Science: Spain and America in the 16th Century


Contrary to popular beliefs, the idea of a round, spherical earth was common knowledge to the educated people of Europe prior to the 're-discovery' of America. Aristotelian doctrine, for example, considered the earth to be a solid sphere, all covered by water except in the parts which constitute the continents. This information, however, was more of a hypothesis, to be discussed among erudites, than common knowledge.

The European colonization of America had major consequences for Western ethos: it liberated the popular mind from the world view of Ecumene, an early medieval concept in which the world is seen as a disk floating on the waters, and it shifted the focus of investigation into the realm of the 'how' rather than the 'why' of natural phenomena. This in turn had the effect of reducing the scientific observation of the behavior of nature into precise quantitative relationships that are numerical and reliable.

An example that illustrates this point is the one of Christopher Columbus discovery of the magnetism of the earth's pole. On September 13, 1492, the Admiral made an observation which added his name to the list of illustrious scientists. As his ship navigated two and a half degrees east of the island of Corvo, the Admiral noticed that the magnetic declination of the needle in his compass changed from northeast to northwest.

It can be argued that discovery of the magnetic declination and its variation relative to longitude signaled the beginnings of scientific law as a phenomenological andquantitative concept. This is because, as a function of the global coordinates, the deviation of the needle is more than a mysterious quality, it is of a determined magnitude and can be measured in any place of the globe.

In the early Sixteen Century, the scientific disciplines could be divided into two major categories that comprised the theoretical and the practical. These categories were Mathematics, Cosmography, Geography and Natural History, versus the practical tasks of Agriculture, Engineering, Mining, Navigation and the Military Arts.

As the century progressed, the objective of creating and maintaining trade and commerce on a worldwide basis, put an emphasis on the practice of navigation so that the activities of mathematicians, cosmographers and astronomers became tailored to fulfill a growing demand for knowledge that could be applied to this practice.