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Scientific revolution

This article is about the period in history, not the process of scientific progress via revolution, proposed by Thomas Kuhn and discussed at paradigm shift

In the history of science, the scientific revolution was the period that roughly began with the discoveries of Kepler, Galileo, and others at the dawn of the 17th century, and ended with the publication of the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687 by Isaac Newton. These boundaries are not uncontroversial, with some claiming that the proper start of the scientific revolution was the publication of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium by Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543, while others wish to extend it into the 18th century. Nevertheless, the basic themes of the revolution are readily recognised.

The seventeenth century was a period of major scientific change. But at that time the word "science" did not have its current meaning, and "scientist" had not been coined; Newton was called a natural philosopher. Not only were there major theoretical and experimental developments, but even more importantly, the way in which scientists worked was radically changed. At the beginning of the century, science was highly Aristotelian; at its end, science was mathematical, mechanical, and empirical.


Existence of the revolution

There is much scholarly debate as to the nature and even the existence of the scientific revolution. To some extent this arises from different conceptions of what the revolution was; some of the rancor and cross-purposes in such debates may arise from lack of recognition of these fundamental differences.

To most scientists who give the matter any thought, and to many other observers, it seems entirely clear that a scientific revolution took place around the year 1600. That is, at that time there were very large and historically sudden changes in science, not only in its content but in its practice and theory. Science, as it is treated in this account, is science essentially as it is understood and practiced in the modern world; there is no concern here with "other narratives" or alternate ways of knowing, or the like.

A striking case for this point of view is presented by the historian of science Howard Margolis as part of a larger (and controversial) theory of the causes of the revolution (Margolis, 2002). It may be summarized in the following lists of significant advances in science:

2nd century

  • Galen's work in anatomy
  • Ptolemy's calculations of planetary motion. (This and Galen's anatomy, though largely superseded by later work, are none the less important contributions to science.)

Fourteen centuries are omitted here.

About 1600

  • Uniform acceleration of falling bodies (Galileo)
  • Inertia and inertial frames of reference
  • The Earth as a magnet
  • Theory of lenses
  • Kepler's laws of planetary motion (Kepler)
  • Telescopic discoveries: moons of Jupiter, lunar mountains, phases of Venus, etc. (Galileo)
  • Laws of hydrostatics
  • Constant period of the pendulum (Newton)

The second list covers well under 100 years.

It is not easy to find work of comparable importance, apart from that of Copernicus, to fill out the intervening period. Margolis reports that the most commonly suggested candidate for filling the gap is Alhazen's theory of intromission; that is, that vision is by means of light emitted from bodies, not rays from the eye. Giving this important work its full value (regardless of its antecedents in Aristotle), it still does not go far to fill fourteen centuries, and the other candidates are few:

[One may reasonably judge that] Gilbert and Stevin each discovered more that has proved important for modern science than the combination of everyone who lived during the fourteen centuries between them and Ptolemy. But for Kepler and Galileo a claim this bold is not merely arguable, but beyond real dispute. If you measure what either Kepler or Galileo discovered against everything discovered in the previous 1400 years, it is no contest. (Margolis, 2002; p. 139)

In this interpretation these extraordinary changes, beginning with Copernicus and extending to the early 17th century, are the raw data on which are built the theoretical studies of how and why the revolution took place, and what changes in society and thought resulted from it. Other accounts of what constitutes the revolution exist and lead to quite different studies.

Theoretical developments

In 1543 Copernicus' work on the Heliocentric model of the solar system was published, in which he tried to prove that the sun was the centre of the universe. For almost two millennia, the Geocentric model had been accepted by all but a few astronomers. The idea that the earth moved around the sun, as advocated by Copernicus, was to most of his contemporaries preposterous. It contradicted not only the virtually unquestioned Aristotelian philosophy, but also common sense. For suppose the earth turns about its own axis. Then, surely, if we were to drop a stone from a high tower, the earth would rotate beneath it while it fell, thus causing the stone to land some space away from the tower's bottom. This effect is not observed.

It is no wonder, then, that although some astronomers used the Copernican system to calculate the movement of the planets, only a handful actually accepted it as true theory. It took the efforts of two men, Johannes Kepler and Galileo, to give it credibility. Kepler was a brilliant astronomer who, using the very accurate observations of Tycho Brahe, realised that the planets move around the sun not in circular orbits, but in elliptical ones. Together with his other laws of planetary motion, this allowed him to create a model of the solar system that was a huge improvement over Copernicus' original system. Galileo's main contributions to the acceptance of the heliocentric system were his mechanics and the observations he made with his telescope, as well as his detailed presentation of the case for the system (which led to his condemnation by the Inquisition). Using an early theory of inertia, Galileo could explain why rocks dropped from a tower fall straight down even if the earth rotates. His observations of the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus, the spots on the sun, and mountains on the moon all helped to discredit the Aristotelian philosophy and the Ptolemaic theory of the solar system. Through their combined discoveries, the heliocentric system gained more and more support, and at the end of the 17th century it was generally accepted by astronomers.

Both Kepler's laws of planetary motion and Galileo's mechanics culminated in the work of Isaac Newton. His laws of motion were to be the solid foundation of mechanics; his law of universal gravitation combined terrestrial and celestial mechanics into one great system that seemed to be able to describe the whole world in mathematical formulae.

Not only astronomy and mechanics were greatly changed. Optics, for instance, was revolutionised by people like Robert Hooke, Christiaan Huygens and, once again, Isaac Newton, who developed mathematical theories of light as either waves (Huygens) or particles (Newton). Similar developments could be seen in chemistry, biology and other sciences, although their full development into modern science was delayed for a century or more.

Experimental developments

The development of telescopes by Galileo and others greatly expanded the accuracy and range of celestial observations. The emerging technology of the microscope brought the world of the very small within reach of the human observer, although it would take an additional two centuries before the instrument was perfected. Another notable invention was the air-pump, extensively used by Robert Boyle and others.

Methodological developments

The most important changes were in the way that science was done. Three main developments can be identified as mathematisation, mechanisation, and empiricism.


Aristotle recognised four kinds of causes, of which the most important was the "final cause". The final cause was the aim or goal of something. Thus, the final cause of rain was to let plants grow. Until the scientific revolution, it was very natural to see such goals in nature. The world was inhabited by angels and demons, spirits and souls, occult powers and mystical principles. Scientists spoke about the 'soul of a magnet' as easily as they spoke about its velocity.

The rise of the so-called "mechanical philosophy" put a stop to this. The mechanists, of whom the most important one was René Descartes, rejected all goals, emotion and intelligence in nature. In this modern view, the world consisted of matter moving in accordance with the laws of physics. Where nature had previously been imagined to be like a living entity, the scientific revolution viewed nature as following natural, physical laws.


"Look at the world, but don't experiment!"—such was the view of the natural philosophers before the scientific revolution. Nature, it was thought, should be looked at as it worked on its own. If one did an experiment, one was putting nature in "unnatural" circumstances, and hence the results of an experiment would not agree with the true way nature worked.

Under the influence of philosophers like Francis Bacon, an empirical tradition was developed in the 17th century. The Aristotelian belief of natural and artificial circumstances was abandoned, and a research tradition of systematic experimentation was slowly accepted throughout the scientific community. Bacon's philosophy of using an inductive approach to nature -- to abandon assumption and to attempt to simply observe with an open mind -- was in strict contrast with the earlier, Aristotelian approach of deduction, by which analysis of "known facts" produced further understanding. In practice, of course, many scientists (and philosophers) believed that a healthy mix of both was needed -- the willingness to question assumptions, yet also interpret observations assumed to have some degree of validity.

At the end of the scientific revolution the organic, quantitative world of book-reading philosophers had been changed into a mechanical, mathematical world to be known through experimental research. Though it is certainly not true that Newtonian science was like modern science in all respects, it closely resembled ours in many ways -- much more so than the Aristotelian science of a century earlier.

Literary criticisms

A recent trend in literary theory, "Cultural materialism" questions whether there was a scientific revolution; or, if a revolution occurred, it questions whether it was important. Literary critics who hold this point of view have a special (and some would claim, mistaken), definition of what the term "revolution" means. These literary critics hold that if a scientific revolution did not occur instantaneously, and without historical precedent, then by definition it cannot be a revolution, and can only be an evolution. If the scientific revolution was only an evolution, then it would have little or no intelligibility as a single event, but nonetheless, like all evolutionary processes, "the scientific evolution" invites serious consideration as a process or group of processes, in order to understand if and how language, culture and society have changed and are changing as a result.

The scientific revolution, as a change in theoretical outlook, is normally identified as a four step process (this is not true of 'scientific practice' which is much less clearly definable historically).

First, Galileo is seen as the father of "theoretical experimentalism ", in that he legitimised observation, as opposed to pure reason, as a route to authentic knowledge, and presented the observations (for instance, in his falling body experiments) with an analysis that had the rigour of Euclidean proof.

Second (but not subsequent to, or, in direct conjunction with Galileo) Francis Bacon projects (what we would now think of as) the Galilean "experimental truth revealing process" onto the entire map of the natural universe, setting forth an agenda for every natural phenomenon then known, to be subjected to experimental scrutiny.

Third, Robert Boyle sets about regularising Galileo's experimental work as characterised by his reports of "falling bodies experiments" into a practical method for ensuring that the observational process accumulates a body of knowledge which is public, thorough and "self-correcting" by the practice of publication, replication and review of scientific experiments.

Fourth, Newton produces the first widely read works which purport to address the most significant fundamental natural processes with "Boylean rigour".

Although cultural materialism doesn't necessarily dismiss the main thrust of these claims, it does not accept that they fully account for the changes which are attributed to them, or that they reflect the nature or even the points in time when the relevant changes occurred. If Boyle's "public science" model coexisted with "pre-scientific" disciplines, then the "revolution" was "romanticised" by their biographers, who wished to paint a picture of the 'new wisdom' being adopted at the same time as the abandonment of the "wicked, secretive and pagan" practices of the pre-scientific "mystics".


  • Margolis, Howard (2002). It Started with Copernicus. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-138507-X


  • The Scientific Method, Barry Gower. This book is concerned with the sequence of changes from which the modern understanding of science have developed and thus gives a useful grounding in the philosophical and historical basis of the scientific revolution


  • The Scientific Outlook Bertrand Russell, a highly influential work. The first chapter 'Examples of the scientific method' paints a history of the key developments in the scientific revolution, from the perspective of a devotee of 'scientific thinking'.

Literary criticism

  • Never at Rest, Richard Westfall. A biography of Newton which begins the process of identifying the interplay between the 'theopolitical' issues and science which formed the basis of the 'actions and equal and opposite reactions' between the ideologies at the heart of both the mythologies and the realities of the scientific revolution.
  • Fallen Languages, Robert Markley. This book puts the language of Boyle and the Royal Society under the 'literary theory' microscope. The author claims to find new insights in terms of the transition from Aristotelianism and examining the impact of 'hidden' theological constraints and influences on the key proponents of the scientific revolution.
  • The Aspiring Adept, Lawrence M. Principe Did Boyle really advocate a move away from alchemy to chemistry? Was this the first key move from mysticism to science? Implies that the scientific 'revolution' never occurred, and was a fabrication of biographers.
  • Leviathan and the Air Pump, Shapin and Shaffer. Thomas Hobbes argued in the 1660's that the 'public science' model did not reveal the truth; this book examines the 'first criticisms of the scientific revolution' which may be interesting because they come from come from a 'fellow anti-aristotelian' such as Hobbes.


  • We have never been modern, Bruno Latour. This takes the revolutionary stance presented in Leviathan and the Air Pump (above) and both develops and challenges it

See also

Last updated: 05-09-2005 14:22:02
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04