Lorraine A. Rollo. Ph.D.
Chapter 16: The Scientific Revolution
1. New ideas about the physical world (16/17th centuries) led to
important changes in European & Western thinking & research.
2. The Scientific Revolution (1543-1637) included 3 important changes:
heliocentric theory based on new mathematics and physics, a new
method of inquiry, and the emergence of science as a distinct branch of
knowledge with its own institutions.
3. Science was called “natural philosophy.”
4. The Scientific Revolution depended on societies and institutions
dedicated to scientific advancement. Brilliant thinkers, patrons, states,
researchers and artisans played a role in revolutionary developments.
I. The Intellectual Origins of the Scientific Revolution
1. The Scientific Revolution marks a change between medieval and
modern ways of thinking about the world.
2. Medieval thinkers like Aquinas during the High Middle Ages (1000-
1300) believed that God constructed a rational universe that reason
could understand, but he elevated theological truth above human
3. Nominalists of the Later Middle Ages (1300-1500) believed that
nature was distinct from God (God could be understood only through
revelation). This paved the way for a mechanistic/secular approach to
the study of the natural world.
4. The Renaissance stimulated an interest in science & the natural
world. Renaissance culture valued innovation; Neo-Platonists sought
mechanisms that explained the world; Renaissance humanists
introduced new texts like the work of Archimedes. Renaissance artists
developed mathematical skills & often worked in ways that merged
theory, practical experience & technology.
5. Voyages of exploration excited interest in discovering the unknown.
6. The Reformation shook the foundations of tradition & authority.
II. The Copernican Revolution
1. Heliocentric theory replaced geocentric theory (Aristotle & Ptolemy).
2. A calendar crisis led to the development of heliocentric by Copernicus
(1473-1543): On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres 1543.
III. Tycho’s Observations & Kepler’s Laws
1. Astronomers Brahe (1546-1601) & Kepler (1571-1630) supported
2. Tycho accumulated data & believed that planets orbited the sun, but
the whole system orbited the earth.
3. Kepler provided the mathematical proof for Heliocentric theory. He
offered the 1st credible physical explanation of a universe with a
moving earth. Kepler broke down the Aristotelian distinction between
heaven & earth, but did not fully explain gravity.
IV. New Heavens, New Earth, & Worldly Politics: Galileo (1564-1642)
1. Galileo offered evidence to support the Copernican model, laid the
foundation for a new physics that explained a moving earth & opened a
larger debate about the role of natural philosophy in revealing the
2. Galileo’s work includes The Starry Messenger, 1610, Letter to the
Grand Duchess Christina de Medici 1615; A Dialogue Between the Two
Great World Systems 1632.
3. Galileo made innovative use of the telescope; he used it to observe the
sun, moon and Jupiter.
5. Galileo officially recanted his belief in Copernican theory when found
guilty of propounding heretical ideas by the Italian Inquisition.
6. Galileo’s trial made the co-existence of religion & science impossible
in 17th century Italy and southern Europe.
V. Methods For A New Philosophy: Bacon & Descartes
1. Two different methods shaped modern science (induction &
deduction). Bacon stressed experiment & observation, and derived
knowledge from particulars (induction). Descartes stressed
mathematical & logical analysis to deduce (deduction) first principles.
2. Bacon (1561-1626) discussed empiricism and inductive method in
Novum Organum 1620. He described a model research center in New
3. Descartes (1596-1650) expressed his method of systematic doubt
(“Cogito, ergo sum”) & deduction in Discourse On Method 1637.
4. 17th century mechanists saw the universe in terms of physical laws
that operated like a machine. They assumed that it could be understood
and hoped to discover the underlying mechanisms of the Cosmos.
5. English Baconians & French Cartesians shared a mechanistic view of
6. Cartesian work had practical applications that included Descartes’
analytical geometry, Huygens’ work on orbital motion, Pascal’s work on
probability & the calculating machine & Spinoza’s application of logic to
7. The English laboratory tradition focused on discovering empirical
laws and accomplishments include Harvey’s work on the circulation of
blood, Boyle’s Law, and Hooke’s study of plant cellular structure.
8. 17th century state building advanced science. Charles II gave a royal
charter to what he named the Royal Society; scientific societies began to
spread over Europe, notably the Royal Academy of Sciences patronized
by Louis XIV in France.
9. Scientific societies facilitated the development of systematic science &
helped spread ideas.
10. Women did not have easy access to formal education, but women
played a role in the Scientific Revolution. Notable female natural
philosophers include: Margaret Cavendish (mechanism), Maria
Winkelmann (astronomy), Maria Merian (Insects), Elena Piscopia
(physics), Laura Bassi (math), and F. Poulaine (anatomy).
VI. “And All Was Light:” Isaac Newton
1. Newton (1642-1727) is the scientist whose work marks the end of the
2. Newton was a Cambridge mathematician, experimenter & empiricist.
3. Newton presented a coherent vision of how the Cosmos worked
based on a uniform set of forces.
4. Newton made great discoveries in optics, math (Calculus) and he
5. In Principia Mathematica, Newton presented his theory of universal
6. Newton “stood on the shoulders of giants” like Galileo, Kepler, Boyle,
Descartes & Hooke.
7. Newton responded to mechanists’ criticism that he failed explain
what caused gravity in General Scholium 1714. Newton argued that he
did not know what caused gravity and made no hypotheses.
8. Halley & Locke helped disseminate Newton’s ideas throughout
Europe. Voltaire & Emilie du Châtelet popularized him in mainland
Europe in the 18th century.
9. Newton’s ideas had great practical advantages and widespread
impact on Europe and the world.
10. Some revolutionary consequences of Newton’s work include the
new role science played in defining and shaping European & Western
sensibilities like modernity and “progress.” His work engendered new
answers & recast problems. Lay organizations developed outside
universities and Church control; there was new communication of
scientific work & new standards of research. More questions were
tackled and math assumed a greater role in science. The new methods
did not simply prove established truths, but shed light on the unknown
and made predictions.
1. The pioneering natural philosophers believed their science to be
compatible with their faith.
2. Some natural philosophers aimed to explain the inner mechanisms of
nature. Others attempted to only isolate & classify the regularities they
discovered in nature. Newton did both. However, he was content that
his theories explained actions & substances that could be observed.
3. Laboratory science & the scientific societies generally restricted their
conclusions to the experimenter’s rules & limitations.
4. Natural philosophers in the 18th century began investigating the
“human sciences” and became less cautious about method. They
believed that social mechanisms could be explained in terms of laws
that would allow humans to create a more perfect society.
5. The 17th century revolution in science changed Europeans’
understanding of the world, and human understanding as it had been
accepted for a millennium.
6. The Scientific Revolution inspired discourse about a more
enlightened society, a discourse that excited reformers &