And, Florida Man aside, we tend to call that inquisitiveness “science”, and the people who follow it are “scientists”. But it might surprise you to learn that wasn’t always the case – and the first scientist in the world probably wasn’t who you expect.
The first “scientist”
When you think “world’s first scientist”, you probably assume it’ll be some big name like Plato or Pythagoras. You’re probably not expecting it to be some dude named William Whewell who died less than 160 years ago.
But here we are. Because, technically speaking, being a “scientist” wasn’t a thing before Whewell coined the term in the early 1830s. Of course, there were people before that who dabbled in science – there were chemists, and botanists, and electricians, for example – but no overarching term to describe the practice as a whole.
In fact, it was becoming a problem. “The tendency of the sciences has long been an increasing proclivity of separation and dismemberment,” wrote an anonymous reviewer (who definitely wasn’t just Whewell himself in a big hat and false mustache) of mathematician and astronomer Mary Somerville's book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences in March 1834.
“The mathematician turns away from the chemist; the chemist from the naturalist,” he lamented; “the mathematician, left to himself, divides himself into a pure mathematician and a mixed mathematician, who soon part company; the chemist is perhaps a chemist of electro-chemistry; if so, he leaves common chemical analysis to others… And thus science, even mere physical science, loses all traces of unity.”
This lack of a faculty designation so annoyed the scholars of the time that they started hotly debating what they could possibly call themselves – until, the reviewer writes, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, “some ingenious gentleman [that is, Whewell himself] proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist.”
Eureka!, you might think – but not everyone was happy with the new word. It was accepted pretty quickly in the US – but to many British scholars it was too ungainly; too American, and complaints flooded in to journals and newspapers as curmudgeons across the anglosphere offered their own alternatives.
For a while it looked like “savant” might prove more popular, but it was eventually dropped on the grounds of being Too French (this is not a joke.) Many preferred older terms like “naturalist” or “philosopher”, even though those words already meant different things by that point. Calques were suggested from German, in “nature poker” and “nature peeper”, but in what is possibly the biggest blow to the English language in the last two centuries, they were both rejected.
Eventually, scientist won out as pretty much the only sensible option on the menu – but it took a lot longer than you might expect. “The Royal Society of London, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Institution and the Cambridge University Press all rejected ‘scientist’ as of 1924,” noted Melinda Baldwin, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland.
“It was not until after the World War II … [that] ‘scientist’ [would] become the accepted British term for a person who pursued scientific research.”
Making the method
Let’s be real: Whewell may have been a scientist, and he may have been the one who invented the word – but he was far from the first actual scientist as we understand the term today.
If we want to decide who was, though, we first have to narrow down exactly what we mean by “scientist” – and, for that matter, “science”.
If we think of them as implying the use of the scientific method – that is, hypothesize, test, deduce, re-hypothesize – then most people would say that Francis Bacon should get the title. He is regarded as the first person to codify the scientific method: in his 1620 book Novum Organum, he instructed readers to “first of all… prepare a natural and experimental history, sufficient and good; and this is the foundation of all, for we are not to imagine or suppose, but to discover, what nature does or may be made to do.”
In fact, Bacon’s methods – which we now, for reasons that have been lost to history, know as the “Baconian method” – were not exactly what we’d consider to be scientific today. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a trailblazer: by explicitly rejecting the then-standard practice of “read some Aristotle, read the Bible, try to come up with a way the two might mesh”, he certainly gave us the spirit, if not the details, of modern science.
“Francis Bacon… issued a call to revitalize science by basing it on craftsmen's knowledge of nature,” wrote historian Cliff Conner in his 2005 book A People’s History of Science. “Bacon is remembered as the most effective critic of the traditional learning promulgated the elite institutions of his day.”
But just like Whewell, Bacon had arguably only formalized something that already existed – or at the very least, was on its way toward existing. “[In] the familiar textbook explanation of what was important about the Scientific Revolution,” Conner noted, the credit goes to “the ‘series of European thinkers’… Francis Bacon, Nicolas Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, William Gilbert, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, and Isaac Newton. The activities and ideas of these men dominate the traditional narrative.”
It's definitely true that all these men were notable for being early adopters of experimental research – think of Galileo’s famous Leaning Tower of Pisa experiment, for example, or all those times Isaac Newton stuck things in his eyes – but in fact, none of them can claim to be the first, either.
Beating them all by several hundred years was someone you may not have heard of: Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham. Born in about 965 CE in what is now Iraq, Ibn al-Haytham lived right in the middle of the Islamic Golden Age – the period that gave the world algebra (originally al-jabr), algorithms (originally al-Khwārizmī), significant breakthroughs in chemistry (originally al-kīmīā), advancements in astronomy such as the first known reference to the Andromeda galaxy, and lots, lots more.
But “among the many geniuses of that period Ibn al-Haytham stands taller than all the others,” wrote Jim Al-Khalili, professor of theoretical physics and chair in the public engagement in science at the University of Surrey, in 2009.
The Muslim scholar beat Isaac Newton to the field of optics by several centuries: he split light into its constituent colors and discovered the laws of refraction; he proved experimentally that we don’t emit beams of light from our eyes to see things; he even invented the pinhole camera.
Not content with that, he also wrote on medicine, astronomy, and mathematics. “What he… did that no other scientist had tried before was to use mathematics to describe and prove this process,” commented Al-Khalili. “So he can be regarded as the very first theoretical physicist, too.”
“With his emphasis on experimental data and reproducibility of results, he is often referred to as the ‘world's first true scientist’,” he said.
In the beginning
So, what is a scientist? Is it only a person who bears the title? Somebody who follows the scientific method? Or is it something simpler – someone who, rather than accept a supernatural explanation for a phenomenon, seeks to explain it rationally and empirically?
If we choose that last option, then there’s one figure who might just fit the bill as the “world’s first scientist” – and we have to go a long, long way back to find him.
Thales of Miletus was an ancient Greek, and when we say ancient, we mean ancient. He lived in the late seventh and early sixth centuries BCE – long enough ago that he was already semi-legendary by the time Aristotle was born. He’s generally credited as the first person known to engage in science, math, philosophy, and deductive reasoning; according to Herodotus, who lived about a century after Thales, he correctly predicted the solar eclipse of May 28, 585 BCE, but nobody knows how he did it.
Of course, he didn’t get everything right – his biggest theory was that everything in existence was made of water, and he was regrettably a flat-earther. But as a wise prince once said, “he a little confused, but he got the spirit” – and sometimes, in science, that’s all you need.