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History of Science

Scientific Revolution

The "scientific revolution" embraces the period between 1500 and 1700. Major biographical figures such as Francis Bacon (1561–1626), Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), Robert Boyle (1627–1691), Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), and Isaac Newton (1642–1727) dominate historiography for this period, although historians have done considerable work on figures such as Paracelsus (1493–1541) or Robert Fludd (1574–1637), whose ideas on occult sciences or mysticism influenced major figures, or those such as Marin Mersenne (1588–1648) or Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695), whose ideas on mechanism or metaphysics helped shape the work of others.

Historians of science long acknowledged the importance of published communication and authorship during this period. Yet until Elizabeth Eisenstein's two-volume The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformation in Early Modern Europe (1979), the importance of publication and authorship was a largely untested assumption with knowledge about these phenomena scattered throughout the literature. The second volume of Eisenstein's work is mainly about communication and science and makes a strong case that, whereas print was not the agent of change in giving rise to the scientific revolution, it was a crucial one. The social power of scientists as authors and the development of print-based academic culture were seen in the importance of prestige and how it came to be defined as a system of social capital. This reward system did not guarantee that publications would bring acclaim from fellow scientists, but it did ensure that an otherwise original scientist who did not publish would not receive acclaim. As an important independent variable in the history of science, publishing helps explain Galileo's popularity (and his political troubles with the Catholic Church), the obscurity of the Swedish chemist Carl Scheele (who made major chemical discoveries but did not publish in French or English, and hence was unknown to contemporaries), the importance of the priority dispute between Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz (1646–1716), and the covert pleas by Charles Darwin's (1809–1882) friends for him to publish his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859).

Although the occasional social constructionist has doubted whether there was any such thing as the scientific revolution, most historians recognize its usefulness as a heuristic term to characterize this amazing era of change. Indeed, Kuhn's work made revolution—the overthrow of one paradigm by another—the key event in explaining scientific change.

Instead of merely working with "revolution" as a historical tool, I. Bernard Cohen uses the historical method to investigate the very idea of revolution in science. By placing Kuhn's work in historical context, Cohen explains how scientists used and shaped the idea of revolution from the early modern period, through the Enlightenment, and on to the late twentieth century. During the Enlightenment, revolution became a rhetorical instrument borrowed from politics and heavily laden with connotations of progress. Like Cohen's earlier biographical histories, his investigation of revolution in science centered on key figures such as Copernicus and Newton.

Social constructionists have also focused on key biographical figures to explain the scientific revolution. By investigating the work of the chemist Robert Boyle, Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer sought to explain how faith in the mechanistic approach came to dominate scientific culture and how the mechanistic view came to be constructed as scientific reality. Although often criticized for its focus on Boyle's having established his legitimacy by emphasizing his own status as a gentleman, Shapin and Schaffer's work is more nuanced than that, and it does help explain Boyle's ascendancy over rival mechanists such as Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679). As a representative of the conservative traditional social order, Hobbes doubted the ability of experiments to yield knowledge and was a critic to be reckoned with. Boyle's ability to tie experimental demonstration to his mechanistic views was crucial in gaining public acceptance over Hobbes's skepticism. Shapin and Schaffer also effectively explain how the English Revolution and Anglican religion shaped the scientific revolution and hence modern science. Just as Hobbes had feared, scientists became the modern priesthood and science a major source of political authority.

In the history of science since the 1970s, Newton has continued to be a key biographical figure. In a series of books published between 1975 and 1995, Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs revealed Newton's passion for alchemy and explained the connections between this passion, Newton's theological beliefs, and his science. According to Dobbs, Newton's alchemical quest revolved around "Hunting the Green Lyon"—searching for the vegetable spirit that brought brute matter to life and revealed the divine origins of the world. Phenomena such as fermentation were examples of this vital spirit, which caused alchemical transformation as compared with mere chemical change. Newton also searched for essences through his religion and physics. Through his Bible studies, Newton sought a pure and uncorrupted reading of the Scriptures, a reading that would reveal the mind of God at work. In his physics research, Newton sought the essence of space, time, and physical matter—a research program that would reveal the "sensorium of God." Dobbs also demonstrated the effect of Newtonian science on industrial developments. Earlier scholars had pointed out Newton's search for ancient wisdom and alchemical investigation, but it was Dobbs who tied this to Newton's science in a convincing synthesis. Like Dobbs, Richard Westfall spent much of his life researching and writing about Newton. A paradigm for biographical studies, Westfall's book is more than 900 pages long, and the reader comes to Newton as a complete person in intellectual, social, and psychological terms. To accomplish this feat, Westfall deciphered Newton's boyhood journals, understood his private devotion to Bible studies, analyzed his private devotion to alchemy, and sympathized with his psychological challenges. Above all, Westfall explained the intellectual basis of Newton's science, with heavy emphasis on his mathematical and logical genius. Newton also emerges as a social force in his own right, from his work as warden and master of the mint to his leadership of the Royal Society (1703–1727).

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