Meghna Choudhary is a mechanical engineering student. She lives in India. She likes writing academic essays and reading non-fiction.
What Was the Scientific Revolution?
It was 1666 in England. The Bubonic plague was everywhere. Students were sent home to avoid the epidemic. On a summer day, a bright young man who studied at the University of Cambridge was sitting under a tree in a garden in Lincolnshire county, England.
Suddenly, he saw an apple drop. A question flashed through his mind: Why does everything move downward, rather than sideways or upwards? He later found the answer to his question in the Law of Universal Gravitation, which he discovered. He also established the three laws of motion and infinitesimal calculus. He was Sir Isaac Newton.
His notes, which he entitled the Quaestiones Quaedam Philosophicae ("Certain Philosophical Questions"), reveal that he had discovered a new idea of nature that provided a framework for the Scientific Revolution. He inspired the people of his times to question everything around them.
What they discovered might seem like standard reality to us, but people of those times had very fixed beliefs. Much of their knowledge came from religious books and churches, and they thought that they completely understood the world. However, this certainty was changed forever by the Scientific Revolution.
Like Newton, many scientists in those times discovered and invented much of what is the foundation of modern knowledge. Now, you might have a few questions about all of this. This article answers the following questions that are often raised about the Scientific Revolution and its impact on the world:
- What is the Scientific Revolution?
- When did the Scientific Revolution take place?
- What was the condition of people before the Scientific Revolution?
- What were the causes of the Scientific Revolution?
- What are the significant discoveries and inventions of the Scientific Revolution?
- How and in what ways has the Scientific Revolution affected the lives of people?
- How did the Scientific Revolution change the world and people's outlook forever?
Definition of the Scientific Revolution
According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word scientific means "connected with science, and the word Revolution means a complete change in methods, opinions, etc., often resulting from progress." So, we might define the term scientific revolution as "a complete change in methods, opinions, etc., often resulting from progress in science."
Moreover, it refers to the remarkable growth of human power and ingenuity over the last 500 years, much of which results from the discoveries and inventions of modern science. Many world-changing discoveries and inventions occurred during the Scientific Revolution and laid the foundations for science's progressive achievements.
The Beginning and End of the Scientific Revolution
The Scientific Revolution began in 1543, toward the end of the Renaissance period, with the publication of the book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, which was written by Nicolaus Copernicus. It ended in 1687 with the publication of the book Principia: The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, authored by Sir Isaac Newton.
Where Did the Scientific Revolution Happen?
It happened primarily in Europe but had measurable effects on people from numerous other countries and changed many aspects of their life.
What Was the World Like Before the Scientific Revolution?
In the year 1500,
- The human population was hovering around 500 million. The total value of goods and services produced by humans at this time is an estimated $250 billion. Humanity consumed approximately 13 trillion calories each day. The annual per capita income averaged $550. Only a few cities in the world had over 100,000 inhabitants.
- No human had circumnavigated the earth. Ferdinand Magellan would first accomplish this in 1522.
- No one had yet seen a microorganism. The first microorganism ever seen was in 1674 by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.
What Were Housing Conditions Like?
- People used primarily wood, mud, and straw to make buildings. Adobe was also used, which is a type of sun-baked brick made from sand, gravel, and/or clay.
- Only candles and torches were available to illuminate the darkness at night. The cityscape was nearly pitch black.
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From these few facts already mentioned, it should be clear that people's lifestyles were much more limited than they are today. Much of this improvement and expansion of individual lifestyles is due to the efforts of modern science.
What Was Education Like?
- Authorities like Catholic Church officials and ancient Greek writers guided most educated people at those times. This means that ancient texts and traditions were the basis of educated people's thoughts and beliefs.
- Until the early modern period, kings and emperors gave money to education and scholarship to preserve existing qualities, not acquire new ones.
- Traditions formulated theories in terms of stories and not mathematics.
What Did People Think About Science?
- Premodern traditions of knowledge such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Confucianism asserted alternatively that the great gods, the one almighty God, or wise people of the past possessed all-encompassing wisdom, which was revealed to them in scriptures and oral traditions.
- It was unimaginable that their religious books, such as the Bible, the Quran, and the Vedas, were missing out on things that humans could discover.
These points reveal that people had misunderstandings about the possible progress of knowledge and understanding. Their beliefs were the issue blocking their way to new discoveries and illuminating inventions.
The important physicist James Clerk Maxwell stated that "Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science." This means that acknowledging our lack of understanding gives us a reason to learn. If a person thinks that he or she knows everything, then they will stop trying to conceive of new ideas or possibilities because there is no need.
What Were the Causes of the Scientific Revolution?
- Admitting ignorance: The root cause that launched the revolution was the admittance of ignorance. European scholars acknowledged that their theories were not perfect. There were necessary things that they did not know. For example, Europeans realized the insufficiency of medieval experimental methods. So, they felt the need to devise new approaches (some of which we use today).
- Thinking scientifically: Europeans had values, myths, judicial apparatuses, and socio-political structures. They thought and behaved scientifically before enjoying technological advantages.
- Ambition to explore, conquer and learn: Europeans had an unparalleled and insatiable ambition to explore and conquer. At the end of the fifteenth century, Europe became a hothouse of important military, political, economic, and cultural developments. Consequently, they had access to information possessed by other countries. They also believed that acquiring knowledge is always good. This access and belief enabled them to learn more. For example, Europeans had access to the endowment of Greek, European, and Middle Eastern scientific philosophy. They used these philosophies as a starting point for disproving or building theorems.
- Proper financing in scientific research: Scientific research can prosper only in association with some ideology or religion. So, at the time of the revolution, the purpose of funding scientific studies was to attain some political, economic, or religious goals. These goals consisted of helping emperors and army officers to win wars, govern well, get good health care, etc. Political and economic institutions provided resources to achieve these goals. In return, scientific research provided powers to obtain new resources, some of which were invested in research again. This loop between science, empire, and capital fueled the revolution. For example, in the sixteenth century, kings funded geographical expeditions to gain information that would help them conquer new countries and set up new empires.
- The centrality of mathematics: An alliance between members of mathematical communities with seventeenth-century scientists, philosophers, and astronomers increased the usage of mathematical tools to connect observations into comprehensive theories.
- Publication of works: Many institutions helped to authenticate science as a field by providing outlets for publishing scientific works. One of those institutions was the British Royal Society. It inspired more scientists and simplified the spread of knowledge.
Significant Discoveries and Inventions During the Scientific Revolution
This is a short list briefly covering some of the most important discoveries and inventions during the Scientific Revolution.
- Nicolaus Copernicus propounded the heliocentric theory in 1543. In this theory, he positioned the sun near the center of the universe, motionless, with Earth and other planets rotating around it in circular paths with uniform speeds. This theory needed a few corrections. Those corrections were made by the scientists Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei.
- Johannes Kepler discovered two planetary laws of motion in 1609. He stated the third planetary law of motion in 1618.
- Galileo Galilei designed his telescope and made several important astronomical discoveries like the phases of Venus, the moon’s surface, the four largest moons of Jupiter, and the rings of Saturn. He also made detailed observations of sunspots.
- Isaac Newton developed ties between astronomy and physics through his Law of Universal Gravitation.
- Archimedes developed the foundations for a new physics that was highly mathematizable. He discovered the law of free fall and derived the parabolic path of projectile motion.
- Christiaan Huygens formulated the laws of conservation of momentum and kinetic energy (valid only for elastic collisions).
- Sir Isaac Newton developed the concept of force, the law of universal gravitation, the three laws of motion. His physics led to the conclusion that the shape of the earth is not precisely spherical but bulged at the equator. Using this fact, he showed how the axis of rotation would change its direction.
- Rene Descartes derived the laws of reflection and refraction using mechanical analogies. He also explained the double refraction phenomenon.
- Newton demonstrated that white light is a mixture of separate beams of coloured light and explained the way prisms produce spectra of colours from white light.
- Dr. William Gilbert discovered that many substances other than amber, sulphur, etc., manifested electrical properties.
- Robert Boyle stated that the electric attraction and repulsion acting across a vacuum would attract light substances, indicating that the electrical effect did not depend on air as a medium.
- Otto von Guericke invented an early electrostatic generator.
- Georg Agricola published his book De re metallica. This book describes the highly developed and complex processes of mining metal ores, metal extraction, and metallurgy of the time.
- Robert Boyle’s book The Sceptical Chymist presents his hypothesis that every phenomenon was a result of collisions of particles in motion. It has the earliest modern ideas of atoms, molecules, and chemical reactions.
- Boyle denied limiting the chemical elements to only earth, fire, water, and air. He also established Boyle’s Law that describes the inversely proportional relationship between pressure and volume of a gas, if the temperature is kept constant within a closed system. Earlier, chemistry was seen as a part of medicine or alchemy. He pleaded to give chemistry the status of a science.
Biology and Medicine
- Vesalius’ book De humani corporis fabrica was a ground-breaking work of human anatomy. It emphasized the priority of dissection.
- William Harvey demonstrated that blood circulates, using dissections and other experimental techniques. His book De Motu Cordis made a detailed analysis of the overall structure of the heart, the arteries, etc.
- Pierre Fauchard started dentistry science.
- Antonie van Leeuwenhoek constructed powerful single lens microscopes and made extensive observations that he published around 1600, opening up the micro-world of biology.
New Mechanical Devices
- John Napier introduced logarithms which later became a strong mathematical tool.
- Blaise Pascal invented the mechanical calculator.
- Evangelista Toricelli invented the mercury barometer.
Life After the Scientific Revolution
Today, the human population is almost 8 billion. The total value of goods and services produced by humans is estimated to be $60 trillion. The number of calories consumed by humanity per day is 1,500 trillion. The annual per-capita income is $8,800.
There is an evident and immense difference in values between these numbers today and the year 1,500. This difference must be due to a force that could exponentially expand these numbers. This force was the development of modern science.
Here are some impacts of the Scientific Revolution that led to this development:
How the Scientific Revolution Changed Work and Health
- The use of experimental methods and reasoning paved the way for discoveries and inventions. At that time, blossoming in branches of science like medicine, mechanics, optics, mathematics, and astronomy took place. These enriched people’s quality of life. They started using different machines for their work. It saved time and energy. It motivated people to learn more. So, they read up on distinct topics that led to more useful scientific ideas.
- The development in medical science prevented the deaths of people, especially women and children, which increased the population.
How the Scientific Revolution Changed People's Worldview
People started questioning everything and tried finding answers to their questions using observations and logic, rather than accepting an answer blindly by faith or assumption. This was a major and fairly widespread change in human thinking. A new perspective of nature was born by substituting the Greek view that had dominated science for almost 2,000 years.
How the Scientific Revolution Impacted the Industrial Revolution
The laws of nature that were discovered during the Scientific Revolution were used in the Industrial Revolution to manufacture products since they explained many natural processes and illuminated the physical properties of materials.
For example, factories used an approach in which a complex problem was broken down into numerous small problems. The larger problem was then solved by solving the smaller problems and then integrating them. This approach to problem-solving was developed during the Scientific Revolution.
The Age of Reason
To sum up, the Scientific Revolution was an era that shifted humans' focus from god to the power of reasoning. It was a revolution in knowledge, but above all, it was a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that launched it was that humans did not know the answers to their most important questions.
In addition, investment in science by leaders and emperors to fulfill their ambitions was a crucial cause of the Scientific Revolution. Developments in astronomy proved that we are not the center of the universe but only a tiny part. Also, developments in medicine, physics, mathematics, and chemistry improved our way of living.
We still do not know the answers to many questions, but we are on our way and working on them. We can learn to accept ignorance from the Scientific Revolution. It will make us curious to know more about nature and ourselves. The knowledge we gain to feed our curiosity will further improve our way of living.
In Isaac Newton's lifetime, people rarely questioned everything around them in the way he did. But today, a much larger number of humans engage in questioning their worlds and skeptical thinking, and this is the impact of the Scientific Revolution.
References and Further Reading
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind | Yuval Noah Harari
Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, and human rights. Starting from this idea, Sapiens goes on to retell the history of our species.
- Scientific Revolution | Britannica
A drastic change in scientific thought that took place during the 16th and 17th centuries. A new view of nature emerged during the Scientific Revolution, replacing the Greek view that had dominated science for almost 2,000 years.
- The Scientific Revolution | Lumen – Boundless World History
The scientific revolution began in Europe toward the end of the Renaissance period, and continued through the late 18th century, influencing the intellectual social movement known as the Enlightenment.
- Scientific Revolution | Wikipedia
The Scientific Revolution was a series of events that marked the emergence of modern science during the early modern period, when developments in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology, and chemistry transformed the views of society about nature.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 MEGHNA CHOUDHARY