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The Scientific Revolution marked a period of monumental change in thought, belief, and cultural and institutional organization that swept Europe between roughly 1550 and 1700. During those 150 years Western science advanced more than it had during the previous fourteen hundred years—since the Greek physician Galen’s work in anatomy and the Greek astronomer Ptolemy’s work in planetary motion.
Historians generally date the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, the period that produced the most remarkable advances made in Western science for more than a millennium, with the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) and his book De Revolutionibus (On the Revolutions) and date the ending with the English mathematician and physicist Isaac Newton (1642–1727) and his book Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy).
Before Copernicus and Newton people still saw the world through the eyes of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE). He thought that the world is composed of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. The Aristotelian world was a hierarchically structured universe where a clear distinction existed between the destructible space under the moon and eternal celestial space. Because to minds of the time Aristotelian philosophy could answer the most important cosmological (relating to the natural order of the universe) and astronomical questions, people found no compelling reason to dispute him for centuries. His natural philosophy had been accepted— with slight modifications—in the Western world by both intellectuals and the “working” class, by both pagans and Christians, for almost two thousand years.
Nevertheless, as Western thought gradually began to change during the Scientific Revolution, some scientists— a handful at first, fistfuls after a while—published works that challenged Aristotelian philosophy. According to the French historian Alexandre Koyre (1892–1964), two fundamental changes occurred during the Scientific Revolution: the previous view of the universe was destroyed, and space was geometricized. “[The founders of modern science] had to destroy one world and to replace it by another. They had to reshape the framework of our intellect itself, to restate and to reform its concepts, to evolve a new approach to Being, a new concept of knowledge, a new concept of science” (Koyre 1968, 20–21).
The world during the Scientific Revolution became an open and infinite universe without any hierarchy. It could be described using the geometry of the Greek Euclid. Celestial phenomena and earthly phenomena were now described by the same physical laws.
Furthermore, scientists were not satisfied with just describing natural phenomena but went further by studying the secrets of nature to explain how nature works. As they worked toward this goal they needed more powerful tools than purely philosophical arguments and therefore began to use mathematics and experiments.
Such a transition was not easy, its course not straight and smooth. Many times the scientists who played a major role in the transition lost their enthusiasm, had doubts, and balked. Isaac Newton, for example, had been passionately engaged in alchemy (a medieval chemical science aiming to achieve the transmutation of base metals into gold), and the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) had to summon great inner strength to transform his thinking from animism (a doctrine that the vital principle of organic development is immaterial spirit) to what we call today “mechanistic” thinking, which holds that natural processes are mechanically determined and capable of explanation by laws of physics and chemistry.
Furthermore, the Scientific Revolution was not an achievement of just a few brilliant minds who conceived and codified new theories and discoveries and made them available to a wider and more receptive audience. The academies and learned societies—such as the Royal Society of London (1692), the Academy of Sciences in Paris (1666), the St. Petersburg Academy (1729), and the Royal Academy of Sciences in Denmark (1742)—played a significant role as the institutions that legitimate such new ideas. Universities remained more conservative, continuing to support Aristotelian philosophy.
During the Scientific Revolution thinkers also began to channel knowledge into rational systems. For example, in biology the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778) devised the Linnean classification system, which catalogued all known living creatures into a system that defined their morphological (relating to form and structure) relations. In chemistry a new system of understanding chemicals and elements began when the English scientists Henry Cavendish and Joseph Priestley discovered gases during the latter half of the eighteenth century. In medicine physicians began to understand that the body is a natural system that functions predictably, like a machine. Disease is simply the breaking down of the machine. The science of pathology began, and physicians began to see disease—and recovery from disease—as a rational process.
The astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus boldly claimed that the Earth rotates on its axis daily and revolves around the sun (heliocentric) annually rather than being fixed in the center of the cosmos. Such a claim ran counter to tradition, to the authority of the ancients, and to views of both colleges and churches.
Although relevant ideas had been expressed in antiquity, for example, by the Greek Pythagorean philosopher Philolaos (flourished 475 BCE) and the Greek astronomer Aristarchus (320–250 BCE), Copernicus was the first to attempt to prove the mathematical foundations of the heliocentric system using geometry.
However, for several decades the theories of Copernicus failed to solve some important astronomical problems, such as the orbits of the planets and gravity.
The Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) was the first scientist to formulate the law of the free fall of bodies. According to this law a body that falls from a certain height without friction has constant acceleration, and the distance it covers is relevant to the square of the time that is needed. Galileo formulated this law in 1604 and made it public in 1632 in his book Dialogo sopra I due Massimi Sistemi del Mondo (Dialogues of the Two Chief Systems of the World). He described the law in detail in 1638 in his book Discorsi e Dimostrazioni Matematiche intorno a due nuove scienze attenenti alla Mecanica e I movimenti locali (Speeches and Mathematical Demonstrations around Two New Sciences Pertaining to Mechanics and Local Movements).
According to tradition Galileo proved the accuracy of the law with experiments that he performed in the Tower of Pisa, but historical evidence has not fully supported that tradition. On the contrary, he performed experiments using an inclined plane that had been constructed to minimize friction.
Furthermore, Galileo clarified the concept of inertia and expressed it in a form that was not far from the form of the law of inertia that Newton proposed later.
Galileo also was among the first scientists to use a telescope to observe the heavens. He presented one of his first telescopes to the doge (chief magistrate) of Venice, asking that Galileo’s professorship be made permanent at the University of Padua and receiving a doubling of his salary.
Galileo’s observations of the surface of the moon and the satellites of Jupiter, published in 1610 in Sidereus Nuncius (Sidereal Messenger), supported the Copernican system. Many scientists disputed these observations, however, and questioned the reliability of observations made with a telescope.
To win over such skeptics Galileo used a clever stratagem: he sent his book and a telescope to members of the nobility to gain their political support. But the Catholic Church finally forced Galileo to renounce Copernicus’s system, and tradition says that after his renunciation Galileo whispered “yet it moves.”
The astronomer Johannes Kepler published his book Mysterium Cosmographicum (The Secret of the Universe) in 1596. When he realized that his theory about the movements of the planets Mercury and Saturn was wrong he began to try to improve the accuracy of his observations. For this reason in 1600 he became an assistant to the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), who established the regular observation of stars and planets on the sky. When Brahe died in 1601 Kepler possessed a huge amount of astronomical observations. From them he finally formulated his famous three astronomical laws: (1) The orbits of the planets are ellipses, with one of their foci the sun. (2) A line joining a planet and its star sweeps out equal areas during equal intervals of time. (3) The square of the sidereal period of an orbiting planet is directly proportional to the cube of the orbit’s semimajor axis.
The first two laws were published in 1609 in Kepler’s book Astronomia Nova (New Astronomy), which shows Kepler’s transition from animistic to mechanistic thought.
Isaac Newton’s contributions to the Scientific Revolution were many and included his mechanical universe and his universal laws. His Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica was possibly the most influential scientific book ever published. It contained his laws of motion, which formed the foundation of classical mechanics, as well as his law of universal gravitation. Many scholars also credit Newton with inventing calculus.
The mechanistic concept was the mainstream of scientific thought during the seventeenth century. The concept’s most important representative was the French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes (1596–1650). He argued that matter is everywhere in the universe and proposed his vortex theory to explain the movement of celestial bodies. He believed that fine matter in the ether forms vortexes around the sun and other stars. Although science would prove Descartes’s theory inadequate, its contribution was important because eventually no one would cite supernatural powers to explain physical phenomena.
Such advances created the necessary setting for the next decisive step—the synthesis of a new view of the world. The person most prominent in creating this new view was Newton, who believed that the orbits of the planets are determined by a central force that is reduced in inverse proportion with the square of the distance.
Most people learned about Newton’s ideas indirectly by reading the books of the so-called popularizers of Newtonian physics. People have difficulty understanding Principia even today. The proofs of the various proposals and theorems follow traditional geometrical methodology, providing the necessary reliability in the framework of his contemporary scientific community.
Principia states the three basic laws of classical physics: the principle of inertia, the principle of action-reaction, and the second law of mechanics, according to which acceleration is proportional to the force acting on a body. Furthermore, Newton defines the law of universal attraction and uses it to determine the orbits of the planets. In another book, Optics (1704), Newton presents his ideas on light. This book is characterized by its persistence on experimental methodology.
The Dutch mathematician Christian Huygens (1629–1695) and the German philosopher and mathematician G. W. Leibniz (1646–1716) objected to many Newtonian propositions, but their objections did not diminish the wider acceptance of Newton’s work.
Many historians feel that the Scientific Revolution was not fully propagated until the eighteenth century. For example, that was when Dutch engineer Peter van Musschenbroek (1692–1761) and the Italian philosopher Francesco Algarotti (1712–1764) undertook the task of making Newton’s work better known. Newton’s work connected closely with the Enlightenment, which was a philosophic movement of the eighteenth century that was marked by a rejection of traditional social, religious, and political ideas and an emphasis on rationalism.
Among others the French man of letters Bernard Fontenelle (1657–1757) supported the idea that the new scientific method could be applied in politics, ethics, and sociology and that it could be used to determine human behavior in a rational way. In this setting Denis Diderot (1713–1784) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717–1783) produced their famous French encyclopedia.
By the end of the eighteenth century the main physical theories of the Scientific Revolution were spreading in countries such as Spain, Portugal, Brazil, and Greece as conservatives abandoned their resistance to the new worldview.
As a result of this transformation, during the last quarter of the eighteenth century two other revolutions took place in France. One was political, leading to publication of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789, and one was scientific, transforming chemistry from an alchemical practice into a real science. The French chemist Antoine Lavoisier (1743–1794) played a role in both revolutions, being an opponent of the first and a leader of the second.
The Scientific Revolution was crucial for the development of what we call today “Western civilization.” Its intellectual advances were the embodiment of humanity’s quest to gain a coherent grasp of nature.
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