Lewis Carroll knew how difficult it can be to tell a story. ‘Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?’, asked the White Rabbit. Alice listened for the answer. ‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said, gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’
To write Science: A Four Thousand Year History, I had to decide when science began. This is no trivial question, but gets right to the heart of what science might be.
Since Newton has become an iconic scientific genius, it would seem strange to say that he did not practise science. On the other hand, modern scientists denigrate many of his activities as ridiculous, or even antithetical to science. In addition to his preoccupation with numbers and biblical interpretation, Newton carried out alchemical experiments, poring over ancient texts and careful recording his own thoughts and discoveries. This was no mere hobby: Newton regarded alchemy as a vital route to knowledge and self-improvement, and he incorporated his findings within his astronomical theories.
The example of Newton illustrates how hard it is to pin down exactly when science began. One possibility is to look for the first scientists. But the word scientist was not even invented until 1833, and even then was slow to catch on. Both Michael Faraday and Charles Darwin refused to let themselves be labelled with the new term, but a history that excludes them would seem strange.