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What Was the Scientific Revolution?
The Scientific Revolution was a period starting around the middle of the 16th century where scholars cast off the old ideas of the ancient philosophers and started to understand the world through rational thought. This period that lasted up until the middle of the 18th century saw a flood of new discoveries and inventions.
At the same time, new methods for studying the physical world, which included rational analysis to draw conclusions from observable evidence, became the norm. New discoveries were coming from every field in science, including astronomy, physics, biology, chemistry, geology, and medicine.
When Did the Scientific Revolution Start?
Many scholars mark the beginning of what we now call the Scientific Revolution with the Polish astronomer and clergyman Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) and the publication in 1543 of his groundbreaking work, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres).
Copernicus proposed the idea that the Sun was at the center of the universe rather than the Earth, an idea that rocked the very foundation of scientific and religious dogma that had held sway for nearly two thousand years.
When Did the Scientific Revolution End?
Like the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, there is no definitive date for its end; rather, most scholars and historians of science mark the publication of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) as the beginning of the end of the Scientific Revolution.
In this work, first published in 1687, Newton explains through mathematics the laws of motion and universal gravitation. Though his master work was published in the late 17th century, it was well into the middle of the 18th century before “Newtonian Physics” was widely accepted and the flawed physics of Aristotle was finally overthrown.
The Protestant Reformation
Though what is now known as the Protestant Reformation that began in 1517 appears on the surface to have nothing to do with the Scientific Revolution, in a roundabout way it does. This revolution in religion helped set the tone for generations, allowing them to question the wisdom of the ancients and seek new ways of thinking. The reformation of the church began with the German monk Martin Luther (1483-1546), who protested the practices of the Roman Catholic Church, thus marking the beginning of the religious reformation.
This event is important in the history of science because it marks the beginning of the questioning of the dogmas and doctrines of the powerful Roman Catholic Church. This desire to question authority spilt over into the area of natural philosophy (science), allowing progress in the sciences to proceed.
Timeline (1518 to 1610)
1518 – English humanist and physician Thomas Linacre (c. 1460-1524) founds the Royal College of Physicians in London.
1543 – Belgian anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) publishes his De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Structure of the Human Body). Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) present his theory of a sun-centered universe in his work De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres).
1573 – Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) publishes De Nova Stella describing his observations of a supernova (exploding star) in the constellation Cassiopeia.
1576 – Tycho Brahe establishes an astronomical observatory on the Baltic Island of Hven.
1583 – Italian botanist and physician Andrea Cesalpino (1519-1603) devises a system of classifying plants by their structure in his book De Plantis.
c. 1590 – Dutch optician Zacharias Jansen (c. 1580 – c. 1638) invents the compound microscope using two lenses.
1600 – English physicist and physician William Gilbert (1544-1603) publishes the first English scientific work De magnete, magneticisque corporibus, et de magno magnete tellure (On the Magnet, Magnetic Bodies, and the Great Magnet Earth), in which he explains his investigations into magnetic bodies and electrical attractions. In his work he uses rigorous methods of experimentation, emphasizes observation, and rejects many popular beliefs about magnetism.
1608 – Dutch eyeglass maker Hans Lippershey (c. 1570 – c. 1619) makes the first refracting telescope.
1609 – German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) draws up his first two laws of planetary motion: (1) the planets orbit the Sun in elliptical orbits, one focus of the ellipse at the Sun; and (2) a planet orbits the Sun so that a line drawn from the planet to the Sun always sweeps out equal areas in equal times.
1610 – Italian scientist Galileo Galilei (1562-1642) observes craters on the Moon and the four moons of Jupiter with a refracting telescope that he constructed.
Galileo Galilei on Motion
The Italian scientist Galileo Galilei made important advances in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, and physics. His work was important for both his discoveries and for the method he used to validate his claims. Galileo differed from those who came before him in that he based his theories on his observations of natural phenomena and demonstrated his theories using carefully prepared experiments.
In the study of motion, Galileo found that a simple pendulum can be used as an accurate clock. He came to this realization while attending a church service in Pisa Cathedral in 1582 where he noticed the regular movements of a lamp swinging above his head. Using his pulse to time the period of the lamp movement back and forth, he determined the length of the cord supporting the lamp determined the period of the swing.
From this observation, he devised experiments with simple pendulums (weights on the end of a string) that found the relationship between the length of the string and the period of the pendulum. Though Galileo did not invent a pendulum clock, the relationship between the period of the pendulum and the length of the string was fundamental to the development of pendulum-based clocks that became a standard for centuries.
Through experimentation, Galileo corrected a fallacy that had been perpetuated since the time of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC). Based on the writings of Aristotle, no one had questioned the belief that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects. To show that the speed at which an object falls is not dependent on its weight, according to legend, in 1602 Galileo dropped two cannonballs of different weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa and showed that they hit the ground at the same time.
Galileo on Astronomy and the Order of the Universe
Galileo took what was little more than a toy at the time and made a working telescope that was capable of making astronomical observations. With his instrument he observed the Moon, making detailed drawings of the mountains and craters at different times during the month. In 1610 he turned his telescope to the planet Jupiter and discovered the four bright moons that orbit the planet. He later observed the Sun and noted the black spots that move slowly across its surface. From the movement of the spots across the surface, he concluded that the Sun must be rotating.
Galileo’s observations of the stars, planets, and the Moon convinced him that the Sun was the center of the solar system, confirming in his mind that Nicolaus Copernicus was correct. However, his ideas were contrary to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, which adhered to the ancient model of the Earth at the center of the universe.
In 1632 he published his theory of the order of the universe in his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems—Ptolemaic and Copernican. The pope, who had supported Galileo up until this point, was offended and the book was banned. A year later Galileo was arrested, brought before the Inquisition, and under threat of imprisonment or worse, he recanted his heretical views.
Timeline (1618 to 1628)
1618 – Johannes Kepler states his third law of planetary motion: the square of the period in which a planet orbits the Sun is proportional to the cube of its average distance from the Sun.
1620 – English scientist and philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) publishes the Novum Organum, which sought to establish a method based on observation and experimentation in opposition to Aristotle. In his work, Bacon states, “For my way of discovering sciences goes far to level men’s wits, and leaves but little to individual excellence; because it performs everything by the surest rules and demonstration” (Aphorism 122).
1622 – English mathematician William Oughtred (1574-1660) creates a calculating machine called the slide rule, which uses logarithms to perform multiplication and division.
1628 – English physician William Harvey (1578-1657) explains the circulation of blood through the heart, lungs, and the human body. Harvey publishes Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus (On the Motion of the Heart and Blood).
William Harvey Discovers the Circulation of Blood
During his study of animals, William Harvey developed a theory of how blood circulates throughout the body. He observed in a single hour the heart pumps far more blood than the total amount of blood in an animal. Harvey reasoned that the blood must be going around in a continuous loop in what he referred to as “a circle of ceaseless motion.”
Timeline (1632 to 1676)
1632 – Galileo Galilei publishes his book on astronomical observations, Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo, tolemaico e copernico (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems—Ptolemaic and Copernican).
1637 – In London, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society is first published. The journal prints letters from the learned, the curious, and those seeking to expound on new discoveries, theories, and observations of natural phenomena. The journal publishes many articles that were important to the spread of the new science associated with the Scientific Revolution. The French mathematician, philosopher, and scientist René Descartes (1596-1650) publishes his Discourse on the Method, which helped establish the scientific method.
1640 – French mathematician Pierre de Fermat (1601-1665) proposes that light always travels in straight lines.
1642 – French scientist Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) states that the pressure within a liquid is the same everywhere within the liquid. This principle is fundamental to the working of all hydraulic machinery. German anatomist Johann Wirsung (1600-1643) discovers the pancreatic duct, which carries digestive juice from the pancreas to the small intestine.
1650 – The University of Leyden in the Netherlands establishes the first properly equipped chemistry laboratory.
1657 – Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) writes the first book on mathematical probability theory and produces the first pendulum clock. The clock kept time to within five minutes a day, which was an improvement on earlier types of clocks.
1658 – Dutch naturalist Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680) first describes red blood cells.