Was there really a Scientific Revolution?


History of Science is the history of understanding and it helps us learn how things were known and for what purpose. When considering how different the approach to natural philsophy was between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, it is important to give due regard to people's understanding of knowledge and not merely what was known. We must also tackle the issue in a less superficial cultural and historical context. Nowadays science has an integral influence on society in myriad forms but this was not always so. Although the period that this essay covers is blithely referred to as a "revolution" with some frequency, we must weigh up whether this term is really appropriate, especially given the time span under debate.

Shapin opens his book entitled The Scientific Revolution with the words "There is no such thing as the Scientific Revolution and this is a book about it". When writing about the Scientific Revolution, historians of the last century happily threw about phrases such as "reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes" and "the real origin of both the modern world and of the modern mentality". However, nowadays there is significant discomfort among some historians with every single word in "the Scientific Revolution". Firstly, there was no singular event in a certain place and at a specific time to be referred to. The word "science" did not even exist in the seventeenth century and there was no coherent cultural entity that could rightly be referred to by it. Finally, many are beginning to question whether there were changes substantial enough to warrant the period's revolutionary repute. Sometimes, it seems like an almost self-congratulatory encomium from the academics of the 1950s attempting to justify their self-import.

What constitutes a revolution?

A revolution is a sudden or momentous change in a situation and implies the toppling of a previous orthodoxy – was this really the case for the Scientific Revolution? It appears as though even the most learned people failed to realise a clean break from the pseudoscience of the past. Newton passionately dabbled in alchemy and wrote over a million words on the subject as well as producing a translation of the Emerald Tablet. There was a continuing and very real belief in magic as evidenced by the thousands of people lynched as witches. In addition, throughout the Renaissance, half the population were systematically dissuaded from experimental science. Women were allowed no part in the revolution and, regardless of the ostensible structure of scientific societies, it was very difficult for anyone but noblemen to practise science. As the majority of the population - even those who were well educated - did not believe in contemporary science, how far had their world been revolutionised? To what extent were the poor aware of the discoveries of the times?

What changed?

Rather than overthrowing the paradigms of antiquity, natural philosophers tended to attempt to integrate their observations with the ancient texts, often to the detriment of their scientific integrity. Astronomers' observations failed to concur with the Ptolemaic predictions so they continually tweaked the old system to fit with their data. There was quasireligious obsession about the perfection of circular orbits and spherical bodies as the Church thought that the symmetry of nature was an argument for divine creation. Even when Copernicus proposed his theory of a heliocentric universe, it took several decades for De revolutionibus orbium coelestium to be published and even longer for it to be commonly accepted. Kepler tirelessly tried to make Tycho's readings of celestial motion fit with ideas of the time and only came to his conclusion of elliptical orbits after exhausting all alternative hypotheses. However, despite the astronomical progress made, pre-Aristotelian astrology was still prominent during the Renaissance. After Columbus landed in the Americas, discoveries of new artefacts, animals and plants could not be explained by many of the ancient texts. However, there were stubborn attempts to reconcile their findings with the old worldviews and, while Galileo was put under house arrest by for claiming theology ought to be separated from science, it wasn't until Darwin before it was suggested that Native Americans were not descendants of Noah.

How different was the state of European thought post-"revolution"? Although it is easy to discount the changes as revolutionary due to the amount of time they were spread over, with a considerable temporal range, a large swing toward modern methodology is apparent: Richard S. Westfall wrote, "Scientists of today can read and recognise works done after 1687. It takes a historian to comprehend those written before 1543." Chemistry took a little longer than other disciplines to move forward, but there can be no denying the strides made in medicine and physics.

The first refracting telescope was built in 1603 and by 1610 Galileo was using an instrument capable of magnifying distant objects thirty times. A mere thirteen years after the anatomist Girolamo Fabrici showed that there were valve in veins to regulate blood flow, William Harvey announced his discovery of the circulatory system which he then refined for publication. Harvey opposed the conventional model of blood flow, but he backed his work up with scientific methodology and it slowly became accepted – discoveries such as this and the increasing popularity of public dissections led to fundamental changes in medical practise. The study of gases was enhanced very rapidly with the invention of the barometer in 1644. Four years later, Pascal had shown that atmospheric pressure changes with altitude and, by the end of the century, we had Boyle's Law, Amontons' Law, the groundwork for temperature scales and Jacques Charles' work. Botanists gathered specimens to study rather than describing them in situ and in 1668, John Ray was the first to classify plants found worldwide irrespective of their place of origin – this was the beginning of a shift in the way science was practised and a significant step away from past habits.

Scientific experimentation is a social activity and the founding of the Royal Society and the Parisian Academy was important regardless of membership demographics. Forums such as this promoted discussion and collaboration as well as taking the some intellectual power from the universities which is very relevant to how academic study progressed. It is also worth noting that, although women were very much removed from science and this example is clearly exceptional, Johannes Hevelius' wife helped produce and publish his volumes on astronomy. Aristotle believed that nature ought to be investigated in its natural state, whereas Bacon advocated the prediction and control of the physical world. Experiments with vacuums and air pumps allowed investigations into artificial environments and would have been deemed irrelevant previously. By the end of the seventeenth century all aspects of knowledge were being pursued whether the conclusions had practical uses such as navigation or not. Antiquity was finally a thing of the past and deductions were backed up rationally – mathematics and logic were trusted more than outmoded teachings.


In conclusion, perhaps we are not justified in using the term "scientific revolution" – the changes were too gradual and too slow. People still clung to ideals of the past and anachronistic social divisions remained. However, even though the average man's life was largely unchanged and eminent scientists still pondered over the possibilities of alchemy, a intellectual quantum shift had taken place. In the 1600s knowledge grew and the transformation of the study of science accelerated at a rate that was more than the result of vast European expansion. Europe in 1543 was an anthropocentric world overly complicated by Ptolemy's equant, Galen's dogma and compounded misunderstandings – "by the time of Newton's death, the educated European outlook on the natural world had changed beyond all recognition" and we were left with an infinite universe full of potential.

  • Dear, Peter. Revolutionising the Sciences (Princeton, 2001).
  • Henry, John. The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (2002).
  • Linden, Stanton J. The Alchemy Reader: From Hermes Tristmegistus to Isaac Newton (Cambridge, 2003).
  • Shapin, Steven. The Scientific Revolution (Chicago, 1996).