The Scientific Revolution

The Scientific Revolution was a period in history beginning in the late 1500s when scientific ideas began to be consciously put to use by European society. It is generally thought to have begun with a book, On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres by Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543. This book was the first to postulate that the Earth was not the center of the Universe. It was such a striking change from past beliefs that it made many realize that not everything there was to know had yet been learned. This was made abundantly clear by discoveries in the new world, pioneered by Christopher Columbus, which showed that even on Earth there were vast unknowns.

Yet science and improvement of machines had quietly been going on throughout the late middle ages. Great thinkers had divised new ways to look at scientific questions. William of Occam for example noted that the most likely explanation for a phenomena was simplest explanation. This rule we now call Occam's Razor. Advances had been made in agriculture, and transportation (especially with the development of the caravel, the compass, and the astrolabe). Another major factor, and perhaps the true spark of the Scientific Revolution, may have been gunpowder.

The Gunpowder Revolution

The advent of gunpowder in Europe caused a revolution in warfare. First, cannons were developed and then hand held weapons that, in effect, swept the aristocratic knight from the field of battle. This did not so much destroy the aristocracy of western Europe as it forced aristocrats to become a part of the regular force of a more centralized power, taking away their independence. With the invention of cannon they could no longer shut themselves up in a castle to avoid the wrath of their king.

On a larger scale, innovations in warfare often proved the decisive factor in victory or defeat and controlled the fate of vast territories. It thus became vital for monarchs to sponsor technical experimentation in weapons. Meanwhile, monarchs, such as Czar Peter the Great of Russia, and their advisors began to realize that advances in other areas could be used to help the state. They gave monopolies to people who created new products, and then taxed the proceeds. They rewarded inventors and scientists and focused science by setting goals. By the mid-1600s scientists and inventors were vying with each other to make discoveries and advance science. It was because of a prize awarded by the British Parliament to the first person to develop a means for determining longitude at sea that the chronometer was invented.

The Scientific Method

Drawing of Sir Francis Bacon

Sir Francis Bacon was the first man to enunciate a method for making the technological innovations that were beginning to change European life. The ancient Greeks had felt that deduction was sufficient to access all important information. Bacon criticized this notion. He put forth the hypothesis that valid information about a subject could only be obtained through scientific experimentation. Under Bacon's regime, phenomena was observed, hypotheses made based on the observation. Tests would be conducted based on hypotheses. If the tests produced reproduceable results then conclusions could be made. These conclusions would spur additional questions and the process would begin again.

The scientific method began to be applied to all technical areas from astronomy to farming. These advances generally made life easier and understanding broader.

Printing Press: The Spread of Knowledge

All of this scientific ferment was made possible by another technical innovation, the printing press. The moveable type press was invented in Europe by Johannes Gutenberg (1400-1468). In 1456 he produced the first European book from a press, the Bible. Though Gutenberg himself did not prove a great success, his printing press was. Soon it was copied all over Europe. Within 30 years an addition 350 presses were producing books, pamphlets, and broadsheets.

With the printing press, knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, suddenly could be much more easily spread. When documents had to be copied one at a time by human hand they were rare and expensive. The printing press made books relatively inexpensive. It could be compared to the advent of the internet, where today a vast field of knowledge is accessible by the average person from their own home. People do not have to visit a university library to access scientific information.

Scientific Societies and Universities

Universities had been around for a long time. The University of Bologna was founded in 1088. These institutions were vital in helping to develop curious minds. Kings also saw the value of encouraging scientists by creating scientific societies, where great minds could meet and discuss ideas, research, and new developments. These acted as think tanks that could develop useful ideas. The Royal Society in Great Britain founded in 1662 is probably the most famous. Both Sir Isaac Newton (The father of modern physics and inventor of calculus) and Robert Boyle (the father of modern chemistry) were early members.

Probably the greatest figure of the Scientific Revolution was Sir Isaac Newton (1672-1727), an English professor at Cambridge and noted natural philosopher. A true Renaissance man, he investigated optics, discovered the laws of gravity, and invented the Calculus (simultaneous to Liebnitz). He was both a scientist and a deeply religious man. He felt his investigations were a way to view and understand “the mind of God”. His view of the universe informed and directed philosophers and scientists until the 20th century.

The Effects of the Scientific Revolution

The Scientific Revolution would make Europeans the most powerful peoples in the world. It made individuals much more productive by creating machines that could do drudgerous labor and utilize multiple sources of power from wind and water to coal and steam. More people could be fed, clothed, and housed with less manpower. More wealth could be created in less time for more people. Innovations in military machines and tactics made Europeans a force to be reckoned with. New methods of trade and commerce made trade with other nations more advantageous, spreading even more knowledge.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Scientific Revolution was its self perpetuating nature. Once it was truly underway luddite movements could hardly stand in its way. The answer of one scientific question spawned a dozen more. Scientists found that the rewards of scientific research were great on an individual, national, and world-wide level. The Scientific Revolution would spawn the Industrial Revolution. The Scientific Revolution is often thought of as a period that occurred in the long ago, but in many ways we continue to be a part of it to this day.

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