Scientific revolution

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Generally speaking, the phrase scientific revolution refers to a period in the middle of the second millennium CE (roughly, from the late 16th century to the early 18th century), when great advances were made in the basic natural sciences. The term is also sometimes loosely used to describe any great discovery or paradigm shift in the fields of natural science, à la Thomas Kuhn. The term was coined by Alexandre Koyre in 1943.[1]

Many well-known giants of science date from this period, including Newton (of apple-bonking fame) and Linnaeus, that guy who invented the binomial naming convention for living critters.

Science, during this period, was referred to as "natural philosophy."

Influence and dating[edit]

The scientific revolution was largely a reaction to the reexamination by medieval European scholars of ancient Greek science and the philosophy of empiricism. Aristotle had contributed a theory of cosmology and the belief that matter was composed of five elements, Ptolemy a geocentric model of planetary motion, Galen theories of anatomy, and Plato the belief that the natural world had a soul.

Material factors[edit]

A number of factors likely contributed to the reexamination of the accepted explanations for natural phenomena.

The centralized European states funded academic societies, and wars produced a demand for technology. Widespread mercantilism (early capitalism) yielded a sense of empowerment. It led to an increase in the number of wealthy patrons that could offer support to natural philosophers. As patrons had commissioned works of art to bolster their reputations, they now began to sponsor natural philosophers en masse for the same purpose. This system of patronage also allowed natural philosophers to work outside of the university system, which often marginalized unorthodox ideas.

The invention of the printing press allowed the effective distribution of scientific discoveries.

The discovery of the Americas provided an opportunity to observe a strange new world and additionally generated an interest in navigation and astronomy. The new species of plants and animals discovered there did not fit into contemporary taxonomic systems, suggesting that they needed to be rethought entirely.

The appearance of supernovae in 1572 and 1604 CE suggested to onlookers that the Universe was not constant.

Intellectual factors[edit]

Probably the most important break with the past during the scientific revolution was the breakdown of Aristotelian natural philosophy and its Christian offspring, scholasticism. This had a number of crucial effects. The Aristotelian emphasis on teleology or "final causes" was dropped in favor of material and mechanistic explanations (i.e., "how" instead of "why"). Empiricism and experimental methods became more highly valued. Deductive logic was to be supplemented by induction. Mathematical thinking and quantitative data began to play a larger role in natural philosophy.

New explanatory schema came to fill the void left by the deconstruction of Aristotelianism. Cartesian mechanism, which viewed the physical world as being made up of tiny interacting particles called "corpuscles," became popular. This view opposed Newtonianism, which allowed for action-at-a-distance.[2]

Some religious factors were at play too. The exchange of ideas with Arabic scholars resulted in significant intellectual breakthroughs. The use of Hindu-Arabic numerals (including the number zero), introduced to Europe by Fibonacci in 1202, in place of Roman numerals enabled the efficient calculation of large and abstract mathematical problems. The idea (originating in medieval Christianity) that the world was an orderly and rational place also played into the scientific revolution. Many natural philosophers believed that they were glorifying God by uncovering the natural order he had created.[3]

Notable individuals[edit]

The following individuals, in no particular order, are notable for their efforts in organizing knowledge into rational systems around the time of the scientific revolution.

  • Leonardo da Vinci asserted, through his art, that the human experience should be the main concern of human beings. He also demonstrated that the whole universe was visible to the human eye.
  • Nicolaus Copernicus proposed a heliocentric Solar System in 1543.
  • Galileo Galilei improved the telescope and with it observed the phases of Venus, Saturn's rings (though he couldn't tell that they were rings), and sunspots. His observation of mountains on the Moon led him to believe that the Moon was composed of the same matter as was the Earth. His observation that moons orbited Jupiter led him to believe that the planets could be orbiting the Sun, the Sun moving through the galaxy, and the galaxy through the Universe and thus that the Universe was in fact much bigger than the Solar System. Additionally, Galileo derived mathematical laws for falling objects, inertia, and motion.
  • Tycho Brahe helped develop the math of planetary motion and made numerous calculations based on his observations.
  • Johannes Kepler helped develop laws of planetary motion and was the first to propose elliptical orbits for planets.
  • Isaac Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation demonstrated that the same gravity that affected objects on Earth also explained the orbits of the planets. His mathematical and mechanistic model of the Universe gave rise to classical mechanics, the view that the physical world functioned predictably like a machine. Classical mechanics held that the Universe could be manipulated, controllable, and improved and its tenets were eventually applied to other fields of science and social studies. Additionally, Newton founded the field of infinitesimal calculus and described the composition of light.
  • Francis Bacon promoted experimental methodology and inductive reasoning, bases of the scientific method.
  • René Descartes promoted deductive reasoning and analytical mathematics and thereby helped to establish the scientific method.
  • Thomas Hobbes helped found the fields of philosophical anthropology and materialism.
  • John Locke articulated the concept that man was born free.
  • Blaise Pascal studied fluids, pressure and vacuum, projective geometry, probability theory, economics, and social science. He invented a mechanical calculator.
  • Robert Hooke was an inventor who studied the microscopic world and the motion of the planets.
  • Carolus Linnaeus, the "father of taxonomy", developed a morphological catalog of organisms. He, despite being a Creationist (there was no theory of evolution at the time), grouped humans with apes and other primates.
  • Antonie van Leeuwenhoek improved the microscope and with it made observations of microbiology. He was the first to view bacteria.
  • George Buffon offered descent with change as an explanation for the morphological relationships between living creatures.
  • Henry Cavendish demonstrated that water, and he believed all matter, was composed of compounds of elements and that hydrogen only burned when exposed to air.
  • Joseph Priestly demonstrated that a candle in a tube of oxygen burned enthusiastically and that fire was not an element but rather was caused by a mixture of things with a gas.
  • Antoine Lavoisier, the "father of modern chemistry" demonstrated that burning was caused by the mixing of a substance with oxygen and that diamonds were made of carbon. He proposed that living processes were chemical. He also formulated the law of conservation of mass, that the nature or state of matter changed but not the amount of the substance.
  • Otto von Guerick first generated electricity using a machine.
  • Stephen Gray demonstrated that electricity could be transmitted through metal filaments (wires).
  • Benjamin Franklin demonstrated that lightning was in fact electricity.

Affected fields[edit]

The scientific revolution resulted in the abstraction of human knowledge into separate sciences. Many fields were founded or improved during this time.

Physics benefited from the development of mathematical models of gravity, inertia, and motion. Astronomy saw the concept of heliocentrism, mathematical models of planetary orbits, and the observation that matter and gravity work the same out there as here on Earth. In biology the microscope revealed cells and microscopic organisms. Electricity saw the invention of the "Leyden jar," the first battery.

Lastly, great advances were made in medicine due to microscopic anatomy. The concept of pathology was based on the observation that the human body, disease, and recovery were natural and rational phenomena. This understanding allowed immunization as well as the use of chemicals (drugs) to treat patients. Additionally, the circulation of blood was at last understood.

London's "Royal Society" was founded in 1660 wherein members organized and conducted experiments and communicated their discoveries.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Alexandre Koyre. Galileo and the Scientific Revolution of the Seventeenth Century. The Philosophical Review Vol. 52, No. 4 (Jul., 1943), pp. 333-348
  2. Peter Dear. (2009) Revolutionizing the Sciences: European Knowledge and Its Ambitions, 1500-1700 (Second Edition) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  3. James Hannam. (2010) God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern ScienceWikipedia. London, UK: Icon Books