The scientific revolution, a period in history ranging as early as 1500 and lasting until around 1700, brought about dramatic change to the world which had not been experienced before. This period was known to have seen a transformation of thinking intellectually, spiritually, and philosophically. Much unlike the renaissance period, where science was viewed more as a “hobby” interesting very small portion of the population (Backman, 2013) the scientific revolution marked a tremendous growth of faith in the scientific community. Because the Renaissance period encouraged discovery and knowledge in a way never before seen, it paved the way for an entirely new kind of revolution. In this essay I will not only address the great works of men like Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, and Bacon, but how their forward ideas brought a new age of thinking to the modern world.
Easily one the most rapidly advancing fields of study during the scientific revolution, most certainly playing a role of utmost importance to the revolution itself, were the advancements made in astronomy. A man, well known for his scientific achievements was astronomer and clergyman, Nicolaus Copernicus. Copernicus, coined by many as the father of astronomy, had devoted the latter portion of his life to his work titled Commentariolus. In Commentariolus Copernicus hypothesized that the traditional idea of astrological teachings, the Earth being the center of the universe was in fact not the case. He lists a total of nine “Assumptions” in the beginning, these nine assumptions essentially which lay out the groundwork of his thinking and explain his reasoning. While every assumption holds significant weight in reinventing people’s ideas of astronomy, the second and third are the most impactful of the nine.
“ 2. The center of the Earth is not the center of the universe, but only of gravity and of the lunar sphere.
3. All the spheres revolve around the sun as their midpoint, and therefore the sun is the center of the universe. ” (Commentariolus, 1543).
This was Copernicus’ “Heliocentric Model”, essentially stating the Earth was in fact not the center of the universe, or even the solar system, which is what the geocentric model (and more importantly scripture) asserted for generations. While we do know the sun is not the center of the universe (Copernicus himself also notes this in assumption one of Commentariolus) these hypotheses of his are now known as basic fact, facts that most children learn in grade school. However for the time, this was revolutionary. Up until this point in history “natural science” ruled, educationally as well as in the churches. While his theories put forth remarkable ideas (ideas that would soon be developed further) with strong evidence, they were just simply that, theories. Even with his reasoning and verification of that reasoning there were still few to believe him because the theories at the time were quite hard to prove. So, despite the lack of traction his ideas received during the this time, Copernicus’ Commentariolus was crucial to the development of modern day astrological thought and teachings, with this work he manage to rework the geocentric ideas into a way that paved a new path for scientific thought and theory.
With this rise of “pure science” Copernicus and his proposals were followed by other leading thinkers and astrologists. Galileo Galilei, often referred to as the father of modern science, was at the head of these ideas during the scientific revolution and most certainly was one of the revolution’s key members. Another advancement in astrology was going to be made, once again challenging natural science and the Christian mind, this time however, with more consequences. As previously mentioned, Copernicus’ theories up until this point remained mathematical theories, not proven therefore, more importantly, not interfering with scripture and the church’s teachings. However, with the invention of the telescope by Hans Lippershey in 1608, Copernicus’ theories were suddenly very easily testable, and consequently, provable. Which is exactly, what Galileo did. According to our primary source textbook, Tierney, “Galileo’s observations convinced him that Copernicus’ Heliocentric theory was true, not just as a mathematical hypothesis but as a description of actual physical reality.” (Tierney, 1984) All anyone had to do at this point, was what Galileo had decided to do. Turn a telescope to the sky to take a look and study the heavens themselves. They would then, like Galileo, find that the geocentric model and scripture were in fact, not correct. When Galileo began receiving some pushback from the church, he went on to argue, in his Letter to Grand Duchess Christina published in 1615, that “in discussions of physical problems we ought not to begin from the authority of scriptural passages, but from sense-experiences and necessary demonstrations.” (Letter to Grand Duchess Christina, 1615). By proving Copernicus’ Heliocentric model Galileo gave the scientific revolution a great surge forward. This shows that the most brilliant minds of the time were now not only beginning to question, but more importantly, disprove parts of scripture and teachings of the church making way for a whole new era of thought and education especially within the realm of science. Galileo’s and Copernicus’ work in astronomy, and more specifically with the Heliocentric model, set up the basis for modern day astronomy. What we now take for granted as basic knowledge was once the most revolutionary (and scandalous at times) ideas of its era without which there may have been no scientific revolution.
While Copernicus’ original theory, and Galileo’s investigation of said theory are of great importance to kicking off the scientific revolution, it is crucial to note the expansion of the revolution as well. For without such expansion, the revolution may have all but ceased to exist. Take for example Robert Hooke, who discovered the cellular structure of plants. Along with biology, advances in medicine were made by a William Harvey who identified the system of the human heart, veins and arteries. Advances were also made in chemistry with Robert Boyle, who expanded on the knowledge of chemical compounds and physics. While all of these advancements meant the growth and success, of an educational and scientific revolution it also meant trouble for the scientific community and its ‘order’. Thanks to Galileo and his expansion on the Heliocentric theory, science had officially removed itself from the religious world. While this meant the ability to make numerous advancements, it also meant “European science needed new standards.” (Backman, 2013) Basically, they had to start from scratch. European science would new methods and processes of their own, a new way of doing things.
Francis Bacon, an upper class English philosopher, was one of two men at the forefront of developing a new method for the scientific world. In The Great Instauration first published in 1620, Francis Bacon states, “Those however who aspire not to guess and divine, but to discover and know… must go to facts themselves for everything.” (The Great Instauration, 1620). Bacon put forth the idea that you must immerse yourself in something, in the facts, in what you are trying to figure out, if you wish to come up with new discoveries or answers to your problems. He continues on to say “For man is but the servant of nature and interpreter of nature: what he does and what he knows is only what he has observed of nature’s order in fact or in thought.” (The Great Instauration, 1620) Once again stressing the idea that man can not simply know or discover anything in nature, or anything at all for that matter, without viewing it or experiencing it for himself. Once you have immersed yourself in something, and observed it for yourself, then you will have the knowledge that you seek. René Descartes, the other man to be a leader in scientific methodology proposed a four part plan. Descartes promotes breaking things down as much as possible, and moving along little by little until you are completely sure of what your reasoning is. Descartes believed that, “all things, to the knowledge of which man is competent, are mutually connected in the same way, and that there is nothing so far removed from us as to be beyond our reach… provided we abstain from accepting the false for the truth, and always preserve in our thoughts the order necessary for the deduction of one truth from another.” (Discourse on Method, 1637) Essentially, Descartes advocated for a specific process one that left nothing to the imagination, where all the questions where answered. He believed that while you could know the answer to everything, you must have a way to break it down and keep one fact straight from another. Both Bacon and Descartes were essentially to the scientific revolution, and the formation of a new way of thought in the modern world. While Descartes went into greater detail for his method, both men focused on relying on fact instead of speculation or myth. This helped to develop a more organized system for the scientific community, founded in fact not fiction.
Perhaps the most notable or well-known set of ideas to come from the scientific revolution were Newton’s Laws. Isaac Newton, was arguably the greatest scientist from this era and his work was not only groundbreaking for his time, it still used and taught today. With Newton’s Laws of Motion he “succeeded in explaining a great mass of observed phenomena” (Tierney, 1984.) Following the rules of Descartes, Isaac Newton presented his work Newton’s Principia “as the mathematical principles of philosophy… to investigate the forces of nature and from these forces to demonstrate the other phenomena.” (Newton’s Principia, 1687). With the creation of these Newton’s Principia, and more importantly Newton’s Laws and Rules one can connect the entire scientific revolution. Had it not been for Copernicus, Galileo would have never challenged the scripture and the church, if the church had not been challenged the scientific realm may never have been able to get it out on its own. Had it been stopped, Bacon and Descartes could never have put forth theories and steps for a new scientific methodology. Without such a process to follow, Newton may never have created his “Laws” which, as stated early explained what had, up until that point, remained unexplainable.
The scientific revolution, following on the heels of the Renaissance’s curiosity and thirst for knowledge paved the way for a new era of thought and discoveries the entirety of which have affected us today. Had it not been for Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and the scientific revolution our world would look much different. The scientific revolution created a change in education, and the world. Also bringing with it, a new found trust and reliance in the scientific community. Without the advancements made by all in the scientific revolution who is to say “pure science” would have prevailed? If it had not, our world surely would have looked much different.
- Backman, Clifford R. Cultures of the West: A History . Vol. 1, Oxford University Press, 2013.
- Tierney, Brian, and Joan Scott. Western Societies: a Documentary History. Vol. 1, McGraw-Hill, 1984.