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Monday, November 30, 2015

The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution by David Wootton review – a big bang moment

Photo: Lorraine Daston
"The birth of science in Europe was the greatest revolution of all, argues this dazzling polemic" and according to Lorraine Daston, director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.

William Blake’s 1795 portrait of Isaac Newton.
Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

What is modernity and when did it begin? The answer depends a lot on the nationality and specialism of the historian you ask. Italians favour the achievements of Renaissance art and humanism, as early as the 14th century; northern Europeans opt for the period when cities such as Amsterdam, Paris and London rose to economic and cultural prominence, from the early 16th through to the 18th centuries; some historians of Germany would go as late as 1900. Philosophers are likely to zero in on Descartes in the mid-17th century; economists hold out for the industrial revolution in the late 18th century; political historians push for the American and French revolutions. Beyond Europe, many more periods and places jostle for attention. Everyone has a dog in this fight.

David Wootton’s answer is unequivocal: modernity began with the scientific revolution in Europe, bookended by the dates 1572 (when the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe identified a new star in the heavens) and 1704 (when Isaac Newton published Opticks). This was “the most important transformation in human history” since the Neolithic era. Later events such as the industrial revolution were no more than the extended consequences of the biggest revolution of them all. Wootton is equally clear about whether the scientific revolution was a matter for celebration (as most Enlightenment thinkers saw it) or regret (as some Romantics felt): it was, in his view, a very good thing indee

Compressed into a few sentences, the major theses of this book sound unsurprising. The scientific revolution was not just the motor of modern history, it was the model of modernity. Rational, calculating, advancing at breakneck speed, respecting no authority: science after Newton seemed to embody the power and ever expanding possibilities of a society fixated on the future rather than the past. This is the narrative upon which university professorships and whole departments of the history of science were established after the second world war, and the narrative that a whole generation of historians of science were weaned on.

Yet Wootton believes that historians of what he calls the “post-Kuhn generation” (after the American historian Thomas Kuhn’s influential Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which recast the history of science in the mould of evolution rather than progress) – that is, roughly those who came of age in the 1980s and 90s – have broken with the faith and denied the scientific revolution’s significance as “the big bang” moment of modernity, querying each one of those three words. While they maintain that the understanding of nature was transformed in early modern Europe, recent research on many fronts – anatomy, astronomy, natural history, chemistry, mechanics, physics, medicine, civil and military engineering – has cast doubt on whether these changes constituted a “big bang”.

Wootton’s aim is to offer a new interpretation of what he contends still deserves to be called the scientific revolution. This makes for a big book, with some historiographical chapters (and appendices) that are unlikely to be of interest to readers who are not historians of science over the age of 50. At its core, however, are remarkable essays on the vocabulary of the age of discovery, including terms such as facts, experiments, laws, hypotheses, theories, evidence and judgment. Drawing on a dazzling array of texts, Wootton traces a dawning consciousness that natural knowledge need not be certain to be reliable; that pell-mell experience can be systematised and sharpened by observation and experiment; and that empirical inquiry is of necessity collective.

The great strength of this approach is also its weakness: it is all about texts. If there was one thing the 17th-century proponents of the new philosophy were adamant about, it was that their ways of thinking were about things as well as words. Wootton mentions in passing that improvements in, for example, glass-blowing were a precondition for early experiments on air pressure, and he is alert to how double-entry bookkeeping may have provided a template for other sorts of mathematical abstraction. Yet he underplays how practices such as keeping a commonplace book and achieving high temperatures in a furnace were creatively adapted to new purposes. These connections provide the strongest evidence both for the continuity of new knowledge with old, and for its exuberant originality in hybridising scholarly and practical skills.
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Additional resources

The Invention of Science by David Wootton goes back five hundred years in time to chronicle this crucial transformation, exploring the factors that led to its birth and the people who made it happen. Wootton argues that the Scientific Revolution was actually five separate yet concurrent events that developed independently, but came to intersect and create a new worldview. Here are the brilliant iconoclasts—Galileo, Copernicus, Brahe, Newton, and many more curious minds from across Europe—whose studies of the natural world challenged centuries of religious orthodoxy and ingrained superstition. 

Source: The Guardian

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