The Scientific Revolution
The Invention of Science
The Agricultural Revolution, the Renaissance, and the Industrial Revolution stand out as periods of rapid innovation in areas like science, literature, technology, and philosophy. But one of the most significant is the Scientific Revolution, which began during the 16th and 17th centuries, marking Europe’s emergence from what historians term the “Dark Ages.”
During the Scientific Revolution, the prevailing Aristotelian-Ptolemaic view of nature, which had been dominant for nearly 2,000 years, underwent a radical change. Aristotle asserted that everything on Earth, including humans, was made of four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. Claudius Ptolemy believed that celestial bodies like the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars revolved around the Earth in perfect circles. On the subject of health, the ancient Greeks and Romans attributed illnesses to imbalances of four “humors”: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile.
For centuries, these ancient teachings went largely unchallenged, primarily because the Catholic Church endorsed them. The Church was the predominant institution shaping Western thought, and questioning its doctrines risked accusations of heresy.
In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.
However, the Catholic Church’s influence began to wane with time. The Renaissance not only sparked a revival in the arts and literature but also fostered independent thought. The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg drastically increased literacy and allowed for the reassessment of long-held beliefs. Around this period, Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses, initiating the Protestant Reformation.
Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God, by Jan Matejko, 1873
The Scientific Revolution began with Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish mathematician and astronomer, who introduced the heliocentric theory, asserting that the Earth and other planets orbit the Sun. This idea angered the Catholic church, leading to the banning of his books.
But Copernicus wasn’t alone in his scientific pursuits. The same year he detailed the heliocentric theory, anatomist Andreas Vesalius unveiled groundbreaking insights into blood circulation. This would mark the start of an era of remarkable advancements across disciplines such as mathematics, astronomy, physics, and biology, which consistently upended prior beliefs about the universe and society.
While Copernicus’s insights didn’t cause an immediate uproar, they laid the groundwork for future discoveries. Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe recorded planetary movements, generating vast amounts of data. His assistant, a German mathematician Johannes Kepler, later analyzed this data and formulated three laws of planetary motion, proving that planets move in elliptical orbits around the Sun.
Later, Italian scientist Galileo Galilei, inspired by a Dutch invention, constructed his own telescope. He penned Starry Messenger, detailing his groundbreaking observations, including Jupiter’s four moons and the Sun’s dark spots. Galileo’s discoveries, combined with his laws of motion, supported Copernican theories. However, both Catholic and Protestant leaders saw these revelations as threats. Galileo was summoned to Rome, tried by the Inquisition, and under duress, he recanted his views. Despite living his remaining years under house arrest, his ideas spread across Europe. In a twist of fate, the Catholic Church eventually accepted Galileo’s findings in 1992.
Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition, by Cristiano Banti, 1857
Even with the groundbreaking work of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, there remained gaps in their theory. Specifically, they couldn’t explain the force that maintained the planets’ motion around the Sun. This puzzle was eventually solved by Isaac Newton, an English physicist and mathematician. In 1687, Newton introduced his insights in The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, widely considered one of the most pivotal scientific works ever written. He demonstrated that the same force causing apples to fall and keeping us grounded is responsible for the Moon and planets staying in their orbits.
Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo sparked a transformation in scientific thinking that eventually led to the development of the scientific method. This systematic method starts with an observation-based question, followed by forming a hypothesis. Scientists then test this hypothesis through experiments or data collection, concluding by either supporting or refuting it. The emergence of this method was a gradual process, with significant contributions from thinkers like Francis Bacon and René Descartes.
The scientific revolution set the stage for the Age of Enlightenment. This era championed reason as the primary basis for authority and stressed the value of the scientific method. By the 18th century, as the Enlightenment peaked, scientific understanding began to overshadow religious beliefs. As a result, fields previously considered scientific, such as alchemy and astrology, lost their scientific standing.
Words of wisdom
“You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say” —Martin Luther
“To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.” —Nicolaus Copernicus
“Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.” —Sir Francis Bacon
“I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn’t learn something from him.” —Galileo Galilei