David Wootton offers a kind of justification for his lengthy chronicle of the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. “We still live with the consequences,” he writes in “The Invention of Science.’’ The “scientific way of thinking has become so much part of our culture that it has now become difficult to think our way back into a world where people did not speak of facts, hypotheses and theories, where knowledge was not grounded in evidence, where nature did not have laws.”
Wootton fears that we don”t quite appreciate what an intellectual leap forward the revolution was, and he proves himself a worthy tutor. The University of York history professor is a dazzling explicator of difficult ideas whose relish for his material is evident on nearly every page. He writes well not only about key figures like Isaac Newton, Nicolaus Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, Francis Bacon, and Robert Boyle, but also dozens of lesser known scientific minds — Italian German, English, French — from the era.
It seems clear that, in Wootton’s mind, some blame belongs to relativists, social constructivists, and others who have questioned the impact of the scientific revolution in recent years — or have dismissed the concept altogether.
One such figure, Steven Shapin, famously opened one of his books by stating that “[t]here is no such thing as the Scientific Revolution . . . and this is a book about it.” For Wootton, these notions are balderdash. If he wears you out with all the intramural academic sniping, his account is always thought provoking. Indeed, Wootton drafts an unusual candidate who, he argues, helped kick-start the birth of modern science: Christopher Columbus. His journeys to the New World in the 1490s upset the fixed knowledge of the globe and established that there was much still to discover about the world.
Without the concept of discovery, there would be no catalyst for the pursuit of new knowledge. As Wootton explains, knowledge, as it was enshrined in medieval universities and monasteries, was dominated by Ptolemy, Galen, and Aristotle. It was generally believed that all of the most important knowledge had already been sussed out. So learning was a backward-facing pursuit, about returning to ancient first principles, not pushing into the unknown in pursuit of new facts. (Wootton has detailed chapters on the emergence of fact and evidence as terms of art. Language itself had to undergo a revolution. )
Part of the story Wootton tells is how philosophy was overthrown by mathematics and its allied pursuits: cartography, ballistics, architecture, all part of “a family group which held a set of geometrical techniques and measuring instruments in common.” Taking the (literal) measure of the world became a paramount activity.
Wootton describes a cascade of developments across several fields, including the arts. In the 1500s, Italian artists deployed geometric principles in their paintings to bring about startling shifts in perspectives. Geometry also backed up astronomers as they probed the heavens. The telescope yielded startling new data about a supposedly fixed universe. (The year 1572, when Brahe discovered a new star, is a key date for Wootton). The microscope also revealed new worlds, minute but just as seemingly vast — and hitherto unexplored — as the heavens.
Everywhere, what was once invisible was made visible by numbers and measurements. The thermometer (around 1611) and barometer (1643) allowed air temperature and pressure to be accurately gauged. Robert Boyle’s famous air pump (1660) allowed him to experiment with vacuums and their effects on living things.
From theorems on paper to Boyle’s contraptions that seemed to perform miracles, the rise in experiments heralded a new way of looking at phenomena, whether human tissue or comets streaking across the skies. It was another crucial innovation — the printing press — that allowed scientists to communicate their findings to intellectual circles and allowed knowledge to circulate to wider and wider audiences. New theories — Galileo’s law of fall, Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, Newton’s theories on gravity, light, and color — made the rounds. Printing, for example, “created a community of astronomers working on common problems with common methods and reaching agreed solutions. This community had not existed in 1471.”
As books circulated and expanded the pool of research, findings were tested and debated, argued for and against. A marker of the modern scientific pursuit, Wootton writes, is the “formation of a critical community capable of assessing discoveries and replicating results.” Wootton compares this adversarial process to lawyerly proceedings, where truth was established by a combative synthesis of evidence, argumentation, refutation, and proof.
“The Invention of Science’’ covers so much ground, and so many thinkers, heralded and unheralded, you will need to take frequent pauses to catch your breath. There are intellectual fireworks galore here; and if Wootton is a touch arrogant about his own views, his vigorous account of how science became the way of the world is more than welcome.
By David Wootton
Harper, 769 pp., illustrated, $35Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.