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Scientific Revolution





In this assignment you should learn to define and discuss the following terms:

  • Universal, Naturalists, Linnaeus, Species of Plants, Species, Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Theory of Evolution, Galileo, optics, natural philosopher, Copernicus, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, Leonardo da Vinci, John Kepler, The New Astronomy, Isaac Newton, The General Theory of Relativity, Laboratories, The Age of Enlightenment,

You should also become familiar with the following issues:

  • How was the Scientific Revolution connected with the Realist view of the Universe?
  • In what sense were the voyages of discovery and exploration the cause of the Scientific Revolution?
  • What aspects of "the European personality" contributed to the early Scientific Revolution?
  • How did the activities of Early Modern naturalists lead to the Theory of Evolution?
  • How did the needs of sixteenth-century sailors lead to Einstein's General THeory of Relativity?

You might in addition consider the following question:
We often view history in terms of great men and women who "make history." What have you learned about Columbus, Darwin, Newton, Einstein, and other people who "made history"? Is the course of events shaped by great men and women, or is it something else?


One of the defining characteristics of Westerners, at least to my mind, is our penchant for collecting things: coins and stamps, certainly, but also bottle-tops, matchbooks, postcards, burnt-out lightbulbs, butterflies, old auto license plates, "depression ware", salt and pepper shakers, beetles, baseball cards, autographs, hub caps, souvenir spoons, the names of ancestors ... the list is endless. If it doesn't walk, we'll collect it. This is not to say the people of other cultures do not collect because they do. Unlike Westerners, however, they do not seem to share our overwhelming urge to "own the whole set!" I don't know if you have ever noticed how powerful this drive is, but the people who print and issue stamps have. And they have turned it into a multi-million dollar business. When a country issues a series of, say, eight stamps, it may print ten million each of seven of the denominations, but only a hundred thousand of one of the stamps. None of the stamp collectors know in advance which of the series is going to become the rare stamp, and so they buy of sheet after sheet of inexpensive stamps in order to ensure that they are getting the one stamp that will become valuable. Of course, they never use any of these stamps, so the Post Offices make money without performing any service.

You might ask what this has to do with the Scientific Revolution. Well, when the ships of the explorers and discoverers started coming back from far-off lands, they brought many unusual things back with them. The thinkers of the time were rationalists, as you know, and depended upon the idea that any thing could be put in its proper category or universal, and that the laws governing these universals were permanent and unchanging and could be known with certainty. Imagine what some learned person of that period must have thought when some traveller returned from distant parts showed him one of the souvenir he had brought back -- a Venus flytrap. The thinker would have watched as the little plant caught a fly and sat back to digest its meal, and he would have thought about the categories of "plant" and "animal". There simply was no category of "carnivorous plant" into which he could place the Venus flytrap, and so he would have gone home to look for his drawing board because it was clear that something had to be done. He might have stopped in to see one of his colleagues who had grown distracted ever since an overseas merchant had given him a trained gorilla. His colleague knew that "man" was defined as a bipedal mammal, and his new guest was certainly that, but he also knew that "all men are rational creatures," and he had been driving himself mad trying to strike up a decent conversation with the gorilla.

Now these things are just imaginings for fun, but they can give you an idea what was happening. What happens to the traditional universals when you have to place so many new things into their proper category? Especially if these things included butterflies as big as dinner plates, flying squirrels, tree-climbing fish, chunks of glass mountains, balls that bounced higher than anything you had ever seen before, stuff that you could toss in the fire and get drunk from just by breathing the smoke, and so on and so forth.

This is where our urge to collect things and to own the whole set came to the aid of Western Civilization. This was the great age of the naturalists, men and women who studied Nature and collected examples of immense variety. There were few wealthy houses in Europe that did not boast its own "cabinet of curiosities" filled with whatever the owner thought was strange or interesting -- shrunken heads, bits of meteorite, chunks of galena, amber entrapping a primeval dragon fly in full flight, oddly shaped glass that cast off rainbows, and the like. There were persons of leisure who did not collect something or another. Some had thousands of dead butterflies arranged and displayed in glass cases, and even hired people to travel to Africa, Asia, or the Americas to get them more and more butterflies. Some collected beetles, some learned to draw accurately and went out to draw colored pictures of all of the different birds they could find, others had gardens in which they planted every variety of rose, or sweet pea, or onion that they came across. Everyone who collected things were constantly arranging and rearranging their specimens to find the categories of which they were examples.

All of this activity began to become more organized in the mid-18th century when Linnaeus, the director of the large garden maintained by a quite wealthy collector of plants, published Species of Plants. Linnaeus introduced a regular system of naming the categories into which people were trying to name their specimens by naming the genus, or family, into which a given plant belonged and further specifying it according to its species (did you note the connection there?). We still use that system. You are an example of Homo sapiens and sweet pea of Lathyrus odoratus. Once things could be given orderly and standard names, the process of classification became much easier. There was a problem, however. The defining characteristic of a true species is that members on one species cannot breed with those of another and produce fertile off-spring. Where in the world had all of those species come from? Why would God have made a hundred thousand different species of beetle, each differing from the other by only some tiny detail? That problem was settled by Charles Darwin in 1859, when he published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. The Realist system of manipulation of universals had once again proven effective, and the Theory of Evolution caused members of Western culture to reassess the nature of the universe and of their role in it.

Then, of course, there were the astronomers. People had been fooling around with optics and making eyeglasses for a long time, but the increase of commerce and shipping required some way of seeing further than was possible by the naked eye. So it was that an Italian natural philosopher ("Science" was called "Natural Philosophy" until well into the nineteenth century) by the name of Galileo, bought some Dutch telescopes, claimed that he had invented them, and tried to sell them to the government. That didn't work out, so, in 1609, he started observing the stars and planets with one of his telescopes and was simply bowled over by what he saw. He saw, among other things, that the Earth and the other planets all seemed to revolve about the sun. This wasn't exactly breaking news, since a Polish natural philosopher by the name of Copernicus had reached the same conclusion, using reason alone, and published his findings in his book On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, which had been published in 1543. Galileo saw a good deal more, some of which was not there, and he drew some sweeping conclusions that led the Church to tell him to shut up. In my personal opinion, Galileo was a self- promoting loudmouth who went around claiming to have discovered things that other people had actually figured out some time before. But he's become a symbol of the Scientific Revolution, just like Leonardo da Vinci with his fresco of the Last Supper and his plans for submarines, helicopters, and machine guns has become the stereotype of the Renaissance man. Of course, da Vinci mixed his materials badly, and The Last Supper keeps falling off the wall, and none of his "inventions" would have worked. But Galileo and da Vinci are culture heroes, and I'm only a History instructor, so how much is my opinion worth?

One thing that Galileo did accomplish was to popularize the use of the telescope for observation of the stars. The modern science of Astronomy grew out of that simple application. John Kepler, the astrologer for the king of Bohemia, got himself a bigger telescope than Galileo had and began to try to figure out the way that the planets revolve around the Sun. In 1609, while Galileo was making his first "astounding discoveries", Kepler published The New Astronomy and described the laws that appeared to govern the movements of the planets: They revolve around the Sun in elliptical, not circular orbits; their speed of revolution varied so that they passed through equal degrees of arc in equal periods of time; and the time that they took to complete their journey around the sun was proportional to the cube of their average distance from the sun.

Kepler's findings fascinated a young man at Oxford, and he abandoned the standard curriculum of his college to pursue natural philosophy. His name was Isaac Newton (1642-1727), and he began to studied the mathematical relationships between natural objects. In 1687, he published his book Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, in which he demonstrated that the orbits of the planets were determined by a mutual attraction between them and the sun, and attraction that he called gravity and determined to be governed by the mass of the two objects and the square of the distance between them. He also suggested a set of simple laws, known as Newton's Laws of Physics, to describe and explain any motion in the Universe. One was that any force produced and equal force operating in the opposite direction. Any of you who have fired a shotgun can explain their one to your classmates. Another said that any moving object would keep moving unless stopped by a force equal to its own motion. This may not seem Earth-shaking, but these laws became the basis for the sciences of physics and mechanics until, late in the nineteenth century, a young Swiss by the name of Albert Einstein noticed that these laws did not work out exactly when dealing with very large or very small objects or when dealing with objects moving at very high speeds. He finally accounted for these differences in a series of papers that he delivered between the years 1905 and 1912. In 1916, he published The General Theory of Relativity in which he redefined gravity as the result of space and time curving in the presence of mass. Again, one might note that, like Copernicus and Darwin, Einstein was not an experimental scientist, but what we might call a Nominalist. He reached his conclusions on the basis of logic and its corollary, mathematics.

These are only two of the many complex and intermingled strands that made up the Scientific Revolution. We might have talked about those gentlemen and gentlewomen who kept laboratories, rooms where they would labor, in their houses, where they would try to find how many simple substances (elements) made up the seemingly infinite variety of materials that made up the world, or those who tried to find out what electricity was made of and where it came from, or wandered around trying to figure out where the mountains and valleys had come from and why there were different rocks in different places, or those who would spend quiet evenings with their families, sitting at a work table and trying to build a better clock than the world had ever seen before, or...

But there are far too many people and subjects to consider in a survey course such as this. It should be enough to say that the flood of new things that came into Europe in the Age of Discovery and Exploration overwhelmed the concept of orderly and stable universals that made rational thought and discourse possible. For the next four hundred years, Europeans attempted to restore that sense of order, and they brought to the task some hitherto unsuspected aspects of their character: their passion for collecting and organizing, their willingness to take infinite pains to measure things exactly and count them accurately, and a general sense of curiosity that made The Scientific Revolution something of a mass movement.

The result of all of this activity was that, step by step, they created a new set of categories, much more numerous and varied than the old, to support civil discourse and rational inquiry. As discovery followed discovery, the possibility began to dawn on people that perhaps the Universe was like a gigantic watch, operating in accordance with logical natural laws that it was possible to know, if not to change. God had set the Universe in motion and was now letting it run by itself. God was not personally directing what happened. The Universe was merely running in accordance with the laws he had set for it at the beginning of time. It was upon this possibility that The Age of Enlightenment arose.



There are a large number of sites devoted to science and the history of science, and it is not often easy to tell them apart. The sites assigned for this section have relatively specific subjects, but those subjects will, I hope, give you an idea of The Scientific Revolution as a long and broad movement, composed of many different people, each following their curiosity. A Dutch site, The Measurers, considers one painting of the time and, from that, considers how the interest in accurate measurement was current throughout society. The development of the theory of evolution created a change in our view of the world and our place in it that is still unsettling to many. The Evolution Entrance will open the way for you to consider this idea in a broad social context. Finally, lest I overemphasize the masses at the expense of outstanding individuals, Newtonia: pages about Sir Isaac Newton will focus your attention on one of the most important figures of the modern era.


The Museum of the History of Science of Oxford University is one of the richest sites for such studies, and you would find your time well spent if you were to take the time to stroll through its holdings.

This text was produced by >Lynn H. Nelson, Department of History, University of Kansas.
9 March 1998
Lawrence KS