charting expedition aboard the HMS Beagle. While on land, he studied its geology and collected specimens of natural flora and fauna. Certain facts and observations seemed, in his words, “to throw some light on the origin of species”. Upon his return he happened to read Malthus’ considerations on population and the struggle for existence. It struck him that favorable conditions would favor specie preservation while unfavorable conditions would not without adaptation, perhaps even to new species. “Here”, he said, “I had at last got a theory by which to work”. But it would be 1859, however, before his publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.