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The Emergence Of Experiment

The birth of experiment has been the subject of considerable debate among historians of early modern science. The received view is that experimentation emerged in the seventeenth century as part of an era of radical discontinuity in the methods and practices of investigating nature. Among the natural philosophers who developed and practiced experimentation, some of the most eminent were Francis Bacon (1561–1626), Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), Robert Boyle (1627–1691), and Isaac Newton (1642–1727). There have been challenges to this view, most notably by A. C. Crombie, who suggested in the early 1950s that the experimental method originated in the late medieval period. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries medieval scholars reflected in a systematic fashion on experiment as a method for the acquisition of natural knowledge. Furthermore, experiments had been performed, mostly in the context of mathematical sciences such as optics, well before the seventeenth century. Other historians have pointed out that experimentation had a prehistory in craft traditions and in occult practices, such as alchemy and natural magic. The practical skills of craftsmen and artisans and the experimental practices of alchemists contributed significantly to the emergence of experimental science in the seventeenth century.

It remains the case, however, that systematic and extensive attempts to understand and manipulate nature by means of experiment did not take place before the seventeenth century. Before the scientific revolution, the dominant means of acquiring information about the natural world was unaided observation. That was in line with Aristotelian natural philosophy, which attributed a prominent epistemological role to quotidian (common, everyday) experience. In the seventeenth century that role was gradually taken over by experiment—the active "interrogation" of nature—which was carried out by intervening in nature's workings and by manipulating its forces. In the process, unaided observation gave way to observation by means of instruments (such as the barometer, thermometer, air pump, and microscope), which enabled natural philosophers to measure and explore nature under controlled and, sometimes, artificial conditions. Those instruments considerably extended the range of phenomena that was accessible to the senses.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Evolution to FerrocyanideExperiment - The Emergence Of Experiment, Two Experimental Traditions: Classical And Baconian, Galileo Galilei, The Baconian Program And Its Institutional Expression