Historians of the Scientific Revolution have never agreed to a precise beginning date, but general consensus sets it “sometime in the 17th century.” It involved men such as Newton, Galileo and Copernicus, and completely changed the way people viewed the world.
Since the 2nd century CE, the geocentric model of the universe proposed by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy had been accepted as fact and was the official doctrine of the Catholic church. Then a mathematician named Nicolaus Copernicus, after many calculations, devised a new heliocentric model; that is, with the sun as the center and the earth revolving around it. He released his findings on his deathbed. This model went largely unnoticed until an amateur astronomer named Galileo Galilei pointed a telescope at the night sky. He made marvelous discoveries, including the fact that other planets could also have moons. He expanded on Copernicus’s original findings but was eventutually forced to recant his views or face ex-communication.
The year Galileo died also witnessed the birth of someone who was destined to become one of the most important scientists ever, if not the most important. This was, of course, Isaac Newton. Shared with a German, Newton’s discovery of calculus made possible the prediction of motion in a curve, useful then in ballistics and essential today in rocketry. Newton also discovered that light is a composed of different coloured rays. He did this by passing sunlight through a prism. He also formulated the laws of gravity and motion, which he published in his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687.
The Scientific Revolution can be said to be directly responsible for the Enlightenment, as it spawned the Age of Reason which the philosophes of the Enlightenment expounded. Men such as René Descartes pondered the nature of existence, while men like John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques Rousseau questioned or defended the state of government. In his Second Treatise on Government, Locke argued that the ruler of a nation-state rules only by the consent of the people, and if that ruler becomes tyrannical or inefficient, it is the right of the people to revolt and choose a new leader. In Leviathan, Hobbes defends government, saying that it is a necessary construct to protect us from a “state of nature,” in which life is “poor, brutish, nasty and short.” In Rousseau’s writings, he questions the necessity of government, stating, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” suggesting a return to the state of nature so despised by Hobbes.
New political ideas such as these seem created to foment rebellion and so they did. In 1776, fed up with “taxation without representation,” and not being allowed to handle their own affairs, American colonists presented a formal Declaration of Independence to Great Britain, so beginning the American Revolution. In France, a revolution was triggered by abuses by King Louis XVI. The King had run out of money and so convened a meeting called the Estates-General, where the nobility, clergy, and everyone else would listen to the King beg. Traditionally, the three groups convened in separate rooms, leaving the “everyone else” Third Estate feeling powerless. When the Estates-General was called, the Third Estate boycotted the meeting, and on June 17, 1789, declared itself the “National Assembly.” The King threw them out and they met on a tennis court 3 days later, swearing the now famous “Tennis Court Oath,” declaring that they had full legal power and that they would draft a constitution.
Because of the Scientific Revolution, new and wonderful advances have been made in the past 400 years, allowing faster travel, faster communication and better understanding of the natural world. Because of the Enlightment, the nature of government in Western civilisation was forever changed, from tyrannical monarchy to constitutional democracy. And without either of them nothing, nothing, around us would be possible.