The Invention of Science. A New History of the Scientific Revolution

Modern science is born from a scientific revolution that took place after the dark Middle Ages and during the Renaissance. Wootton pinpoints the start and the end of that period by attaching two particular events to them. The start was when Tycho Brahe observed a supernova (1572) and the end coincides with the publication of Newton's Opticks (1704) in which Newton showed how white light could be split up in composing colors. Of course these two events are symbolic since the transition has been much more fuzzy, but compared to the non-evolution since the ancient Greek, this is rightfully considered a revolution.

A main point that Wootton wants to make is that when studying the history of science, it is not easy to avoid the pitfall of looking at it in retrospect with our modern ideas and concepts. The true revolution lies in the fact that things were done differently from what had been inherited from the ancient Greek. Science did not advance from pure abstract reasoning anymore. People started exploring beyond the boundaries of what was already known. Things were so different that they were done for the first time, and that gave rise to new ideas and concepts. Concepts for which no proper words existed before, and other existing words got different meaning. Even the word 'science' with the meaning of a substantial theory based on a large amount of evidences, could previously only be applied to astronomy. Only astronomy was understood sufficiently well to make reasonably accurate predictions, even though the Ptolemaic model of our solar system was wrong. To make clear that new concepts and the words coining them were invented, Wootton in several of the chapters gathers the scientific achievements and the ideas of the scientists of this period around such an emerging concept. For example the introduction ponders on the terms "scientific" and "revolution" and how we came about to refer to this period as the "Scientific Revolution".

To give some more examples, let us quickly scan the contents. Columbus discovering America (1492) and Copernicus proposing a heliocentric solar system (1543) were the start, but the true acceptance that antipodes did exist and that the Copernican system was real, came only in the seventeenth century. Wootton attaches to this a discussion of whether the laws of nature and mathematics are discovered or invented.

A second part focusses on "seeing". It starts with the invention of the perspective in graphical art, which is in fact also related to measuring the height of a distant tower, but also in astronomy when studying distances between the planets. The construction of the first telescopes and finding the actual location of celestial bodies, observing the mountains and crates on the moon, and the discovy of the moons of Jupiter, destroyed the Ptolemaic model and the idea of an ideal spherical moon and stars residing on crystal spheres. For the astronomical results, the historical lead role is played by Galileo. But one also started looking at small scale too by using the microscope. In Galileo's time, the main occupation of Italian mathematicians was bookkeeping. That was about the only mathematical application in real life. Mathematics itself mainly existed as an abstraction and was considered complete and finished. However scientists started studying the physical reality by placing it in an abstract setting. The geometry involved in perspective drawing for example made mathematics and art walk hand in hand. The golden section became an ideal number, Kepler used polyhedra for his first celestial model, and Da Vinci draws the Vitrivius man with ideal ratios, double-entry bookkeeping was introduced and ballistics also involved mathematics. The world was being mathematized, and this was of course an essential element in the development of the revolution in the making.

The third part is essentially devoted to linguistic issues. In fact our vocabulary when we talk about science is mainly coined in the seventeenth century. Wootton analyses in detail how our current meaning of words such as 'fact', 'experiment', 'law', 'hypothesis', 'theory', 'evidence', 'judgement' came about or how it evolved in that period.
Facts were no longer ignored when they did not match the theory. Brahe collected the most accurate set of astronomical observations. Wootton attributes the coining of the English word 'fact' not to Francis Bacon as it is often done, but to his secretary Thomas Hobbes.
The weight of the air was measured in one of the first carefully designed 'experiments' by reading the height of mercury in a glass tube by Pascal, although it was described earlier by Descartes. This brings along the work of Torricelli, Boyle, the experiment with the Magdeburg hemispheres, etc. Experiments also showed that alchemy didn't work and never resulted in the transformation hoped for. Witchcraft was abandoned too.
The concept of 'law' as in a 'law of nature' has a longer history, and Descartes was certainly not the first to adhere to the laws of nature. Nevertheless there is a long list of laws discovered during the Scientific Revolution: Stevin's law of hydrostatics, Galileo's law of falling objects, Kepler's laws of planetary motion, Snell's law of refraction, Boyle's law of gasses, Hooke's law of elasticity, Huygens' law of the pendulum, Torricelli's law of flows, Pascal's law of fluid dynamics, Newton's laws of motion, all sounding very familiar to us.
A 'hypothesis' is related to experiments in the sense that it has to be confirmed by ample observations before it can become a 'theory'. In this sense it was Descartes who established this meaning. The indisputable certainties of the old philosophy was replaced by facts and evidence from experiments that generated reliable hypotheses and even incontrovertible theories.
Concerning 'evidence' and 'judgement' there is the relation with these concepts in jurisdiction. Concerning the latter, there was a difference between the English system (common law relying on a jury system) and the continental, say French, system (Roman law system, based on rigor). Some historians claimed that this is reflected in an experimental approach of the English versus the deductive mathematical approach of the French, but Wootton does not aggree. There were scientists of both types at both sides of the Channel. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that there is still today some difference in style.

Part four reflects on the immediate consequences of the Scientific Revolution. After a discussion of what a machine actually is, Wootton explains that based on the old atomistic view Descartes and others saw nature as a collection of separate objects whose interactions were controlled by mechanical laws, like a machinery. Mechanical tools and clocks existed much earlier, but the idea that this mechanical view of nature could be applied to biological systems such as animals was new. If humans were considered a special kind of animal, this leads to atheism. Of course these mechanical laws could only be applied to the material world, but also the belief in witchcraft, demons, poltergeists, fairies and the likes were removed under influence of the new science.
This brings Wootton to his main point: the Scientific Revolution is the most important event since the Neolithic Revolution. The undeniable important Industrial Revolution was a consequence of the scientific one. It has been a dispute among historians whether science has contributed to the invention of the steam machine, and hence to the industrial advancement it caused. It is Wootton's conviction that it really did. Papin did indeed work with Boyle and Huygens and was a professor of mathematics. He did not succeed in producing a working steam engine, but Newcomen succeeded and only because science came first and technology was a consequence.

In a concluding part, Wootton goes in discussion with other historians and philosophers of science. He gives for example arguments against the wrong arguments for a relativist account of science. He does not choose sides. He writes "This book will look, I trust, realist to relativists and relativist to realists: this is how it is meant to look". He also inspects the claim that any history of the Scientific Revolution must be Whig history. His argument is that the opponents just define history in such a way that change cannot be discussed.

The subtitle of the book is A New History of the Scientific Revolution and the "New" is indeed justified. It is certainly not a repetition of the facts that can be found elsewhere. It gives a new and personal vision on this period with philosophical foundations and a philological analysis. The achievements and the stories of the scientists as well as the scientists themselves are abundantly represented. And that are not only the scientists of the period considered, but also historians and philosophers who have written more recently about the matters discussed. The book is extremely well researched and documented. There are many illustrations, and besides the many footnotes there are 80 pages of more extensive notes at the end. The bibliography has 67 pages and the index alone takes 48 pages. This is bound to become a basic reference in the future.

Reviewer: 
Adhemar Bultheel
Book details

This is a thoroughly researched and documented book about the importance of the Scientific Revolution that took place at the end of the sixteenth and during the seventeenth century. It is not only an historical account but at the same time a philological and philosophical analysis of this period.

Author:  Publisher: 
Published: 
2015
ISBN: 
9781846142109 (hbk)
Pages: 
784
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