Global from the science (history) perspective.

For our first lecture in ASIC 200 we decided to define “global” in our respective contexts (Allen in the humanities, and myself in the sciences). This was kind of hard for me, since if I were to look at that word from a purely empirical data driven angle, it would be hard to talk about things without verging into the sociology, culture, politics, or economics of the matter.

So I figured, screw it. I’ll spend my twenty minutes talking about some of the data (as it relates to the word “globe” or our planet specifically), and throw in a historical who’s who related to these particular pieces of data.

Anyway, what I ended up giving was the following talk – a little odd for me, since it was primarily a journey through time, something I’m not as polished on as I would probably like to be.

(Click on the movie to move through slides)

Walking through the slides, one by one:

(click on the “link” to go to the correpsonding URL where the image was found)

[1] Essentially, I’ll probably do what I almost always do to start off a train of thought when I’m stuck – that is to try and “google” a definition (hence the first cartoon slide). Except that when you do this with the word “global,” you get a whole ton of different things, quite frankly a lot of which I don’t actually follow (computer lingo stuff, etc). [link]

[2] Which is why I’ll cheat and turn to the word “globe.” [3/4] Which seems to be much more straight forward, having definitions that emphasize having “spheroid” characteristics, and having the involvement of the Earth in particular. This, of course, from an empirical lens would suggest that a scientific “global” enlightenment could focus on two main things: You know, the “stuff” all around, and the “where” we happen to be.

[5] Interestingly, a recent paper came out that looks at the characterization of Earth from a different perspective. Here, researchers looked at the assumption of us studying the Earth as an exoplanet using comparable distances and using current to slightly more advanced telescope technology. The idea was to see how much information about the Earth could be found, assuming that possibly only a single pixel of data could be gathered.

Turns out, you can find quite a bit. The paper seems to suggest that aliens “could probably tell that our planet’s surface is divided between oceans and continents, and learn a little bit about the dynamics of our weather systems.” As well, it’s quite possible to calculate the rotational frequencies. Anyway, science has a global context that can focus solely on physical nature, but I suppose definining it succinctly is a difficult affair.

[6] Which relates to the next slide – a summary of the sorts of things that science can categorize under the “stuff” all around, and the “where” we happen to be mantra. This slide depicts a few elements from the periodical table (which happen to spell out ASIC), and also a schematic of where the Earth happens to be in the Milky Way. As well, I’ve included two other iconic images that represent to the two main topics currently in the syllabus (climate change and genetic manipulation).

Now we begin to track how science and the characterization of our planet has evolved over history…

[7/8] ~2500 BC: Great Pyramid of Giza is constructed exactly so as to reside exactly on the North-South and East-West Axes.

There’s a lot of discussion over the construction details (how do you move 1.5 ton block?), but for our needs one can look to the layout in particular. As defined by precision measurements obtained by Sir Flinders Petrie (1880–82) and published as “The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh”, clearly folks had a sense of direction, a sense of the axial contours of where north and south, east and west would be. [link, link]

[9/10] ~2200 BC: This date relates specifically to the standing stones – there’s some evidence that elements of the layout began as early as 8000BC. Although there is still a lot of debate as to the utility of Stonehenge (astronomical placements, religious site, etc), there is some discussion that the rock structures appear to be placed to follow the path of the Sun during key events, like the Solstices. [link]

[11] ~1000 BC: Where the Greeks basically turn it up a notch, and nomenclature wise, where historians would classify as the advent of “Ancient Greece.” Here, the culture began attempting to provide explanations for phenomena without relying on the supernatural. This period which ended around 300BC is considered to be a pivotal foundation of Western Culture in general. Examples include… [link]

[12/13] ~500 BC: Our buddy “the father of numbers” Pythagorus who came complete with a religious movement. Note that because of this, there a reasonable amount of debate on whether he was directly involved in many of “his” discoveries or whether it was his followers in general (i.e. none of his own writings have survived). Of course, there is the phythagorean theorum – that killer of the cocktail party conversation that relates right angle geometry to triangle dimensions. For our purposes, it was the Pythagoreans who first proposed that the Earth was round, and rotates, i.e. spins on an axis (rather than everything else spinning around the Earth). [link, link]

[14] ~350 BC: The “big gun” Aristotle and his students (like Alexander the Great and Theophrastus) hit the scene. As many of you already know, Aristotle and his philosophical writings constitute one of the most influential systems of, well – just thinking! This included his “Natural Philosophy,” (a branch of philosophy examining the phenomena of the natural world, which many feel were the beginnings of what would be regarded today as the disciplines of physics, biology and other natural sciences). In a nutshell, Aristotle had a huge role in the scientific method generally, and for those who like taxonomy, he also major role in the first instances of biological classification (Alexander aiding Aristotle with the animals, and Theophrastus being more botanically minded). [link]

[15] ~150 AD: Ptolemy messes up, and writes what is basically the astronomical bestseller of our time (The Almagest), and proclaims that the Earth is at the centre of the universe. This book was basically the for another 1400 or so years. [link]

[16] 1543: … which is when Copernicus corrects that oversight with the heliocentric theory (whereby the sun is in the middle, and the earth orbits the sun). Still not totally right, since part of this infers that the Sun is iterally in the middle, but there you have it. Copernicus was a little soft spoken on this whole thing which is why Galileo takes centre stage later. [link]

This whole incident in history is referred to as “The Galileo affair,” in which Galileo Galilei came into conflict with the Catholic Church over his support of Copernican astronomy, is often considered a defining moment in the history of the relationship between religion and science.

(wiki says) “In 1610, Galileo published his Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger), describing the surprising observations that he had made with the new telescope. These and other discoveries exposed major difficulties with the understanding of the heavens that had been held since antiquity, and raised new interest in radical teachings such as the heliocentric theory of Copernicus.

In reaction, many scholars maintained that the motion of the Earth and immobility of the Sun were heretical, as they contradicted some accounts given in the Bible as understood at that time. Galileo’s part in the controversies over theology, astronomy and philosophy culminated in his trial and sentencing in 1633 on a grave suspicion of heresy.”

Anyway to be honest, around this time, say from the late 1500s and beyond, things generally went scientifically nutso (in a good way). We’re talking Francis Bacon, Galileo, Isaac Newton, etc, but some particularly good and less well known bits might include:

[17] Robert Boyle (1650s): more or less the first chemist who brings up the ideas of elements as in specifically poo poo-ing the whole Aristotelian Earth, Air, Water, Wind thing. [link]

[18] Richard Norwood (roughly the same time): Although noted for producing a great map of the Bermuda Islands, this is the dude that took a measuring chain, and started measuring from the Tower of London, going north some 300 miles to York. At the same time, he noted the angle of the sun from his starting point and end point, and in all, calculated the approximate distance of a one degree arc on the Earth (therefore to extrapolate a circumference measurement). 367,176 ft!! Such passion for a single figure. [link]

[19] Bernard Fontenelle (1686): French author (into strawberries.) publishes “Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds.” Sort of the first, “we’re not alone” treatment. He says it much more eloquently than that though, “Behold a universe so immense that I am lost in it. I no longer know where I am. I am just nothing at all. Our world is terrifying in its insignificance” [link]

[20] And you have Cavendish (1798) who figures out the density of the Earth. He does this using “The Cavendish experiment” which technically, technically, was developed by someone else (John Michell, who dies before getting a chance to do it) – funny that). [link]

Oh as a geeky side note, the Cavendish experiment was something that allowed the measurement of the force of attraction between two metal balls. It was sensitive enough to do this because it relied on being able to figure out the minute force required to torque (say) a wire. Anyway, derivatives of this same experiment led to the figuring of the mass of the earth etc.

Which brings us (roughly) to the Industrial Revolution. Which seems as good as place as any to end this part of the lecture, because in many respects that’s where mankind sort of starts to mess with the planet in more tangible ways.

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David (@ng_dave) is Faculty at the Michael Smith Labs. His writing has appeared in places such as McSweeney's, The Walrus, and He plans on using Terry as another place to highlight the mostly science-y links he appreciates. In fact, if you liked this one, you might also like his main site generally - this can be found at