The Scientific Revolution

Science, in the modern sense of the term, came into being in the 16th and 17th cent., with the merging of the craft tradition with scientific theory and the evolution of the scientific method. The feeling of dissatisfaction with the older philosophical approach had begun much earlier and had produced other results, such as the Protestant Reformation, but the revolution in science began with the work of Copernicus, Paracelsus, Vesalius, and others in the 16th cent. and reached full flower in the 17th cent.

The Rejection of Traditional Paradigms

Copernicus broke with the traditional belief, supported by both scientists and theologians, that the earth was at the center of the universe; his work, finally published in the year of his death (1543), proposed that the earth and other planets move in circular orbits around the sun. Paracelsus rejected the older alchemical and medical theories and founded iatrochemistry, the forerunner of modern medical chemistry. Andreas Vesalius, like Paracelsus, turned away from the medical teachings of Galen and other early authorities and through his anatomical studies helped to found modern medicine and biology. The philosophical basis for the scientific revolution was expressed in the writings of Francis Bacon, who urged that the experimental method plays the key role in the development of scientific theories, and of René Descartes, who held that the universe is a mechanical system that can be described in mathematical terms. The science of mechanics was established by Galileo, Simon Stevin, and others. The astronomical system of Copernicus gained support from the accurate observations of Tycho Brahe; the modification of Johannes Kepler, who used Tycho's work to show that the planetary orbits are elliptical rather than circular; and the writings of Galileo, who based his arguments on his own mechanical theories and observations with the newly invented telescope. Other instruments were also of major importance in the discoveries of the scientific revolution. The microscope extended human knowledge of living things just as the telescope had extended human knowledge of the heavens. The mechanical clock was perfected in the late 16th cent. by Christian Huygens, who also made improvements in the telescope, and thus events, both celestial and terrestrial, could be timed with greater precision—an essential factor in the development of the exact sciences, such as mechanics. The 17th cent. also saw the discovery of the circulation of the blood by William Harvey and the founding of modern chemistry by Robert Boyle.

Improved Communication of Scientific Knowledge

Another important factor in the scientific revolution was the rise of learned societies and academies in various countries. The earliest of these were in Italy and Germany and were short-lived. More influential were the Royal Society in England (1660) and the Academy of Sciences in France (1666). The former was a private institution in London and included such scientists as Robert Hooke, John Wallis, William Brouncker, Thomas Sydenham, John Mayow, and Christopher Wren (who contributed not only to architecture but also to astronomy and anatomy); the latter, in Paris, was a government institution and included as a foreign member the Dutchman Huygens. In the 18th cent. important royal academies were established at Berlin (1700) and at St. Petersburg (1724). The societies and academies provided the principal opportunities for the publication and discussion of scientific results during and after the scientific revolution.

The Impact of Sir Isaac Newton

The greatest figure of the scientific revolution, Sir Isaac Newton, was a fellow of the Royal Society of England. To earlier discoveries in mechanics and astronomy he added many of his own and combined them in a single system for describing the workings of the universe; the system is based on the concept of gravitation and uses a new branch of mathematics, the calculus, that he invented for the purpose. All of this was set forth in his Philosophical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687), the publication of which marked the beginning of the modern period of mechanics and astronomy. Newton also discovered that white light can be separated into a spectrum of colors, and he theorized that light is composed of tiny particles, or corpuscles, whose behavior can be described by the laws of mechanics. A rival theory, holding that light is composed of waves, was proposed by Huygens about the same time. However, Newton's influence was so great and the acceptance of the mechanistic philosophy of Descartes and others so widespread that the corpuscular philosophy was the dominant one for more than a century.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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