History · Science

“The Invention of Science: a New History of the Scientific Revolution”

This is a article about a very readable new book by David Wootton, The Invention of Science.  Copyright 2015.  This book is a history of the Scientific Revolution in the present-day context of mistrust of all science.  The book has been touted as “A groundbreaking examination of the greatest event in history, The Scientific Revolution , and how it came to change the way we understand ourselves and our world.”   Basically the book is an explanation of why the Scientific Revolution was and is the most important thing that has ever happened to human beings.   And I enthusiastically agree with this critique.


Chapter 1: Modern Minds

Wooten opens the book by explaining that the world is a lot younger than we think it is.   He illustrates this by detailing some well known, but still surprising facts.

Below is a bare list of these facts.

There have been tool-making humans on Earth for around 2 million years.

Homosapiens appeared about 200,000 years ago.

Pottery dates back to 25,000 years ago.

The Neolithic Revolution happened 12,000 to 7,000 years ago.  This was the invention of agriculture, the use of domestic animals, and the invention of the first metal tools.  Wooten say the Neolithic Revolution was the most important transformation in human history before the invention of science.  Before the Neolithic Revolution  there were almost 2 million years of not-much-happening in human history.  Or at least very-slow-happening.  After the massive changes of the neolithic revolution, the rate of change again slowed to almost a crawl.

Humans began to leave written records behind them 6000 years ago.  This was only 300 generations ago.  This was really the beginning of what we call human history.

And then 400 years ago the scientific revolution happened and the modern world we live in began.  As Wooten says, the history of our modern world is extremely short compared to the two million years of human history that preceded it.

Jorge Luis Borges said that for Shakespeare there were no huge differences between his own age and the Roman age.  Shakespeare wrote plays set in ancient Rome containing anachronisms like chiming clocks and so forth.  It never occurred to him that such things didn’t exist in Ancient Rome; or if it occurred to him it wasn’t important.  He basically thought history didn’t exist, that Roman times were like his own times.  He treats all his characters as if they were his contemporaries.  He saw variety in types of men but not the variety of historical eras.

But all this ended.  By the middle of the 18th century Shakespeare’s sense of time was replaced by our own.  Since that time we have believed that progress is inevitable and that an unstoppable process of transformation had begun.

In ordet to give us a sense of the scale and speed of the Scientific Revolution, Wooten gives us another set of facts.  What the world was like for an average educated European in 1600.  His average man of 1600 is an Englishman, but he says, Europeans would have been pretty much the same.  This list has been created from Wooten’s prose paragraph.  The words are mostly Wooten’s and the whole list is enclosed in quote marks, even though the quotes are not quite exact.

The typical well-educated English gentleman in 1600

“He believes in devils and devils agents.

He believes in witches, werewolves, and Circe who really did turn Odysseus’s crew into pigs.

He believes mice are spontaneously generated in straw.

He believes in contemporary magicians like John Dee and Agripppa who whose black dog, Monsieur, was thought to have been a demon in disguise.

He believes in doctors and astrologers who use magic to recover stolen goods.

He believes that a murdered body will bleed in the presence of the murderer. He believes that there is an ointment which, if rubbed on a dagger which has caused a wound, will cure the wound.

He believes that the shape, colour and texture of a plant can be a clue to how it will work as a medicine because God designed nature to be interpreted by mankind.

He believes that it is possible to turn base metal into gold, although he doubts that anyone knows how to do it.

He believes that the earth stands still and the sun and stars turn around the earth once every twenty-four hours

He believes in astrology, but as he does not know the exact time of his own birth he thinks that even the most expert astrologer would be able to tell him little that he could not find in books.

He believes that Aristotle is the greatest philosopher who has ever lived

He knows that there are Jesuit missionaries in the country who are said to be performing miracles, but he suspects they are frauds. He owns a couple of dozen books.”

[All material enclosed in quotation marks in this review, like the quotes directly above,  are from the original book by David Wooten unless otherwise noted .]

In just a few years, in 1611 the beginnings of a new world were beginning to be seen.  For example the poet John Donne was writing about what he called the “new philosophy.”  This was mostly the new knowledge being discovered by Galileo and Gilbert and Johannes Kepler.  The propagation of the new ideas was probably hastened by the appearance of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus as he was translated by Lucretius.

Now Wooten jumps ahead 125 years or so to 1733, the year that Voltaire published his Letters Concerning the English Nation.  This book announced to Europe that great changes had happened in Britain that had not happened in the rest of Europe.  Voltaire pointed out that a real scientific culture had developed in England.   Wooten nows takes  a look at the typical educated British gentleman in 1733, noting the immense changes that had happened in the last century, since the typical man in 1600.

The typical well-educated English gentleman in 1733

“Our Englishman has looked through a telescope and a microscope; he owns a pendulum clock and a stick barometer

He does not know anyone (or at least not anyone educated and reasonably sophisticated) who believes in witches, werewolves, magic, alchemy or astrology; he thinks the Odyssey is fiction, not fact.

He is confident that the unicorn is a mythical beast. He does not believe that the shape or colour of a plant has any significance for an understanding of its medical use.

He believes that no creature large enough to be seen by the naked eye is generated spontaneously – not even a fly.

He does not believe in the weapon salve or that murdered bodies bleed in the presence of the murderer.

Like all educated people in Protestant countries, he believes that the Earth goes round the sun.

He knows that the rainbow is produced by refracted light and that comets have no significance for our lives on earth.

He believes the future cannot be predicted.

He knows that the heart is a pump. He has seen a steam engine at work.

He believes that science is going to transform the world and that the moderns have outstripped the ancients in every possible respect. He has trouble believing in any miracles, even the ones in the Bible. He thinks that Locke is the greatest philosopher who has ever lived and Newton the greatest scientist.

He owns a couple of hundred – perhaps even a couple of thousand – books.”

At this point, the world had shifted from magic to the beginnings of science.  As Wooten says,

” The transition was of course still incomplete. Chemistry barely existed. Bleeding, purges and emetics were still used to cure disease. Swallows were still thought to hibernate at the bottom of ponds.xi But the changes of the next hundred years were to be far less remarkable than the changes of the previous hundred years. The only name we have for this great transformation is ‘the Scientific Revolution’”.


Wooten says if it is possible to cite a specific point when the the Scientific Revolution began he would choose 1572.  This was the date when Tycho Brahe noticed a new star in the sky.  It was brighter than Venus and it appear very suddenly.  Actually this was not really a new star but a Nova, “an astronomical event that causes the sudden appearance of a bright “new” star, that slowly fades from view over several weeks or many months” [Wikipedia].

Brahe was shocked, such a thing was never supposed to happen.  It was a fundamental principle of Aritotle that the heavens were permanent and eternal, they never changed.  But Brahe realized that, in spite of Aristotle, the heavens had definitely changed.  He confirmed this observation with other real people.  And he also realized that if he was really going to understand the structure of the universe he was going to have to get more serious in his observations.  He realized that his observations needed to be much more accurate.  So he designed all new instruments capable of very fine resolution and he moved all of his instruments to underground bunkers to limit ever the most tiny vibrations.

Wooten sees this event as the first real beginning of the Scientific Revolution.

“Since 1572 the world has been caught up in a vast Scientific Revolution that has transformed the nature of knowledge and the capacities of humankind. Without it there would have been no Industrial Revolution and none of the modern technologies on which we depend; human life would be drastically poorer and shorter and most of us would live lives of unremitting toil. How long it will last, and what its consequences will be, it is far too soon to say; it may end with nuclear war, or ecological catastrophe, or (though this seems much less likely) with happiness, peace and prosperity. Yet although we can now see that it is the greatest event in human history since the Neolithic Revolution, there is no general agreement on what the Scientific Revolution is, why it happened – or even whether there was such a thing.”

Wooten is right when he says that there is no general agreement about the Scientific Revolution, “why it happened – or even whether there was such a thing.”

Let me step outside Wooten’s book for a moment and go to another book on the Birth of Science, this one is called The Scientific Revolution by Steven Shapin.  This book was published in 1996.

Shapin begins his book, in the very first line of the book, by saying, “There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it.”  A few pages later he expands on what he actually means by this apparent contradiction.

“As our understanding of science in the seventeenth century has changed in recent years, so historians have become increasingly uneasy with the very idea of “the Scientific Revolution.” Even the legitimacy of each word making up that phrase has been individually contested. Many historians are now no longer satisfied that there was any singular and discrete event, localized in time and space, that can be pointed to as “the” Scientific Revolution. Such historians now reject even the notion that there was any single coherent cultural entity called “science” in the seventeenth century to undergo revolutionary change. There was, rather, a diverse array of cultural practices aimed at understanding, explaining, and controlling the natural world, each with different characteristics and each experiencing different modes of change. We are now much more dubious of claims that there is anything like “a scientific method”-a coherent, universal, and efficacious cacious set of procedures for making scientific knowledge-and still more skeptical of stories that locate its origin in the seventeenth century, from which time it has been unproblematically passed on to us. And many historians do not now accept that the changes wrought on scientific beliefs and practices during the seventeenth century were as “revolutionary” as has been widely portrayed.”

But in spite of all these reservations, Shapin quickly decides that it actually is acceptable to tell stories about the great changes that occurred in the way humans viewed reality in the 17th century.   He seems to be saying there may be no such thing as the Scientific Revolution but he is going to write about it anyway.  He says…


“Yet despite these legitimate doubts and uncertainties there remains a sense in which it is possible to write about the Scientific Revolution unapologetic and in good faith. There are two major considerations to bear in mind here. The first is that many key figures in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries vigorously expressed their view that they were proposing some very new and very important changes in knowledge of natural reality and in the practices by which legitimate knowledge was to be secured, assessed, and communicated. They identified themselves as “moderns” set against “ancient” modes of thought and practice. Our sense of radical change afoot comes substantially from them (and those who were the object of their attacks), and is not simply the creation of mid-twentieth-century historians.  So we can say that the seventeenth century witnessed some self-conscious and large-scale attempts to change belief, and ways of securing belief, about the natural world. And a book about the Scientific tific Revolution can legitimately tell a story about those attempts, whether or not they succeeded, whether or not they were contested in the local culture, whether or not they were wholly coherent.”

It seems to me that Shapin is just recognizing and then putting aside concerns that a lot of his fellow academics have advanced about when history is even capable of study.  He is acknowledging his fellow academics and then ignoring their somewhat pedantic  reservations and then getting on with it.

I think we can accept Wooten’s premise that something like the Scientific Revolution occurs and that it is valuable to look at it in detail.  And looking ahead to Chapter 2, which is call the Idea of the Scientific Revolution, I suspect that he is going to discuss just such ideas as Shapin brings up.

So, back to Wooten and The Invention of Science.


“Chapter two.  The Idea of the Scientific Revolution.”

I plan on continuing this review of The Science revolution as soon as I can find the time.  It won’t be long.  I think this is a very important  book.



This article is still in progress.  It should be finished soon.

Bridge, Duck and Fog, Sanford, Maine.  Picture by Hanselmann Photography. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s