Geographical determinism in the history of science

Different temperature, different science. This principle can be used to make sense of everything from Babylonian astronomy to Einstein’s Nobel. In the course of history, science moved from south of the Mediterranean to Northern Europe, and as it did it turned increasingly “indoors-y.” Let us trace its footsteps.

Place yourself in the boiling desert heat of the Orient. What branch of science is best suited for such a climate? Astronomy, of course. The nighttime science. Who can think during the day, when splashing your face with water from your courtyard fountain is all you can do to keep from perishing altogether? The night sky, on the other hand, is so considerate as to bring a moderate temperature to go with its planetary food for thought.

One Thousand and One Nights is the literary masterpiece of the region: nights, not days, nota bene. A Scheherazade who had tried the same feats of creativity in the exhausting midday heat would have ran out of steam a lot sooner and paid with her head.

Only Eratosthenes, in Egypt, managed to do a little daytime science, but only by making the scorching noon sun an integral part of his method for measuring the earth.

Cross the Mediterranean and the climate is no longer so oppressive. In toga and sandals, a summer at a Greek beach is altogether pleasant. So much so that you might become restless with so much comfort and feel the urge to pick up a stick and start drawing geometrical figures in the sand to entertain yourself. Thus geometry is born.

Northern Italy is more temperate yet, allowing Renaissance scientists to climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa with a rock under each arm without dying of heatstroke. But they’re still doing “outdoor physics”: focus the rays of the sun with a lens, study the path of a canon ball, climb mountains to measure air pressure, and so on.

Keep going north and outdoor physics becomes less and less viable. No wonder the powdered gentlemen scientists of Paris turned to an indoor science–––a “physique de salon.” Academies, collections, fine-tuned instruments, amphitheatrical experiment and dissection halls: these are the resorts of the scientist on rainy or cold day.

Go further north still and scientists feel compelled to shut themselves up in a laboratory wearing lab “coats,” thus bringing with them to science the strategies they developed to live with six-month winters in their everyday lives.

If we go as far north as my home country Sweden we see these tendencies taken to an unhealthy extreme. It is as if the science here is so afraid of the cold that it becomes unhealthily shut up in its labs and loses sight of the greater horizons. Witness for instance how the Swedes stupidly gave Einstein his Nobel Prize not for his obviously most important work on big-picture theories of the geometry of the universe but instead for the indoor-experimental photoelectric effect–––a kind of science very congenial to those in a cold, dark country looking for sparks of light deep in the catacomb sublevels of their concrete laboratories. (I should know: I spent my youth as a mathematics and science student in the underground bowels of Stockholm University, as seen for instance in this selfie.)