New Learning or Scientific Revolution?: Natural Philosophy from Galileo to Newton

Benjamin Guyer

It is often claimed that the seventeenth century saw one of the most important events in modern history: the Scientific Revolution. From this perspective, the Scientific Revolution is the pivot around which modern history turns, enabling science to marginalize religion and enabling reason to overcome myth, paving the way for the Enlightenment and the explosive political revolutions of the late-eighteenth century. But in fact, no one in the seventeenth century thought this way. The proper noun “Scientific Revolution” actually dates to 1939, and entered into widespread usage only in the mid-1950s.[1] Even though many of the ideas discussed in this chapter were recognized as new, no one at the time sought to break with the past, and new scientific endeavors were often inspired by ancient sources. Seventeenth-century science was heavily influenced by the medieval scholastic belief that nihil in intellectu quod non prius in sensu (Latin for “nothing is in the mind that is not first in the senses”). The events often associated with the so-called Scientific Revolution merely continued to work out this much older commitment to empiricism. Debates about the reliability of sensory experience shaped the relationship that science had with both religion and technology. The results of scientific research were sometimes new, but the assumptions guiding them were oftentimes not.


Instruments and Methods

Can we trust our senses? This might seem like a strange question, but it is not. According to the historian of science Peter Dear, science has two faces. The first is concerned with intelligibility, understanding how the world works. The second is concerned with instrumentality, using technology to improve understanding and then applying that knowledge in a practical way.[2] Intelligibility and instrumentality became inseparable in the seventeenth century. Together they gave rise to modern empiricism, but also to a keen recognition that the senses have limits and can even deceive. On the one hand, all empiricism presumes that sensory data communicates something true and trustworthy about the world; on the other hand, scientific knowledge today is impossible without the aid of technology such as microscopes—and yet, microscopes reveal precisely how much our eyes fail to see. No less important, the successful use of scientific instruments requires training, because without the requisite skills, the senses are not, in and of themselves, adequate for successful scientific research. Empiricism is nothing if not paradoxical.

The telescope is among the most well-known seventeenth-century scientific instruments. Originally called the spyglass, it was invented in 1608 by Hans Lipperhey (1570–1619), a Dutch spectacle maker, and was intended for navigation and military use.[3] The telescope was not yet two years old when Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) used it to first study the heavens. In doing so, he was quite unconventional—and the novelty of his research was greeted with considerable skepticism. During Easter 1610, after an intensive, two-month period using his telescope to study Jupiter’s moons, Galileo gathered a group of natural philosophers together in Rome. Quite against Galileo’s expectations, those who used his telescope that night were not only incapable of seeing Jupiter’s moons, but came to regard his telescope as a failure. They agreed that in its ability to magnify objects on Earth, it was better than Lipperhey’s original, but they dissented from Galileo’s belief that the telescope could also be used to accurately study the heavens. In particular, they denied that, with it, one could see four moons around Jupiter. In the words of one attendee, “On Earth it works wonders; in the heavens it deceives.”[4] Those who rejected Galileo’s claims did so for a simple reason: they trusted their senses.

The problem surrounding the discovery of Jupiter’s moons was ultimately a simple one: few had been trained to use the telescope, and still fewer were trained to use it for astronomical inquiry. Even astronomers inspired by Galileo’s research initially had their doubts. Attempting to verify Galileo’s widely doubted discovery, Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) and his associate Benjamin Ursinus (1587–1633) spent the first nine days of September 1610 trying to replicate Galileo’s observation. Only on their ninth consecutive night were they both able to verify the moons. By the end of the year, others had also confirmed Galileo’s discovery. Perhaps Galileo was a bit naïve; having worked with his telescope for months, he expected others to verify his findings in a single night with an instrument that none were trained to use. But it is also difficult to fault Galileo or his colleagues for their respective stances. All involved believed what they did—and didn’t—see. This early debate about the reliability of the telescope was conducted firmly within the bounds of seventeenth-century empiricism. As section IV of this chapter will further discuss, teamwork, correspondence, and an emerging academic readership both drove and refined the contents of such intellectual disputations.

Despite initial doubts, consensus about Jupiter’s moons grew comparatively quickly. The shape of Saturn was a very different matter. Almost immediately after observing Jupiter, Galileo turned his telescope to Saturn, concluding that it was actually a composite of three different planets (see fig. 1). Here, too, Galileo’s conclusion conflicted with earlier consensus, but unlike the moons of Jupiter, confusion over Saturn’s shape reigned for more than half a century. In 1659, Christiaan Huygens (1726–1695) published his Systema Saturnium (Latin for “The System of Saturn”), in which he offered a new theory about Saturn’s shape, proposing—correctly, as it turned out—that the planet had a ring around it. At this time, Huygens was one of Europe’s premier manufacturers of telescopes, and he rejected earlier descriptions of Saturn by arguing that they were the product of inferior telescopes. Here was another instance of a scientist arguing against the consensus, and some found Huygens’s bravado presumptuous. Having spent decades studying Saturn with telescopes other than Huygens’s own, should other astronomers have suspended belief in their own observations and simply accepted Huygens’s conclusions? Consensus about Saturn’s shape developed very slowly over the course of many decades and only after much research. In the seventeenth century no less than today, consensus took time.


Figure 1. The changing appearance of Saturn, from Christiaan Huygens, Systema Saturnium (The Hague: Adriaan Vlacq, 1659), 35. Image courtesy History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma 


New instruments facilitated new discoveries; they also demanded new research methods. The English polymath Francis Bacon (1561–1626) arguably provided the most expansive and detailed plan for scientific experiments in his 1620 work Instauratio Magna (Latin for “The Great Renewal”). Its frontispiece, which shows a ship ready to set sail, reveals Bacon’s belief that his method would yield important discoveries (see fig. 2). The second part of this work, the Novum Organum Scientiarum (Latin for “The New Instrument of the Sciences”), laid out Bacon’s thoughts on experiments. Beseeching divine aid, while eschewing what he called the “violent attacks from the armed forces of opinion,” Bacon advocated “marriage between the empirical and rational faculties.”[5] Not unlike Galileo’s early critics, Bacon believed that the senses could deceive, but he also believed that experimentation provided a reliable way out of this predicament. Bacon privileged experiments over instruments, writing, “the subtlety of experiments is far greater than that of the senses themselves even when assisted by carefully designed instruments; we speak of experiments which have been devised and applied specifically for the question under investigation with skill and good technique.” Insofar as an experiment remained open to improvement, it would yield a fully reliable empiricism. The senses would become “sacred high priests of nature and skilled interpreters of its oracles.”[6] In Bacon’s work, skepticism about the reliability of the human senses did not lead to a denigration of human intellectual aspiration, but to a remarkably high view of the capacities of human endeavor.


Figure 2. Frontispiece, from Francis Bacon’s Instauratio Magna, published in 1620. Public Domain.

All of this might sound revolutionary and new, but Bacon really aimed at the renewal of lost knowledge. He was partially inspired by the Jewish myth of Seth’s pillars. In the Biblical book of Genesis, God’s breath gives Adam life. It was widely accepted in ancient Jewish and Christian thought that with God’s breath came special knowledge, and that this was reflected by Adam’s ability to name all of the animals in the Garden of Eden. When Adam ate the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, his divinely inspired knowledge began to decay, but he transmitted what he remembered to his son Seth, who inscribed this knowledge upon pillars of stone. With Noah’s flood, the pillars were destroyed and the knowledge scattered—but it was not lost. The experimental method advocated in Novum Organum was not simply about discovering new knowledge, but about recovering and restoring the fragments of Adam’s once-perfect understanding. Hence the title of Bacon’s larger project: the Great Renewal. Hoping to catalogue “every novelty, rarity or abnormality in nature,” Bacon concluded Novum Organum with a list of 130 different topics for future investigation.[7] Some of his suggestions might strike modern readers as curious. With no hint of irony, Bacon advocated investigating sleep and dreams, the history of music and other arts, and even the importance of composing a “History of Jugglers and Clowns.”[8] However odd some of his suggestions might seem, they bear witness to the remarkable breadth of Bacon’s vision—a vision that, as we will see, had profound influence.

No doubt much of this seems quite familiar, but some very different assumptions were held at the time about mathematics and physics. Quite unlike today, at the dawn of the seventeenth century, mathematics was not seen as integral to scientific work. Before the seventeenth century, there had been little reason to question the importance of the demonstratio potissima (Latin for “the strongest demonstration”), an argument in formal logic known as the syllogism. Aristotle held that a syllogism was perfect if its conclusion followed self-evidently from two premises: “All A are B, all B are C, therefore all A are C.” Mathematical demonstration was not considered capable of producing an argument as strong as the demonstratio potissima because mathematics, as something abstract, is not capable of the kind of certainty revealed through sensory experience. Mathematics deals in quantitative relations—and very few people at the time accepted that quantitative relations could explain physical causes and effects. In this regard, it is important to recognize that at least some of Galileo’s experiments may have never been performed; they were more like thought experiments. But could thought experiments, even if their conclusions were justified on the basis of mathematical demonstration, provide a sure understanding of the natural order?



When Galileo began using his telescope, there were several major theories about the shape of the universe. The first was geocentrism, which placed the Earth at the center, and which is often associated with the ancient philosopher Ptolemy. The second was heliocentrism, which placed the sun at the center, which slowly became the dominant astronomical model. Although Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) did not invent heliocentrism, he gave it a sophisticated explanation, but one that was largely ignored until the late sixteenth century. The third model was geoheliocentrism, which placed the sun, Mercury, and Venus in orbit around the Earth, but placed all other planets in orbit around the sun. Advanced by Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), who worked out this system in the 1580s, geoheliocentrism was more popular than the other two systems throughout much of the seventeenth century.

Before going any further, a popular myth about geocentrism should be dispensed with. It is sometimes believed that geocentrism and heliocentrism functioned as claims about humanity’s place in the universe. According to this version of history, some Christians—such as the members of the Roman Inquisition—believed that moral order mapped cosmological order. They allegedly defended geocentrism because they believed that humanity’s importance necessitated existing at the center of the universe; thus heliocentrism was wrong because, in removing humanity from the center, it also degraded the value of human beings. In fact, no one argued this.[9] Contemporaries connected cosmological centrality not with moral importance but with inferiority. It was widely held that, like God, stars and planets were more perfect and not subject to change, whereas mutability and entropy defined terrestrial existence. They further believed that because the Earth was the axis of a centripetal universe, it was also a receptacle for the universe’s detritus.[10] At a more metaphorical level, centrality could also indicate suffering, as seen in Dante Alighieri’s (1265–1321) Inferno, where the center of hell was located in the center of the Earth, and thus was at the very center of the geocentric universe. Centrality was hardly a privileged position! In fact, proponents of heliocentrism often made moral arguments in favor of their system, arguing that displacing Earth from the center of the universe better accorded with Christian beliefs in the moral value of humanity. Heliocentrism sometimes doubled as a moral claim; geocentrism and geoheliocentrism did not.

At a scientific level, heliocentrism was rejected for several reasons. First, it lacked explanatory power. In his two-volume 1651 masterpiece Almagestum Novum (Latin for “New Almagest”), the most important mid-seventeenth-century synthesis of astronomical research, Giovanni Battista Riccioli (1598–1671) collected 126 arguments about heliocentrism; 77 of these were arguments for geocentrism, while 49 were arguments for heliocentrism.[11] Riccioli was fair-minded and noted that each side in this debate had a number of plausible counterarguments to use against its opponent. But Riccioli found a small number of arguments against heliocentrism decisive. One of these was the claim, first made by Tycho Brahe, that the orbit of the Earth should produce noticeable effects on Earth. Heliocentric arguments held that the Earth rotated on an axis as it orbited the sun. This meant that at the equator, the Earth rotated faster than it at its poles. Borrowing from Brahe, Riccioli proposed that if the Earth were really rotating, then firing a cannon ball north would cause the cannon ball to deflect east of the intended target. Problematically, cannon balls could not be observed deflecting this way—and thus, Riccioli concluded, geoheliocentrism was the more plausible argument.

A second key argument against heliocentrism concerned annual parallax, the apparent change in the size of stars due to the position of the Earth in its orbit around the sun. Copernicans and their opponents both agreed that stars, like the sun, did not move. This raised a problem for proponents of heliocentrism: if stars are fixed, they should appear progressively larger as the Earth orbits closer to them, and smaller as the Earth orbits away. Problematically, such changes could not be seen. Anti-Copernicans recognized this, and emphasized the point; Copernicans could not counter their objection. Because the orbit of planets such as Jupiter and Saturn was observable but annual parallax was not, it made far more sense to assume that the Earth also did not move. Consequently, heliocentrism remained a topic of debate long after Galileo, and a matter of acute interest decades after Riccioli compiled the 126 arguments in the New Almagest. In 1674, Robert Hooke (1635–1703), one of the earliest members of the Royal Society, considered annual parallax the single most important anti-Copernican argument. The frontispiece of the New Almagest shows heliocentrism and geoheliocentrism weighed against each other in a scale (see fig. 3). The geoheliocentric system wholly outweighs the heliocentric system, thus indicating that Riccioli considered it more plausible, and that he invited his readers to do the same.

Figure 3. Frontispiece of Riccioli’s New Almagest (1651). Public Domain.



Related to the issue of cosmology is the issue of religion, but as the preceding discussion indicates, the relationship between faith and science was more complex than is often assumed. Conflict between science and religion is most often associated with Galileo, but an important caveat must be noted. Seventeenth-century arguments about the structure of the universe did not fall into a simple bifurcation with religion on one side and natural philosophy on the other. Galileo did not advance purely scientific arguments, and his detractors did not counter him with purely religious responses. Debates about heliocentrism were not zero-sum contests between science and religion, but were instead about how to understand the harmony between them. Everyone believed that true scientific knowledge and true religious belief were complementary.

The most popular metaphor for describing the relationship between religion and nature was “God’s two books.” The first book was the Christian Bible and the second was the Book of Nature, a metaphorical description for the entire natural order. This metaphor was inherited from earlier centuries and carried with it a sense that the two books were already distinct, even though God was held as the author of both. The seventeenth century did not see a change in this basic conviction, but instead a slowly developing belief that particular methods were appropriate to the study of each. As Galileo wrote in his lengthy “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” “I think that in disputes about natural phenomena one must begin not with the authority of the scriptural passages but with sensory experience and necessary demonstrations.”[12] Like his contemporaries, including his opponents, Galileo believed that the Bible was divinely inspired and that God sometimes accommodated divine revelation to the finite intellectual capacities of human beings. But when it came to studying the natural order, scripture was less important than direct investigation of the Book of Nature. Half a century later, Robert Boyle (1627–1691), a deeply religious Irishman and member of the Royal Society, articulated a similar view. For Boyle, studying nature aided religious contemplation, but the study of nature had to proceed according to experiment and observation. Religious activity gave natural philosophy an almost mystical value, but religious affections could not direct the methods and conclusions of scientific investigation.

Theological reflection often punctuated scientific publications, and even at its most rigorous, scientific research was not simply the result of dispassionate observation. Results were sometimes buttressed with explicitly theological claims. Galileo’s “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” was a small theological treatise about the relationship between Biblical interpretation natural philosophy. Something similar is true of Kepler, who proposed that heliocentrism offered a more perfect image of the Trinity than geocentrism. Kepler compared God the Father with the sun, the Son of God with the moon, and the Holy Spirit with the air between them. Those who argued for geoheliocentrism also made theological claims: Brahe justified geoheliocentrism by appealing to both the Bible and the results of his observations. But, as already noted, heliocentrism remained problematic because its proponents could not answer key empirical objections to it. Faced with such difficulties, Copernicans often resorted to a religious argument: that their observations revealed the absolute power of God. Opponents of heliocentrism countered that this was a flight from all observational demands, and that appealing to theology without observational data effectively rendered scientific work irrelevant.

No one believed that religious arguments were, in and of themselves, capable of determining scientific matters. Those who rejected Galileo’s findings often described Copernicanism as “contrary to Holy Scripture,” but if we focus on this argument alone, we will fundamentally misunderstand the full scope of debate about heliocentrism. Then as now, scientific consensus was a matter of considerable importance. The Roman Inquisition, which condemned Galileo on June 22, 1633, offers an excellent example. Its judgment against Galileo referred first to scientific agreement against heliocentrism. Only after this did it turn to religious matters. The Roman Inquisition decreed:

That the sun is the center of the world and motionless is a proposition which is philosophically absurd and false, and formally heretical, for being explicitly contrary to Holy Scripture;

That the earth is neither the center of the world nor motionless but moves even with diurnal motion is philosophically equally absurd and false, and theologically at least erroneous in the Faith.[13]

All sides involved believed in the harmony of religious and scientific truth. Perhaps surprisingly, the Roman Inquisition’s sentence against Galileo is among the clearest statements of this conviction.

Religious ideas sometimes also helped inspire scientific ventures. In his fictional work New Atlantis (1626), Francis Bacon sketched out the major outlines for what became the Royal Society. In this story, a group of English explorers comes upon the fictional land Bensalem (Hebrew for “son of peace”). They learn that Bensalem has a learned society called Solomon’s House. Here Bacon borrowed from the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament); Solomon was the wisest king in ancient Israel, and had received his wisdom as a miraculous dispensation from God. The king of Bensalem founded Solomon’s House in 300 BCE “for the finding out of the true nature of all things (whereby God might have the more glory in the workmanship of them, and men the more fruit in the use of them).”[14] This parenthetical remark perfectly summarizes Bacon’s vision. On the one hand, it presumes the integration of religious faith with philosophical knowledge. On the other hand, and no less importantly, it also presumes that philosophical knowledge is fundamentally practical and oriented toward human well-being.

New Atlantis was not just a work of fiction. Bacon was partially inspired by the utopian literature that developed and grew in popularity following the discovery of what Europeans termed the New World. Utopian works were often prescriptive, portraying a better (if fictional) society in order to critique their own culture. Consequently, New Atlantis  also engaged in advocacy. A good example is when Bacon had the inhabitants of Bensalem describe Solomon’s House to their English visitors as “the very eye of this kingdom.”[15] By holding Bensalem up in this way, Bacon hoped that his English contemporaries would create and value a learned society of their own. Bacon’s narrative further justified the purpose and research methods used by such a society. As one member of Solomon’s House informed Bacon’s readers, “The End of our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”[16] This was not a perspective unique to New Atlantis; Bacon advocated the same in Novum Organum, writing that “In religion we are taught that faith is shown by works; and the same principle is well applied to a philosophy, that it be judged by its fruits and, if sterile, held useless.”[17] Solomon’s House thus oversaw a vast number of projects, from apothecaries to zoos, ensuring that the results of its researches were available to each and every citizen. Some projects detailed in New Atlantis reflected larger seventeenth-century concerns. One good example is “perspective-houses,” which sought to “procure means of seeing objects afar off; as in the heaven and remote places.”[18] Other projects were unique to New Atlantis, such as “sound-houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds, and their generation.”[19] By envisioning a research-based academic community aimed at helping society as a whole, Bacon laid much of the intellectual groundwork for the Royal Society, which was established in 1660.


  1. The Royal Society

The Royal Society is the oldest scientific society in the world. At its first meeting on November 28, 1660, the members resolved to create “a Colledge for the promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning.” Charles II, king of England, Scotland, and Ireland, granted a charter for its incorporation in 1662, and in 1663 the “Colledge” became known as the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. Two years later, the society began publishing Philosophical Transactions, the world’s first scientific journal. With the exception of a lapse in publication between 1678 and 1683, Philosophical Transactions has been in print ever since. Peer-reviewed, publishable research is the cornerstone of all modern scientific scholarship, and in this the Royal Society was the great trailblazer. Intellectual teamwork and academic publications were vital for the society’s success. Perhaps unsurprisingly, similar organizations soon developed in France and in other European nations, often patterning themselves upon the Royal Society.

Figure 4. Frontispiece of Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society. Public Domain.

Much can be learned about the early image of the society by reading Thomas Sprat’s (1635–1713) 1667 History of the Royal Society. Its frontispiece shows Francis Bacon on the right; on the floor before him are the words “Artium Instaurator” (see fig. 4). The Latin can be translated in several ways because the Latin word “ars” translates as “arts,” “sciences,” and “skills” (“artium” is the plural possessive form of “ars”).  Bacon was thus named “The Renewer of the Arts/Sciences/Skills.” To the left of the bust is the first president of the society, William, Viscount Bouncker (1620–1684). The Latin on the bust translates as “Charles II, Author and Patron of the Royal Society.” An angel places a laurel wreath, signifying both victory and political rule, upon Charles II’s head. Meanwhile, the background is filled with scientific and mathematical instruments. This might sound like a scientific revolution, but Sprat was just as eager to celebrate the past. He adapted Bacon’s image of the restoration of learning and gave it a historical narrative, tying restoration to comparatively recent events such as the invention of the printing press and the Reformation. At every step, Sprat advocated the advancement of knowledge, and yet, like Bacon, he looked back to antiquity as well. In a section entitled “The Recovery of the Antients,” Sprat wrote that in the advancement of learning, “The First thing that was undertaken, was to rescue the excellent works of former Writers from obscurity.”[20] Greek and Latin philosophers, together with the Bible and the Church Fathers, headed Sprat’s list of works.

Some early publications by members of the Royal Society recapitulate many of the themes already touched on in this chapter. Hooke, one of the Royal Society’s earliest members, began his 1665 work Micrographia with a lengthy reflection on method, the senses, and the importance of scientific instruments. He informed his readers, “The first thing to be undertaken in this weighty work, is a watchfulness over the failings and an inlargement of the dominion of, the Senses.”[21] Micrographia was entirely concerned with the experiments that Hooke had carried out with various magnifying glasses. Upon recognizing the limits of the senses, he advised that, “The next care to be taken, in response of the Senses, is a supplying of their infirmities Instruments, and, as it were, the adding of artificial Organs to the natural.”[22] Telescopes and microscopes were among the “artificial Organs” that Hooke named. Technology and empiricism were as central—and as complicated—in late-seventeenth-century England as they had been in early-seventeenth-century Italy.

In other ways, the Royal Society did things that were genuinely new. One was the creation of Philosophical Transactions. Another was the development of a more refined vocabulary for describing the work that took place under the more general heading of “natural philosophy.” In 1661, Robert Boyle coined the term “mechanical philosophy.” It operated with the working assumption that the universe was a kind of machine, full of matter in motion, and that events were explainable with reference to mechanical causes. The main outlines of this line of inquiry had developed in the decades before 1661, but despite Boyle’s influence, the early Royal Society primarily framed its research in terms of “experimental philosophy,” thus privileging method as central to its aims. Isaac Newton (1643–1727), arguably the early Royal Society’s most famous member, came to distinguish quite firmly between “experimental philosophy” and what he termed “hypothetical philosophy.” The goal of the former was “to find out by experience & observation not how things were created but what is the present frame of Nature.”[23] The word “hypothesis” has changed meaning between Newton’s time and our own; at the time, it referred to something divorced from experience rather than something testable. Hypotheses were not necessarily untrue in Newton’s thought, they simply did not belong to experimental philosophy.

Through Newton, the Royal Society bequeathed a third major development to the wider world. Newton’s abiding gift was placing mathematics at the heart of scientific study. This is well seen in the title of his most famous work, the 1687 Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Latin for “The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”). Newton revised this text several times, and its import brings the story of this chapter full circle. As already noted, one early dispute with Galileo had concerned whether mathematical explanations were purely hypothetical or if they instead revealed something true about nature. With Newton, mathematics took its place in natural philosophy. In the Principia, Newton introduced universal gravitation and his three laws of motion. Although the story of Newton’s apple may be a myth, he did develop a way to measure gravity mathematically even though he could not fully explain how it worked. Not all were convinced by Newton’s dependence on mathematics. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) was, with Newton, one of the discoverers of calculus and thus fully committed to the use of mathematics, but Leibniz argued that without a distinctly mechanical account, Newton’s explanation of gravity effectively rendered it a hidden but supernatural force. Newton developed his distinction between experimental and hypothetical philosophy largely as an answer to Leibniz. It enabled Newton to sidestep the problem of mechanical explanation without neglecting mathematical evidence. As the seventeenth century gave way to the eighteenth, mathematics ceased being a hypothetical matter. It was revealed as the very fabric of nature.



So, was there a scientific revolution—or, were new forms of inquiry, discovery, and learning rather less sensational? It’s not an easy question, but some important points can be made in conclusion. The preceding sections have shown a wide variety of influences upon natural philosophers. Ancient sources, such as those central to philosophy and religion, were no less inspirational than discoveries such as the New World or the rings around Saturn. When discussing things that appear new, it is easy to miss the enduring presence of goods inherited from past ages. But in fact, novel instruments and innovative methods enabled fresh approaches to what were often very old matters of interest and concern. No one denied the importance of empirical knowledge, and the value of scientific research was understood as analogous to a very old religious concern with the performance of righteous works. Whether we call this a revolution or not, the scientific developments of this time period were real, and some proved to be of decisive long-term importance. That they often drew deeply upon the past should not surprise anyone, for such is the nature of history.

[1]. Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 1ff., 168–70; John Henry, The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science, 2nd ed. (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 1ff.

[2]. Peter Dear, The Intelligibility of Nature: How Science Makes Sense of the World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 1ff.

[3]. Rolf Willach, “The Long Route to the Invention of the Telescope,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series 98, no. 5 (2008): 98–99.

[4]. Cited in Albert van Helden, “Telescopes and Authority from Galileo to Cassini,” Osiris 9 (1994), 8–29, at 11.

[5]. Francis Bacon, The New Organon, ed. Lisa Jardine and Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 11, 12.

[6]. Bacon, The New Organon, 18.

[7]. Bacon, The New Organon, 149.

[8]. Bacon, The New Organon, 238n124.

[9]. Dennis R. Danielson, “Myth 6. That Copernicanism Demoted Humans from the Center of the Cosmos,” in Ronald L. Numbers, Galileo Goes to Jail and other Myths about Science and Religion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 50–58.

[10]. Michael N. Keas, “Myth 3. That the Copernican Revolution Demoted the Status of the Earth,” in Ronald L. Numbers, Newton’s Apple and other Myths about Science (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), 23–31.

[11]. For this and what follows, see Christopher M. Graney, Setting Aside All Authority: Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), esp. ch. 9.

[12]. Galileo Galilei, “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” in Maurice A. Finocchiaro, The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 87–118, at 93.

[13]. “Sentence (22 June 1633),” in Finocchiaro, The Galileo Affair, 287–291, at 288.

[14]. Francis Bacon, The Major Works, ed. Brian Vickers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 471.

[15]. Bacon, The Major Works, 464.

[16]. Bacon, The Major Works, 480.

[17]. Bacon, The New Organon, Book I, LXXIII, 61.

[18]. Bacon, The Major Works, 484.

[19]. Bacon, The Major Works, 485.

[20]. Thomas Sprat, The History of the Royal-Society of London, For the Improving of Natural Knowledge (London: T. R. and J. Martyn, 1667), p.

[21]. Robert Hooke, Micrographia: Or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses with Observations and Inquiries Thereupon (London: John Martyn, 1665).

[22]. Hooke, Micrographia.

[23]. Cited in Alan E. Shapiro, “Newton’s ‘Experimental Philosophy’,” Early Science and Medicine 9, no. 3 (2004): 185–217, at 192.


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History of Applied Science & Technology Copyright © 2017 by Benjamin Guyer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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