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Peter A. Rinck:
Research and Science: From Individuals to Societies –
Alexander von Humboldt in Spain.


© 2019 by Peter A. Rinck

Peter A. Rinck
Research and Science:
From Individuals to Societies –
Alexander von Humboldt in Spain

ifferent countries vary not only in their na­tio­na­li­ties, their po­pu­la­tion, their cul­tu­res and attitudes, but also in their languages and in the understanding of terms and terminologies. Let's look at one example in medicine.

Semiology or semiotics deal with signs or sign language; they are closely related to the field of linguistics – for instance in the English-influenced regions of the world and also in German-speaking countries. Yet, in French and Spanish one talks about sémiologie or semiología, meaning the study of medical signs and symptoms.

"La semiología constituye el pilar fundamental de la medicina clínica. Es un arte y una ciencia. – Semiology is the corner stone of clinical medicine. It is an art and a science."

In English or German this term would be "symptomatology" – although, perhaps, there is no straight and comprehensive translation, no all-embracing rendering of the term from one language to the other. Its sense is slightly different.

Let's keep this example in mind; we will come back to "semiologia" later.


Figure 1:

Vincent van Gogh: Diligence in Southern France


Alexander von Humboldt and Spain. In the late autumn of 1798, two travelers set off from southern France on a carosse de diligence, a stagecoach, crossed Catalonia and the kingdom of Valencia, and reached Madrid – after six weeks of travel and research. The two men were Alexander von Humboldt and his French companion, Aimé Bonpland.

Humboldt's journey to the Iberian Peninsula and the Canary Islands was the first leg of his famous voyage to the Americas. In Spain he tried out new scientific instruments, developed for measurements and applications, in what one could call the ‘hi-tech’ sciences of that epoch: climatology, astronomy, geology, mineralogy, botany and zoology, which depended on observation, description, comparison, and recording.

With his measurements in Spain he broke new ground and provided significant scientific research results, mainly geographical, for and about Spain. He was one of the first to establish the latitude and longitude of Madrid and other major towns such as Aranjuez, – and he detected that most of Spain is a high plateau:

"From the few observations I personally made, the interior of Spain forms a vast plain, elevated about six hundred meters above the level of the ocean."


Figure 2:

Alexander von Humboldt: Cosmos


What are Science and Scientists? Humboldt's final masterpiece was Cosmos, a monumental scientific project. The first volume appeared in 1845, when he was 76. Additional volumes came out every few years. Volume five was half finished at his death in 1859. “Cosmos” was a unification of all natural and human phenomena backed up by detailed factual observations.

Science is knowledge of the world of nature – the concerted human effort to understand, or to understand better, the history of the natural world and how it behaves and functions, with observable physical evidence as the basis of that understanding. It is done through observation of natural phenomena and through experimentation that tries to simulate natural processes under controlled conditions.

In any talk with a historical background, one usually mentions that already the ancient Greeks, Romans, or Egyptians did or had the concept or achievement that the talk covers … but not science. Research is as old as mankind: gathering of data, information, and facts. Science, however, – contrary to the Latin word "scientia" – did not originate in ancient times, but developed in its mature form only a few centuries ago. The Latin word "scientia" is the root of the French or English word "science", but "scientia" means "knowledge". Science and scientia are two completely different terms. By the way, the Oxford English Dictionary dates the origin of the word "scientist" to 1834.

The "Scientific Method". Many historians suggest that modern science began around 1600 in the time and with the efforts of, for instance, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Francis Bacon. Their era punctuated the change from scholasticism of the Middle Ages and Renaissance to science as we know it. Scholasticism largely involved deductive reasoning from principles supplied by Aristotle and the Bible.

Modern science instead involves induction from multiple observations of nature, and so works from basic observation or experiment to generalization. Francis Bacon and René Descartes helped to define science and establish the “scientific method”:

"A method or procedure that consists in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses”.

Already in the early 19th century, the scientific disciplines were becoming well defined and increasingly separated in their methods and philosophies. Humboldt attempted to unite all manner of natural phenomena to understand the heaven and earth, the whole universe. Few others have attempted such a grand undertaking. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, scientific disciplines increasingly subdivided into ever smaller and more specialized fragments.

Nowadays we distinguish the following groups of sciences:

spaceholder khaki   Natural sciences, (the "true" or "hard" sciences) – the study of the natural world: astronomy, earth sciences, biology, chemistry, physics;
spaceholder khaki   Social sciences, (the "soft" sciences) – the systematic study of human behavior and society: sociology, psychology, anthropology, political sciences and economics;
spaceholder khaki   and the Humanities and Liberal Sciences, those branches of knowledge that are concerned with human thought and culture: philosophy, mathematics, history, literature, and art.


Figure 3:

The Academy of Sciences in Madrid.


Scientific Societies. From early on, scholars associated themselves. The Renaissance produced scientific-artistic ateliers which basically were workshops, as those of Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, or the anatomist Andreas Vesalius. The earliest formal academy of science, the Accademia Secretorum Naturae was founded in Naples in 1560. "Candidates for membership had to present a new fact in natural science as a condition of membership." The academy survived for only 18 years; it was closed down by the Pope. However, new academies were founded in Rome and Florence.

Similar institutions sprung up in many European countries, among them in Spain. The forerunner of the modern Royal Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Mathematics, was created in Madrid in 1582, during the reign of Philip II. It evolved from the environment of cooperation among cosmographers, architects and civil engineers that served the monarch. It’s motto is "Observación y cálculo".

The prototype of the modern scientific societies came to life in England around 1645; it was formally incorporated in 1662 as "The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge", which today sees its roles as independent scientific academy, learned society and funding body. Fellows are elected solely on the merit of their scientific work.


Figure 4:

Science is not ciencia.


In France, the corresponding organization, the Académie des Sciences, was founded in 1666. However, in contrast to the scientifique, científico, or wissenschaftlich character of the continental European academies, those in England and the United States were scientific in the stricter sense of the word, that is, usually limited to the natural sciences, the hard sciences, and excluding the social sciences and humanities.

This closes the circle we opened at the beginning – as semiology has different meanings in different countries and languages, so has science.

Science today even more so, because pride and vanity, money and power – both political and individual – play a major role when it concerns science. Everybody wants to be a great scientist, not only a simple researcher.

Medicine always stood outside the scientific societies, at the edge of science, being more art and craft, with the sciences contributing to it. Taking radiology as an example, Röntgen, a physicist, discovered x-rays in 1895, but he left the field in the year 1900. Lauterbur invented magnetic resonance imaging and many of its applications, but he never personally used the method in medicine. He was a chemist. Röntgen and Lauterbur developed the ideas, engineers turned them into routine technologies. Medical doctors – among them radiologists – use them. Using x-rays or magnetic resonance imaging doesn't turn the user into a scientist.


Figure 5:

Scientists and mentors Humboldt met in Spain.


Science in Spain in the 18th and 19th Centuries Alexander von Humboldt was the foremost natural scientist of the early 19th century. His accomplishments inspired many others to explore and discover the natural world.

In Spain he met numerous of the outstanding Spanish scientists of the time, among them Baron Philip de Forell. He was a distinguished mineralogist who introduced Humboldt to the Royal Cabinet of Natural History. The director of the Royal Cabinet of Natural History, Jose Clavijo y Fajardo, had engaged Juan Guillermo and Enrique Thalacker, two Germans, and also promoted Christian Herrgen to Professor in Mineralogy in Madrid.

Together with the botanist Cavanilled and the chemists Louis Proust and Domingo Garcia Fernandez, Herrgen was about to publish the first Spanish scientific journal, the "Anales de Historia Natural". Humboldt also spent time with the director of the Royal Botanical Garden, Gomez Ortega; with Juan Bautista Muñoz, who organized the General Archives of the Indies and prepared his History of the New World; Jose Chaix, an astronomer who had worked with Delambre and Mechain in the measurements of the meridian arc in Spain; as well as navigators at the Hydrographic Archives of Madrid, where the most important nautical charts of those times were produced.

However, in a letter the mineralogist Herrgen described the state of science in Spain as a "dilapided manor house of sleepy ignorance":

"En una palabra, no puede Vd. Hacerse fácilmente una idea de este desdichado país. Las inmensas sumas, que España ha empleado desde siempre para la recepción de las ciencias, todavía no han sido aplicadas en ninguna parte y, hasta la fecha, casi no se ha dado un paso adelante. Falta una dirección inteligente y faltan conocimientos en las cabezas de los que llevan este asunto en sus manos."

The scientific circles of Spain were perhaps illustrious, but separated from mainstream science in Europe. The man who finally put Spain on the international stage of science was Santiago Ramón y Cajal, an exceptional scientist and medical doctor – nearly a century later.


Figure 6:

Santiago Ramón y Cajal.


Santiago Ramón y Cajal was born on 1 May 1852, at Petilla de Aragón, a small village in Navarra in Northern Spain. His father was a barber-surgeon who some years afterwards acquired a medical degree – by hard work and considerable sacrifice. He later became professor of Applied Anatomy in the University of Saragossa, persuaded his son to study medicine, which he did, chiefly under the direction of his father.

At the age of twenty-five Ramón y Cajal obtained the degree of Doctor of Medicine at Madrid. In 1883 he was appointed to the chair of anatomy at Valencia, having in the meanwhile made himself, virtually without aid, a highly competent microscopist and histologist. He had also, while convalescing from tuberculosis, become a skilled photographer. In 1887 Ramón y Cajal was appointed to the chair of histology at Barcelona and, in 1892, to the chair of histology and pathological anatomy at Madrid, which he held until his retirement in 1922.

Cajal is also the author of Reglas y Consejos sobre Investigacion Cientifica (Rules and advices on scientific investigation), which appeared in six Spanish editions and was translated into German and English. It's a manual of scientific work and publishing, worthwhile reading today.


Figure 7:

One of the many plates by Santiago Ramón y Cajal.


Santiago Ramón y Cajal was the foremost pioneer of research on the nervous system. He demonstrated the two fundamental concepts necessary to understand the function of the nervous system: the neuron theory and the law of polarity of neurons: that neurons are contiguous and that nerve impulses travel from the dendrites and soma to the nerve endings.

As a lot of ingenious scientists, he was self-taught in many areas. He was a pioneer in the truest sense of the word, especially in light of the technical resources of the day, and his scientific production was enormous.

In 1906 he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Camillo Golgi. He received the Prize for his contributions to the study of the nervous system and for his demonstration of the individuality of neurons. The picture of Ramón y Cajal that emerges from his own writings is full and candid. He was interested in things rather than people, dedicated to neurohistology to the point of obsession. He appears as proud, ashamed of his country’s administrative inefficiency, corruption, and scientific backwardness. He was ambivalent in that he recognized the need to publish in one of the major scientific languages of Europe, but resented foreign ignorance of the language of Cervantes. He was intensely patriotic and determined that Spain should have a place on the scientific and intellectual stage.

He succeeded.

The place of medicine among the sciences. And what about Medicine?

Medicine is not a science – it's sometimes described as an applied science, sometimes as an art or a craft. By the way, the medical Nobel Prize is called “The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.” Physiology is a science.

However, a physician can be a scientist; or, valid in my medical environment: radiology is not a science, but a scientist can also be a radiologist.

Science today is becoming increasingly complex and diverse – which becomes visible in diagnostic imaging applications. Here the knowledge of physicians can be integrated into overlapping scientific disciplines.

The progress of science is supported by a general attitude in a country's society. Excellence in science cannot flourish overnight by orders of the government, but usually is a single man's – or woman's, to be politically correct – achievement.

However, often great scientists are not politically correct; many of them have very strong personalities. As long as they are protected by a society or by a king, for instance, they flourish.

This was the case with Ramón y Cajal. After formal retirement he remained director of the institute which the government had erected and named for him; he also continued to work with the tirelessness and patience which had characterized his adult life.

Today, 65% of the scientific production in Spain takes place in public universities. According to “La Universidad Española en Cifras (2010)”, four regional university subsystems are the main contributors: Madrid, Catalonia, Andalusia, and Valencia.

This is a quantitative description of science and technological development in Spain, but it also means quality. Spain today contributes 3.4% of the worldwide scientific and technological output and Spanish universities are among the top 1% of universities in the world.


Figure 8:

Science widens again.


Let's not forget one important statement by Alexander von Humboldt:

"In every age, small-minded people take great pleasure in believing that humanity has reached the culminating point of intellectual progress; they forget that, because of the intimate concatenation of all natural phenomena, the field one has to cross gains size as one advances, that it is surrounded by a horizon that backs away incessantly from the researcher."

Only in the late 20th century, with the advent and tools of space exploration, has science again moved toward a holistic understanding of the complexity of the Earth's environmental system. A new interdisciplinary approach has emerged. Both Alexander von Humboldt and Santiago Ramón y Cajal would have been pleased.

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Research and Science: From Individuals to Societies –
Alexander von Humboldt in Spain


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