Lecture 12: The Scientific Revolution, 1642-1730
If I have seen further it is because I have stood on ye shoulders of giants.
---Isaac Newton to Robert Hooke (1676)
---Richard Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (1980)
We can't imagine that the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries took place in a vacuum. That is, we can't assume that modern science simply came to be in a momentary flash of brilliance, nor that Copernicus or Kepler or Galileo just woke up one morning and pronounced their discoveries to a world which became somehow instantaneously different. Past historians have looked at the history of modern science from precisely this point of view. Like the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution has been interpreted as explosive, a surge forward, a watershed. On this score, John Herman Randall once remarked that:
The scientists of the seventeenth century -- those mathematicians, astronomers, and philosophers -- had the enormous weight of centuries of thought resting on their shoulders. Even Isaac Newton was aware of the debt he owed to the past. Although this tradition was based largely on the work of Aristotle, St. Augustine, Aquinas and Dante, the scientific revolutionaries sought to break free from these traditional beliefs. They had to forge a new identity. The scientific revolutionaries needed to transcend Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Ptolemy or Aquinas -- this was their conscious decision. They not only criticized but replaced the medieval world view with their own. And this quest for identity would culminate in a world view that was scientific, mathematical, methodological and mechanical.
However, this revolution was accomplished by utilizing the medieval roots of science which, in turn, meant the science of the classical age of Greece and Rome as well as the refinements to that science made by Islamic scholars. They used what they found at hand to create a new outlook on the cosmos, the natural world and ultimately, the world of man. The antecedents to this revolution in thought are found in the 11th and 12th centuries when most of the ideas of the ancient Greek philosophers were wed together into a new body of beliefs. These beliefs were living and vital. We encounter them in the 12th century Renaissance. We find them at the school of Chartres in the mid-12th century, or at the medical school at Salerno near Naples in 1060. At Toledo in Spain, 92 Arabic works had been translated along with Ptolemy in 1175. By the 12th century, Arabic science and mathematics had found its way to Oxford in England and to Padua in Italy. From the early 12th century, then, there existed in Europe a continuous tradition of scientific endeavor. And although this science was temporarily overshadowed by the intellectual bulk of Aristotle in the mid-13th century, this tradition was living in the 15th and 16th centuries and well into the 17th. (See my Lectures on Ancient and Medieval European History, especially Lectures 23-28.)
This was the background and education of the scientific revolutionaries. We must see their discoveries as shaped and formed by this core of accepted ideas and not just spinning out of empty space. The revolution in science did not occur quickly. It developed over time. Although the medieval Church earned absolute power, authority and obedience, science and scientific thinking did flourish during the five centuries preceding that watershed we call the Scientific Revolution.
By the 17th century, science, scientific thinking and the experimental method had become the territory of more men, and by the mid-18th century, increasing numbers of women would be included as well. For instance, in 1649 René Descartes yielded, after much hesitation, to the requests of Queen Christina of Sweden that he join the distinguished circle she was assembling in Stockholm and personally instruct her in philosophy.
The New Science spread rapidly through education in universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Bologna, Padua and Paris. Science was also diffused to a large audience through books. Each time a Galileo, Descartes, or Newton published their findings, a wave of replies followed. And each of these replies was followed by other replies so that what quickly resulted was an ever growing body of scientific literature. And, of course, there was at the same time, an increasing number of men and women who were eager for such knowledge.
By the end of the 17th century, new societies and academies devoted to science were founded. There were many who agreed with Francis Bacon (1561-1626) that scientific work ought to be a collective enterprise, pursued cooperatively by all its practitioners. Information should be exchanged so that scientists could concentrate on different parts of a project rather than waste time in duplicate research. Although it was not the first such academy, the Royal Society in England was perhaps the first permanent organization dedicated to scientific activity. The Royal Society was founded at Oxford during the English Civil War when revolutionaries captured the city and replaced many teachers at the university. A few of these revolutionaries formed the Invisible College, a group that met to exchange information and ideas. What was most important was the organization itself, not its results: the group only included one scientist, Robert Boyle (1627-1691). In 1660, twelve members, including Boyle and Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), formed an official organization, the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. In 1662, the Society was granted its charter by Charles II.
The purpose of the Royal Society was Baconian to the core. Its aim was to gather all knowledge about nature, particularly that knowledge which might be useful for the public good. Soon it became clear, however, that the Society's principal function was to serve as a clearing center for research. The Society maintained correspondence and encouraged foreign scholars to submit their discoveries to the Society. In 1665 the Society launched its Philosophical Transactions, the first professional scientific journal. The English example was followed on the continent as well: in 1666 Louis XIV accepted the founding of the French Royal Academy of Sciences and by 1700, similar organizations were established in Naples and Berlin.
The New Science was also diffused by public demonstrations. This was especially the case in public anatomy lessons. Scientist and layman alike were invited to witness the dissection of human cadavers. The body of a criminal would be brought to the lecture hall and the surgeon would dissect the body, announcing and displaying organs as they were removed from the body.
Throughout major European cities there were wealthy men who, with lots of free time on their hands, would dabble in science. These were the virtuosi -- the amateur scientists. These men oftentimes made original contributions to scientific endeavor. They also supplied organizations like the Royal Society with needed funds.
By 1700, science had become an issue of public discourse. The bottom line, I suppose, was that science worked! It was wonderful, miraculous and spectacular. For the 17th century scientist -- a Galileo, a Newton or the virtuosi -- science produced the Baconian vision that anything was indeed possible. Science itself gave an immense boost to the general European belief in human progress, a belief perhaps initiated by the general awakening of European thought in the 12th century.
It was the achievement of men like Copernicus and Galileo to sift through centuries of scientific knowledge and to create a new world view. This was a world view based as much on previous science and knowledge as it was on new developments derived from the scientific method.
The greatest scientific achievement of the 17th century was clearly the mathematical system of the universe produced by ISAAC NEWTON (1642-1727). It was Newton who went far beyond Galileo by taking observations of the heavens and turning them into measured and irrefutable fact. Thanks to Newton, the western intellectual tradition would now include a concrete and scientific explanation of the motion of the heavens. Because of his greatness, the 17th century could almost be called the Age of Newton.
Newton was in his own lifetime not regarded as a genius by his contemporaries. His fellow scientists respected him and admired him but they also disliked him. The reason is clear -- Newton was not a happy man. He was dour, sour and made absolutely no attempt to befriend anyone. Whenever someone happened to get too close to him, he retired to his study. His thoroughgoing Puritanism meant that he constantly subjected himself to self-examination.
Isaac Newton was born premature on Christmas Day, 1642, the year of Galileo's death. His family belonged to the gentry. He was educated at Cambridge and was also a member and president of the Royal Society. Although the Society was responsible for the publication of his major writings, his relationships with its members was strained. In the 25-30 years that Newton was a member he attended its meetings only a handful of times. In terms of religion he accepted the Church of England only partially. Over time, he came to see the Bible more as an allegory than as undisputed fact.
He was an unlikable man -- a solitary genius. He worked in short bursts of energy and was always hesitant to publish his findings. He had to be coaxed and encouraged to make those simplifications necessary to communicate a considerable body of thought. He quarreled violently with those men (e.g., Robert Hooke, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and John Flamstead) who questioned his priority and superiority in fields he dominated.
Modern biographers have pretty much agreed that Newton -- our "sober, silent, thinking lad" -- suffered a troubled childhood. His father died in early October 1642, a month before Isaac was born. For the first three years of his life he was sent out to a wet nurse and then lived with his grandmother. During this time his mother remarried, an act that did much to alienate Newton from his mother. As a child, Newton was never shown much love or affection. This may explain why he was always so isolated, detached and unemotional.
Between 1660 and 1690, Newton devoted himself to an academic life at Cambridge. As the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics he was expected to lecture on a weekly basis, lectures which he frequently delivered to empty classrooms. He embraced a number of academic interests but the ones which interested him most were alchemy, theology, optics and mathematics. No field of study took precedence over another and he so he devoted as much of his energy and intellect to alchemy as he did to theology and mathematics.
Like most scholars of the period, Newton had an amanuensis, a young student named Humphrey Newton, who served him as an assistant who provided Newton with meals as well as transcriptions of his lecture notes. Newton was an absent-minded man. Stories of Newton's behavior are, of course, well known. Newton was a deliberate thinker, always hesitant to publish, always hesitant to move too quickly. A call to dinner might have taken Newton an hour to act upon. If, on his way to sup, his fancy was struck by some book lying on the table, the meal would simply have to wait. He ate poorly, slept irregularly and for the most part found the outside world a terrible irritant from which he needed to escape. As Humphrey Newton once wrote:
In 1687, Newton finished his greatest work, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), the last "great" work in the western intellectual tradition to be published in Latin. It was this work, commonly called the Principia, which secured Newton's place as one of the greatest thinkers in the intellectual history of Europe. The PRINCIPIA is a dense work, but not totally incomprehensible. He wanted to explain why the planets were held in their orbits -- he wanted to know why an apple fell to the earth. His answer was, of course, gravity. Newton not only described the laws which explained gravity, he also invented the calculus to explain the laws of gravity.
Even for those people who could not understand Newtonian physics or mathematics, Newton had an amazing impact, since he had offered irrefutable proof -- mathematical proof -- that Nature had order and meaning, an order and meaning that was not based on faith but on human Reason. With Newton, we find the important combination of two important concepts -- Nature and Reason. His scientific discoveries and his spirit (together with the ideas of Francis Bacon and John Locke) dominated the thought of the 18th century -- a century the thinkers of the period itself called the Age of Enlightenment.
On March 20, 1727, Newton died and was buried at Westminster Abbey. The English poet, Alexander Pope (1688-1744), who was then busy translating Homer's Iliad, composed an epitaph for Newton. It was short and precise and illustrates the importance of this solitary genius. Pope wrote:
How can it be that a poet who was then translating Homer, should come to write Newton's epitaph? Was Pope also a mathematician? Hardly. The point is that Pope knew that Newton had discovered something which would in the 18th century become universally applicable to the new science of man. If man, using his Reason, could deduce the laws of Nature, then it seemed only a short step to apply those laws to man and society. Is it any accident that the modern social sciences were founded in the 18th century and in the wake of Newton's achievement?
The Scientific Revolution gave the western world the impression that the human mind was progressing toward some ultimate end. Thanks to the culminating work of Newton, the western intellectual tradition now included a firm believe in the idea of human progress, that is, that man's history could be identified as the progressive unfolding of man's capacity for perfectibility. From this point on, man the believer was now joined by man the knower. It was man's destiny to both know the world, and create that world.
But, the Scientific Revolution also showed man to be merely a small part of a larger divine plan. Man no longer found himself at the center of the universe -- he was now simply a small part of a much greater whole. The French thinker BLAISE PASCAL (1623-1662), gave perhaps the greatest expression to the uncertainties generated by the Scientific Revolution when, in his Pensées, he wrote:
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