For most of human history, scientists haven’t been called “scientists.” From the ancient Greeks to 18th-century Enlightenment thinkers, terms such as “natural philosopher” or the (unfortunately gendered) “man of science” described those who devoted themselves to understanding the laws of the natural world. But by 1834, that pursuit had become so wide and varied that English academic William Whewell feared that science itself would become like “a great empire falling to pieces.” He decided that the field needed a simple word that could unify its disparate branches toward one goal — and the inspiration for this word came from someone who wasn’t a “man” of science at all.
Scottish mathematician and science writer Mary Somerville’s book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences is a masterwork of science communication. Published in 1834, it’s often considered the very first piece of popular science, a work that successfully described the complex scientific world for a general audience. Crucially, it also framed the pursuit of science as a connected, global effort and not as fractured professions siloed in separate “societies.” While writing a review of Somerville’s book, Whewell used his new word to describe the men and women striving for this previously unknown knowledge. Much like an “artist” can create using a variety of media, so too can a “scientist” seek to understand the world in a variety of ways.
During the Islamic Golden Age (mid-seventh to mid-13th centuries, often concentrated in Baghdad), Muslim thinkers expanded human knowledge with advancements in astronomy, engineering, music, optics, manufacturing, and (some argue) by creating the very bedrock of modern science itself, the scientific method. At its most basic, the scientific method is a framework that guides scientists toward facts by using hypotheses tested with controlled experiments. Working mostly in Cairo in the early 11th century, polymath Ibn al-Haytham used this method to produce some of his greatest breakthroughs in optics, one of which included the camera obscura (an optical device that was a forerunner of the modern camera). By the 13th century, al-Haytham’s work had been anonymously translated and found its way into the hands of Roger Bacon, an English philosopher who embraced al-Haytham’s empirical approach and formed the foundations of modern European science.