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Thread: If ancient knowledge had been lost

  1. #1 If ancient knowledge had been lost 
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    I recently viewed video lectures on the history of science. The professor noted the importance of the "re-discovery" of Greek and other ancient scientific knowledge to the renaissance and later scientific advancements. The existence of much of that knowledge was dependent on the fact that scholars in the Islamic empire had translated Greek texts into Arabic during the middles ages. They were later translated into Latin. Had this not been done, a lot of it would have been lost.

    Question:

    How much of an effect on our current level of technology would have occurred if the pre-Roman knowledge had been permanently lost?


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    Quote Originally Posted by billee View Post
    I recently viewed video lectures on the history of science. The professor noted the importance of the "re-discovery" of Greek and other ancient scientific knowledge to the renaissance and later scientific advancements. The existence of much of that knowledge was dependent on the fact that scholars in the Islamic empire had translated Greek texts into Arabic during the middles ages. They were later translated into Latin. Had this not been done, a lot of it would have been lost.

    Question:

    How much of an effect on our current level of technology would have occurred if the pre-Roman knowledge had been permanently lost?
    Here is a link to help you:
    Islamic contributions to Medieval Europe - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


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    It is a bit of a Eurocentric formulation of the question. It isn't simply the rediscovery of Greek text that was vital to the Renaissance, but the actual institutions of Islamic universities and their advances in chemistry and math were vital as well. The Western university model was imported from Spain, which took the influence from the Islamic model.

    Although, it should be admitted that much of the idea of European ignorance following the fall of Rome is overstated, most of the Roman sciences and philosophies were preserved. Moreover, there was more cultural exchange between the Islamic world and Christendom than people give credit. There was direct overlap in Spain, Sicily, and in Eastern Europe between Muslim and Christian culture. The reason why most of the major scientific advances of the period occurred in the Islamic world is because of money and the institutional framework that existed in the Middle East then.
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  5. #4  
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    Let me ask a more specific question in an attempt to clarify the gist of my original post:

    Would we have (for example) computers today if the ancient knowledge had been lost?
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  6. #5  
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    To an extent, the loss of ancient knowledge is a blessing. The development of science has been held back by the excessive respect for ancient Greek writings. Modern science depends heavily on skepticism, meaning that scientists do not simply accept what they are told, but use their brains, and their test procedures to make damn sure their knowledge base is sound.

    Believing in a non critical way in ancient teachings is not such a good thing. The best thing is the modern scientific method, which requires testing.

    Sometimes I think that if all the ancient knowledge was lost 2500 years ago, and humankind began again with only a reasonable facsimile of the scientific method, we would already be travelling between the stars.
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  7. #6  
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic View Post
    To an extent, the loss of ancient knowledge is a blessing. The development of science has been held back by the excessive respect for ancient Greek writings. Modern science depends heavily on skepticism, meaning that scientists do not simply accept what they are told, but use their brains, and their test procedures to make damn sure their knowledge base is sound.

    Believing in a non critical way in ancient teachings is not such a good thing. The best thing is the modern scientific method, which requires testing.

    Sometimes I think that if all the ancient knowledge was lost 2500 years ago, and humankind began again with only a reasonable facsimile of the scientific method, we would already be travelling between the stars.
    Skeptic:

    I had the same thoughts. The ancient knowledge was a mixture of real science (astronomical observations, geometry) mixed together with a lot of incorrect beliefs about the nature of the world and the universe. It's logical to think that getting rid of the untrue information might have sped up the advance of Science. On the other hand, one could argue that the ancient knowledge, even though often incorrect, was a necessary starting point for advancement. I tend to believe the latter.
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    Quote Originally Posted by billee View Post
    one could argue that the ancient knowledge, even though often incorrect, was a necessary starting point for advancement. I tend to believe the latter.
    Respectfully, I disagree.
    If we look at history, we see a period of 'enlightenment' about 2500 years ago, and then a period of minimal to zero advancement in real knowledge for 2000 years.

    It is well known that the ancient Greek philosophers taught the value of 'logic', and presented their views as a result of that 'logic'. Empiricism was taught by a few, but mostly was not well respected. Yet empiricism is what leads to real knowledge. Until the old ideas were dumped, the new scientific revolution of the last 400 years could not happen.
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by billee View Post
    one could argue that the ancient knowledge, even though often incorrect, was a necessary starting point for advancement. I tend to believe the latter.
    Respectfully, I disagree.
    If we look at history, we see a period of 'enlightenment' about 2500 years ago, and then a period of minimal to zero advancement in real knowledge for 2000 years.

    It is well known that the ancient Greek philosophers taught the value of 'logic', and presented their views as a result of that 'logic'. Empiricism was taught by a few, but mostly was not well respected. Yet empiricism is what leads to real knowledge. Until the old ideas were dumped, the new scientific revolution of the last 400 years could not happen.

    I agree that empiricism was an important factor but some of the ancient knowledge was critical to the scientific revolution. If you look at physics, the first real advances were based upon understanding of the motions of the sun, moon and planets. Much of required astronomical data came from hundreds of years of observations and astronomical tables dating back to the Babylonians. Without that ancient information, I believe many advances would have been delayed.
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    billee

    Ptolemy's views on celestial movements were held as almost 'sacred' for 1350 years, until Copernicus and those who followed him. There is little doubt that the over-reverence for Ptolemy held back knowledge and understanding of astronomy. When you do not question, you do not make progress.
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by billee View Post
    one could argue that the ancient knowledge, even though often incorrect, was a necessary starting point for advancement. I tend to believe the latter.
    Respectfully, I disagree.
    If we look at history, we see a period of 'enlightenment' about 2500 years ago, and then a period of minimal to zero advancement in real knowledge for 2000 years..
    In Europe perhaps. As mentioned by IFeel already, there was a pronounced flourishing of new knowledge in the Arabic world across a broad range of topics from about 800 to 1200.
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  12. #11  
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic View Post
    billee

    Ptolemy's views on celestial movements were held as almost 'sacred' for 1350 years, until Copernicus and those who followed him. There is little doubt that the over-reverence for Ptolemy held back knowledge and understanding of astronomy. When you do not question, you do not make progress.
    Ptolemy's view matched observation, while the Coppernican model did not. It wasn't until Johannes Kepler revised it to use eliptical orbits rather than circular ones, and described those orbits with his rules of motion that it was possible to compare Coppernicus' model with the sky and see that it was right. Until then, astronomers were taking circular orbits and trying to match them with the planets' movements, and kept getting the wrong outcome.
    Some clocks are only right twice a day, but they are still right when they are right.
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    In terms of the difference between circular and elliptical orbits, both Ptolemy and Copernicus were wrong. But Copernicus was much closer to the truth than Ptolemy. I suspect it must have taken great courage for Copernicus to publish his findings, since there was so much resistance to any suggestion that the Great Ptolemy might be wrong. It is this reverence for ancient knowledge that holds back progress. Fortunately, today we have a set of highly skeptical scientists who have no problem telling anyone that old ideas are wrong. If you promulgate bullsh*t, someone will tell you that it is bullsh*t! Sadly, that has not always been the case.
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    Quote Originally Posted by billee View Post
    Let me ask a more specific question in an attempt to clarify the gist of my original post:

    Would we have (for example) computers today if the ancient knowledge had been lost?
    China is a major source of innovation with extensive history and veneration of classical wisdom, barring certain aberrations such as "Cultural Revolution", etc., not to digress, just to broaden focus of multiple cultures involved in pursuit of knowledge.

    Lineage of modern digital computers, back to WWII fire control apparatus necessitated by machines of war made possible by modern chemistry made possible by Arabic al-khimi- so a lineage of sorts does exist. With that said, there is a factor of "The good is the enemy of the best", example being abacus. Up until very recently skillled abacus operators in Japan routinely beat electromechanical adding machine operators from the West in competition. If one has a workable solution to a problem, why seek another?

    Great thread.
    Last edited by The Finger Prince; July 31st, 2011 at 03:18 PM.
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    I think we should separate pure scientific knowledge from technology. A lot in technology has been lost : during ancient times, technology was often kept secret. Very few references are left about mechanisms as complex as the Antikithera calculator, build more than 2200 years ago. I saw it in the museum in Athens and it is frankly amazing by its small size. This is more complex than Pascal calculator. Same can be said for chemical components, for example the celestial blue of the cathedrals stained glasses. The Compagnons kept it for them and forgot it. What is interesting to observe is that real important technologies, which impacts deeply on society, have never been left aside by civilizations which needs them: iron, agriculture, metallurgy technics (lost was, reduction of iron ore etc...), sailing... have all been invented in parallel by various civilizations. I won't say that Antikithera calculator is anecdotic but it is certainly not that important for the greeks, they could survive without.

    About scientific knowledge, I do believe that most of it has been kept and the few we forgot did not have such impact on our present day sciences.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Makandal View Post
    I think we should separate pure scientific knowledge from technology.
    Why? It is arbitrary. Technology is application of science and proof of same. Are technological discoveries made without correct understanding of scientific principles? Not so much anymore. In ancient times such discoveries prompted exploration and stimulated science, so, distiction is fuzzy. Looking at modern particle accelerator or nuclear reactor, is "technology" or "science"?
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    Technology is not science. This is a fundamental point which tends to be confused especially in the USA.
    There are bridges between the 2 but this is not the same. Photography is technology: it could have been invented centuries (and have probably been) before the 19th century invention. Although the science at the background of photography is quantum physics, you don't need it. Just a bit of optic and chemistry is enough. We can very well imagine a world where people will use transistors and microchips without understanding it at atomic level. This will be based on macro property of semi-conductors. A nuclear power plant could as well be envisaged without the knowledge of nuclear reaction. If there was still place like the natural nuclear reactor of Oklo in Gabon, we can imagine geologist investigating and developing a model which could be used to create a power plant... without any understanding of nuclear physics. To come back to the extraordinary achievement of the Antikithira calculator, Greeks did not know the theory of gravitation, their calculator was based on wrong science (Ptolemy astronomy...) but it works to predict eclipse for example.

    Wrong or approximate science can produce very effective technology. This is why it is very important to make the distinction between the 2.
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    Modern technologies are based on good science. Photography could not have been invented without the prior work of chemists, who discovered the darkening effect of light on some silver compounds. Nuclear power is based on a hell of a lot of previous scientific work. After all, no nuclear fuels exist in nature in useable form. The theory of nuclear power was worked out in advance of its practise, and that came from science, not techology.
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic View Post
    Makandal

    Modern technologies are based on good science. Photography could not have been invented without the prior work of chemists, who discovered the darkening effect of light on some silver compounds. Nuclear power is based on a hell of a lot of previous scientific work. After all, no nuclear fuels exist in nature in useable form. The theory of nuclear power was worked out in advance of its practise, and that came from science, not techology.
    Allow me to disagree with most of what you said. For once, I won't make any distinction.

    Modern technology is basically based on 50% ad-hoc knowledge , 30% good a-posteriori science and 20% good science development, I will leave that 20% to you . I will take all your examples: the darkening effects of light on silver compounds was discovered and used before understanding what was at the cause of it i.e. transfer of energy between photon and electrons.. Nuclear fuels have existed in nature, this is the example of Oklo reactor and if geologist could have discovered it before, there could have been a nuclear reactor based on geological empiric data. The present nuclear technology came first from empirical test: best proof is that they were so unsure of the results that they were developped Monte Carlo method. The base is definetly hard science but the technology around is really a test-and-fail methodology. Some technology is really based on hard science: laser for example. Modern technology is not escaping to that. Trust me, we will soon see emerging behaviour from software which will not be explained.

    In relation to that, I wrote a paper recently on Symbolic Regression and I quoted "the equations inferred by the algorithms can be based on a theoretical basis still to be discovered. Engineers will have to figure what the equation means, we are back to the Greek Delphi’s Oracle". We will "create" equations without being able to explain them. Actually in my paper, the software Eureqa was able to infere a relation between density, natural rock radioactivity and sound propagation time in a rock. This equation was a development, unknown from the software, of an existing equation called AGIP-Bellotti equation. It was a surprise to me, interesting as it was increasing the accuracy of the calculation. The science at the back of this equation can still be explain a-posteriori but this is, philosophically, very interesting. Another example is the design of the complex system with the sole help of computer technology. Technology will be based more and more on black box modeling. I think data mining and articial intelligence are going to generate a lot of technology which will need to be explained (or not) by science.
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    I suspect you may have a slightly incorrect view of what science actually is.
    You do not need to understand fully what you are doing to practise good science. Science is a voyage of discovery, and you begin with ignorance, and mostly end still largely ignorant, though with a few kernels of knowledge unearthed in the process.

    The most basic principle in science is empiricism. That is : to use real world experiment and observation as the basis of your scientific ideas. So understanding why silver compounds darkened under light was not needed for the study thereof to be science. Scientists often have to study and gather a lot of data before suitable explanatory hypotheses can be formed.

    Nuclear fuels exist in nature, but had to be discovered and purified by scientists, before technology could use them.
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    It would not be impossible to arrive at those technologies using superstition, however. A lot of very useful herbs were known before the age of reason, and employed to heal wounds by tribal medicine men. There is some reality to acupuncture, even though most of the theory behind it is bunk. Trial and error over a sufficiently long period of time has produced some good processes.

    What if the great god Ungbunga said to mix silver with a few other chemicals, lay it out on a plate, and allow light to fall on it through a tiny aperture? If it then happens to create an image, and the process is repeated to make more images, all for the glory of the mighty Ungabunga, does that still count as science?
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    No!
    Ungabunga is not science.

    Of course, it is possible to discover things without science. Simple observation will do it. Trial and error will do it. These processes are not science, since they do not use the scientific method. However, they are limited in usefulness, as witness how little of value was discovered from the fall of the Roman Empire to Galileo - about 1500 years.

    Herbs are not such a good example. Even today, with the benefit of science, most of the products offered by herbalists do not work. Only a small percentage have any value. Of course, those few may well be used as the basis for even better therapies. Aspirin is not willow bark. It is much better than willow bark. But its first derivation was from willowbark. Similar processes led to digitalis, and to arteminisin, and to taxol. But most herbs are, in fact, useless, or even harmful.
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    I think we are talking about 2 different things: experimental method which is one of the method applied in modern science and science. Experimental method is NOT science and science is NOT experimental method. This should be very clear.

    Skeptic, I do know what science is, as well as technology. I understand your point of view which, at the end, might not be so far from mine. About nuclear fuel, for the third time, look at Oklo example. It was a natural nuclear reactor.

    Modern days technology is using experimental method, I agree with you. Recent studies found that children are also using experimental method in their game, trial and error. It seems this is like hard wired in our brain, modifiying one parameter, see how it will change and iterate.
    Present science is based also on experimental method but it is NOT experimental method. Using software like Eureqa, present science can move beyond experimental method i.e. modified multiple parameters for example in complex experiments where all parameters are interlinked.
    The technology of past time has often been discovered on wrong assumptions (as kojax stated it) and on other methodologies than experimental method (in fact sometimes no methodology at all). Technology was often attached to secret societies, blacksmiths for example in West Africa, Compagnons for the building of cathedral in the European Middle Age. For that reason, some knowledge of past technologies might be lost.
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    Several ancient natural nuclear reactors have been discovered in the geological record. However, these discoveries are recent, and nuclear power was in use for decades before the first such discovery was made. Nuclear power is technology, but it is based on the discoveries of scientists.

    Old technologies are not based on science, except occasionally, by accident. Science is the study of everything using the scientific method. Since the scientific method has been systematised only for the past 500 years, anything previous is probably technology from a different process. An example might be the ancient Roman use of concrete. I suspect this was discovered by accident. The point I am making, though, is that the best means of developing technology is to base it on previously discovered scientific principles.
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    I think their is a lot of ancient knowledge that is being overlooked. It may not directly deal with the specifics of this post but in a way it does. Ancient egyptions and other ancient civilizations built structures that we can't even build today. Things so intricate we have no technology that can duplicate it today... Still! In paru the city puma-punku i believe that's how it's spelled had buildings constructed out of blocks 2x -5x bigger then the blocks use on the pyramids. With carvings in rock so precise that literally the best stone masons in the world couldn't reproduce in one lifetime... Don't believe me watch the show ancient aliens on discovery and Netflix, ignore the alien talk but listen to the facts. To say the technology of the ancients was wrong kind of sells them short. They had model planes fighter jets and things that fly. On their own with no help literally the exact artifact flies! The ancient mysteries are a lot to handle even for the best minds in the world today..Also sorry for grammar spelling errors my cellphones on the Frits tonight!
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic View Post
    No!
    Ungabunga is not science.

    Of course, it is possible to discover things without science. Simple observation will do it. Trial and error will do it. These processes are not science, since they do not use the scientific method. However, they are limited in usefulness, as witness how little of value was discovered from the fall of the Roman Empire to Galileo - about 1500 years.
    One problem with having a rigid church institution which lays exclusive claim to all things mystical. You don't get a lot of mystics running around and trying out random herbs on people. Everything "magic" had better be able to trace its origin somehow to the one true god, or the practitioner is apt to be accused of witchcraft.

    I think perhaps the Catholic Church almost did science a service, by making its monks/priests all into one community, and making them the only ones permitted to come up with new ideas in that way (the mystical or semi-mystical way). Their careers in the organization would quickly come to an end if they weren't careful to make correct claims and brought embarrassment on the church. Other monks/priests would be glad to fill your role if you screwed up and fell from grace. So that would at least be the start of peer review, if nothing else.

    Herbs are not such a good example. Even today, with the benefit of science, most of the products offered by herbalists do not work. Only a small percentage have any value. Of course, those few may well be used as the basis for even better therapies. Aspirin is not willow bark. It is much better than willow bark. But its first derivation was from willowbark. Similar processes led to digitalis, and to arteminisin, and to taxol. But most herbs are, in fact, useless, or even harmful.
    Certainly their cures weren't always genuine, because the holistic medicine aspect was present. People simply thinking they would get better and therefore getting better would lead to a lot of false positives. However, they also discovered some decent poisons.
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    But, most recent technology are based on accidental discovery (radioactivity, semi conductor, antibiotics...) and, although the practical application was seen quickly, the theory was discovered much later. No much difference with alchemy or shaman herb treatment! The time scale is just not the same. I do agree that a small amount of our technology is developed based on a scientific research but mostly science helps to explain how technology works. The "scientific " method is rather a set of mental process. Experimental method is one of them. Other methods will come or are already marginally used.
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    The difference is testing. In modern science, everything important is tested and retested. In quack medicine, a person can just say : "Oh, I have found a wonderful new herb. Gimme $100 and I will cure you."

    In modern science, this is not accepted. Instead, the claim is tested and retested, and demonstrated to be real or fake. Of course, there are still a lot of quacks in society who push spurious remedies. In a free society, it is not easy to control those charlatons.
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    That's definitely true in medicine, but that may be more because of our laws than science. Nobody wants to risk taking something dangerous into their bodies, so medical treatments have to be tested, retested, then tested again before they see any application on a human being.

    Our ancestors didn't decide to start using bows and arrows because the village genius had worked out a bunch of equations and concluded that a small projectile launched by a spring mechanism would have more kinetic energy than a larger thrown spear. It was just trial and error. Sailing ships didn't have to wait for someone to map out the rules of fluid dynamics. Animal husbandry didn't have to wait for Darwin.
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    I did say modern science.
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    Perhaps we need a loose definition of the Scientific Process? The medicine man in any given ancient tribe had a reputation to uphold, not unlike the reputation a modern doctor or scientist has to uphold (though certainly the medicine man's reputation was a less rigid constraint for him.) Until militant monotheism arrived, religious leaders had to be right a reasonable fraction of the time or the people would go follow some other pantheon of gods. Cultures like the ancient Egyptian dynasties fell apart over things like sustained droughts that were supposed to be impossible with their deified pharaohs watching over them.

    At any point in this process, a valuable technology could be discovered, utilized, and then lost. Certainly some good engineering principles went into the design of the Pyramids. The Greek Antikythera machine was probably built to predict the motion of the stars for a religious purpose. I've read some books that suggest the idea of an "enchanted" sword came from the practice of iron workers chanting during certain parts of the metal working process, which served as a timer, because the chant always took a certain fixed amount of time to finish saying.

    Antikythera mechanism - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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    Sometimes we lost technology simply because folks couldn't envision a practical use. The first steam engine from the 1st century CE for example.
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    In terms of the difference between circular and elliptical orbits, both Ptolemy and Copernicus were wrong. But Copernicus was much closer to the truth than Ptolemy.
    But Ptolemy was much closer to the observed empirical reality - until better mathematics and analysis on one hand, and the telescope on the other.

    Which brings us to the observation that mathematics is neither science nor technology - there's a third oar in the water, at least.

    And noticing the importance and contribution of art, music, and poetry to the development of communities advancing in science (the evidence is less clear in technology), we have potentially a fourth oar.
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  34. #33  
    Forum Ph.D.
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    Indeed, dotcomrade, the line between pseudoscience and "real" science can be blurry in historical terms. For example, elemental phosphorous was first isolated from urine because of that fluid's golden hue by alchemists trying to derive gold from this source. Nice thread, thanks to all...
    The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding go out to meet it.- Thucydides
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  35. #34  
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    On Beyond 2000, many moons ago, they showed an egg that was coated in a thin film of a new elastic material. They dropped it from two (or something to that effect) stories in the air onto a hard surface and it bounced without breaking. But, the formula for the coating was discovered by accident and they lost the formula!
    Disclaimer: I do not declare myself to be an expert on ANY subject. If I state something as fact that is obviously wrong, please don't hesitate to correct me. I welcome such corrections in an attempt to be as truthful and accurate as possible.

    "Gullibility kills" - Carl Sagan
    "All people know the same truth. Our lives consist of how we chose to distort it." - Harry Block
    "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." - Aristotle
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  36. #35  
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    yup I agree
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