What is the Scientific Revolution? Characteristics, Background, Concept

We explain what the Scientific Revolution was, when it happened, what were its main contributions and the leading scientists.

What was the Scientific Revolution?

The drastic change in the model of thought that took place between the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the West, during the early Modern Age, is known as the Scientific Revolution . He forever transformed medieval visions about nature and life . It laid the groundwork for the emergence of science as we understand it today.

The Scientific Revolution was born in Europe at the end of the Renaissance . It was the result of new ideas in physics , astronomy , biology and chemistry , and with them the change in the philosophical paradigm that produced the social and intellectual movement known as Enlightenment .

The exact dates of occurrence of this phenomenon are debatable, but the year 1543 is generally taken as its initial point , when the peak work of Nicholas Copernicus of Revolutionibus orbium coelestium (“On the movements of the celestial orbs”) was published.

Similarly, its end is traditionally signaled in the year 1632 , when Galileo Galilei published his Dialogue sopra i due massimi system of the Tolemaic mondo, and Copernicano (“Dialogues on the two maximum systems of the world: the tolemaico and the Copernican”), or with the publication of the Isaac Newton Principles in 1687.

Characteristics of the Scientific Revolution

The main characteristics of the Scientific Revolution are the following:

  • It is considered that it began in 1543, with the publication of De rebolutionivus orbium coelestium (“The revolution of the celestial bodies”) by Nicolás Copernicus . In this work, Copernicus refuted the geocentric theory, which stated that the Earth was the center of the universe, and instead postulated his heliocentric theory (which placed the Sun at the center of the universe) from the use of tools mathematics.
  • The biggest changes occurred in the fields of mathematics , physics, and astronomy . However, the development of a scientific research method impacted on all areas of knowledge.
  • Knowledge based on tradition and scripture was replaced by that obtained through observation and experimentation. Aristotelian deductive logic was replaced by the inductive method presented by Bacon, which proposed starting from particular cases to arrive at general premises.
  • There was a mathematization of nature , that is, the researchers agreed in the application of mathematical modes of description to investigate nature.
  • Science began to be conceived as a system of knowledge different from philosophical and religious theories.
  • The institutionalization of scientific research began . Different academies of science were founded throughout Europe such as the Royal Society (founded in London, by Isaac Newton in 1660); the Paris Academy of Sciences (1666) and the Royal Academy of Medicine and Surgery (Seville, 1697), among others that brought together scientists and spread knowledge.

Background of the Scientific Revolution

In order for the Scientific Revolution to take place, it was necessary to overcome the obscurantism of the medieval era , during which faith and religion ruled the thinking of the West with an iron hand. The first step was when the classic legacy of antiquity was recovered , especially from Greco-Roman culture. To this was added the contribution of medieval Islamic science .

This also required the appearance of the printing press in the fifteenth century , which allowed to massify and democratize knowledge. In addition, the bourgeoisie emerged as a new social class that transformed the world. This class of merchants, of plebeian origin but important material possessions, managed to abolish the feudal order .

As it gained power , the bourgeoisie forced the aristocracy to make its rules more flexible, and weakened the fierce grip of the Church on culture . However, many of the thinkers of the Scientific Revolution suffered the persecution of the Catholic Inquisition, as is the famous case of Galileo, who was forced to publicly retract his revolutionary ideas.

On the other hand, the thought of the Greek philosopher Aristotle was in force at the beginning of the Scientific Revolution. Aristotelian influence was one of the most difficult to break , especially its conception of the cosmos as a space in which the Earth occupied the central place.

Thanks to the contributions of Eudoxo de Cnido and Claudio Ptolomeo, a new vision of the cosmos could be created in the work of Nicolás Copernicus, thus giving rise to the heliocentric model and a new era of thought.

Protagonists of the Scientific Revolution

scientific revolution protagonists francis bacon
Francis Bacon founded empiricism in the Scientific Revolution.

The main names of the Scientific Revolution were:

  • Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543). Jurist, mathematician , physicist and Polish Catholic cleric, he devoted much of his life to astronomy , and reformulated in his own way the Heliocentric theory of the Solar System , initially formulated by Aristarchus of Samos. With the publication of his work on the movement of the stars he began the Scientific Revolution, contravening centuries of repetition of the Aristotelian geocentric model.
  • Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Astronomer, physicist, musician, mathematician and Italian engineer, he is the great example of the Renaissance man, dedicated equally to the arts and sciences. He was an important astronomical observer , for which he also improved the manufacture of telescopes, and is famous for his decisive support for the Copernican formulation of the Solar System. He is considered the father of modern physics .
  • Isaac Newton (1643-1727). Physicist, theologian , philosopher, alchemist, inventor and English mathematician, author of the first great treatise of modern physics, his Philosophia naturalis principia mathematica or “mathematical principles of natural philosophy”, a work that revolutionized the physical understanding of the world and sowed the foundations for The rise of this science. Its principles on movement , its thermodynamic laws and its formulations regarding optics and infinitesimal calculus are still put into practice .
  • Tycho Brahe (1546-1601). Danish astronomer, considered the largest observer of the sky before the invention of the telescope and founder of the first astronomical study center, Uraniborg. His work allowed to consolidate the astronomical study systematically and not by occasional observations.
  • Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). Astronomer and German mathematician, famous for his laws on the movement of the celestial stars in his orbit around the Sun , he was a close collaborator of Tycho Brahe and one of the fundamental names of modern astronomy.
  • Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Famous English philosopher, politician, lawyer and writer, considered the father of philosophical and scientific empiricism, since in his work De dignitate et augmentis scientiarumn (“Of the dignification and progress of science”), he described and laid the foundations for the construction of the experimental scientific method . He is one of the great pioneers of modern thought and the first essayists in England.
  • René Descartes (1596-1650). Philosopher, mathematician and French physicist, father of modern philosophy , of analytical geometry, and of the greatest contributors to the Scientific Revolution. Its cogito ergo sum principle is famous (“I think, then I am”), which would be essential in the rise of rationalism, faith in reason and not in divine will. His most famous work is the Discourse of the method (1637), where he clearly broke with the traditional scholastic of the Middle Ages.
  • Robert Boyle (1627-1691). Natural philosopher, Christian theologian, chemist, physicist and inventor of English origin, famous for his formulation of Boyle’s Law, one of the principles that govern the behavior of gases. He is considered the first modern chemist in history, and his work The Sceptical Chymist (“The Skeptic Chemist”) is a fundamental work in the history of this discipline.
  • William Gilbert (1544-1603). Natural philosopher and English doctor, pioneer in the study of magnetism , as evidenced by his work De Magnete (1600), the first physics book in England. He was one of the pioneers in the study of electricity from electrostatics , and a strong opponent of the scholastic method and Aristotelian theories at the Universities of the moment.

Consequences of the Scientific Revolution

The Scientific Revolution meant an important cut with the medieval tradition that, first and foremost, demonstrated the human capacity to apply the intellect to the understanding of the world . It allowed the birth of rationalism and modern thought, which displaced the medieval faith as the ruling principle of human life and society.

But perhaps the greatest consequence was the formal birth of science, framed in the scientific method and rationalist empiricism. This implies a radical transformation of the world of ideas, allowing the reappearance of knowledge that until a century ago was part of Islamic alchemy and heretical knowledge.

Contributions of the Scientific Revolution

scientific revolution contributions anatomy medicine
The dissection of bodies allowed a greater knowledge of the human body.

The contemporary world would have been impossible without the Scientific Revolution. Among his main contributions to the understanding we have today of the universe , are:

  • The heliocentric model of the Solar System . Through the calculation and observation of the sky with increasingly refined telescopes, the first astronomers demonstrated that the Earth is not the center of the universe around which the Sun rotates , but that the Sun is the center of the Solar System and around he rotates the planets , among them the Earth. This knowledge broke with the religious cosmological order that prevailed during the Middle Ages, and that came from Aristotle himself.
  • Atomism support above the Aristotelian theories of matter . Aristotle thought, in ancient times, that matter was a continuous form and that it consisted of four elements: air, fire, water and earth, in various proportions. This idea prevailed during the Middle Ages, although Democritus, another ancient philosopher, had already formulated the atomic theory . The latter was, during the Scientific Revolution, rescued and improved.
  • Advances in the human anatomy and discard the theories of Galen . For more than a thousand years the studies of the ancient Galen governed medical knowledge in the West, until the Scientific Revolution arrived. New experiments , dissections and studies applying the scientific method and with new measuring instruments , allowed a better understanding of the human body and laid the foundations for modern medicine.
  • Separation of alchemy chemistry . The chemistry formally born during this period, thanks to the first scholars in the field as Tycho Brahe, Paracelsus and Robert Boyle, among others.
  • Optics development . The optics was a huge advance of the Scientific Revolution, which resulted not only in better knowledge of the behavior of light, but in better inputs for scientific research , such as telescopes and microscopes , which allowed the observation of distant stars and microscopic particles
  • First experiments with electricity . William Gilbert was one of the first to devote himself to the experimentation and registration of electrical principles, inventing even the Latin word electricus , derived from elektron (“amber” in Greek). Thus he discovered the electrical properties of many different materials, such as sulfur, wax or glass, and made enormous advances in the field of electricity and magnetism , which founded entire fields of study of physics.

What concepts did the Scientific Revolution overthrow?

Scientific Revolution - matter
The Scientific Revolution broke with the belief of matter as a continuous element. 

The Scientific Revolution overthrew old beliefs, starting with the notion of the Earth as the center of the Universe from Aristotelian concepts about the movement of celestial bodies (uniformity, circularity of translation) and matter as a continuous element, adapting the Platonic and Pythagorean notions that define reality from a mathematical structure.

Who started the Scientific Revolution?

Galileo Galilei
Galileo Galilei formulated the first law of motion for astronomical observation.

There are four names that should be highlighted in the early days of the Scientific Revolution:

  • Nicolaus Copernicus . He formulated the heliocentric theory of the solar system : the translation of his planets in elliptical orbit around the sun .
  • Johannes Kepler. His work was fundamental for the analysis of the movement of the planets (follower of Tycho Brahe).
  • Galileo Galilei . He formulated the first law of motion forastronomical observation .
  • Isaac Newton . He presented the law of gravitation and others that explain reality by modifying the understanding of mathematics and physics.

Was it a revolution?

Still controversial, the term “revolution” was coined by the historian Alexandre Koyré in 1939, and assumes a change in the paradigms of analysis and observation of reality. It is a period of fundamental transformations in the main institutions, and an emergence of the scientific community as representatives of the truth through study and verification.

What notions did the Scientific Revolution introduce to reality?

Scientific Revolution - atom
Bodies are not made up of “elements”, but of atoms and molecules.

Three notions were also understood that forever changed the vision of reality:

  • Bodies are not made up of “elements” ( water , fire , earth, air ) but of atoms and molecules .
  • The light is a beam coexist colors, which are absorbed or refracted by the structures, allowing us to appreciate them .
  • The living things result from a process of evolution by natural selection.

What did the Scientific Revolution achieve?

Superstition and religion (especially: the attribution of responsibilities and consequences to supernatural beings) were replaced by science, reason and knowledge. This allowed the advancement of modern sciences and also led to changes in the social order .

What did the Scientific Revolution mean for Religion?

The new analysis of the conformation of the Universe and the Solar System soon translated into the scientific and critical observation of reality , altering the theological community and the Church : the introduction of laws of analysis is opposed to the “divine design” for the explanation. of the world.

Was it the origin of modern medicine?

The Scientific revolution made it possible to understand DNA. 

The change in methodologies and advances in instruments (including microscopes ) allowed the understanding of the circulatory system , DNA, the genome , and the Mendelian laws that represent the true origin of modern medicine.

Which fields presented the greatest scientific advances?

In addition to astronomy, the Scientific Revolution propelled advancement in research in physics , quantum physics, medicine, mechanics, and biology, which gave way to changes in the political, academic, and social order.

What revolutions were notorious?

Scientific revolution
The Einsteinian Revolution explains the constant relationship of matter and energy.

The Scientific Revolution also included multiple revolutions:

  • Scientist of the seventeenth century. Based on syllogistic and experimental logic in the scientific method .
  • Einsteinian or ‘Relativist’. It explains the constant relationship of matter and energy – “there is nothing still and fixed in the Universe.”
  • Indeterminist. It defines philosophical indeterminacy, the ‘uncertainty principle’.

What is the next Scientific Revolution?

It is proposed that the next Revolution is currently taking place through constant analysis of antimatter and dark matter, the acceleration of the Universe, the fourth dimension, gravitational quantum, the origin of the Universe, artificial intelligence , among others.

Gender and Scientific Revolution

Londa Schiebinger, a leading Stanford University Professor of History of Science, has devoted herself to researching the issue of gender and the scientific revolution.

One of his observations has been the fact that in the midst of the turmoil in medical circles at the time, one of the central and highly controversial issues they were dealing with was that of feminine nature. Schiebinger also denounces that the old stereotypes of the time about women influenced the promoters of the revolution .

Along these lines, the researcher highlights the vision of the uterus as something “cursed” and a cause of multiple diseases, by philosophers of classical Greece (such as Plato or Democritus). This and other discussions of the female sexual organs, which we find at the origin of modern science, placed women in a clearly inferior (or secondary) position to men.

Other experts in the field, such as Pilar Castrillo, professor of Philosophy at UNED, denounces the fact that, during the Scientific Revolution, there was no revolution for women , and their role within science was always relegated to the background .

So, although the Scientific Revolution was a historical period of great advances for science, there were facets or aspects, such as the role of women, that were forgotten without being able to advance.

Scientific developments

Key people and ideas that emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries:

  • Third printed edition of Euclid’s Elements in 1482.
  • Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) published On the Motion of the Celestial Spheres in 1543, which proposed the heliocentric theory of cosmology .
  • Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) published De Humani Corporis Fabrica ( On the Structure of the Human Body ) (1543), which discredited Galen’s views . He found that the circulation of blood came from the pumping of the heart. He also assembled the first human skeleton by cutting open corpses.
  • Franciscus Vieta (1540-1603) published In artem Analyticem Isagoge (1591), which gave the first symbolic notation of parameters in literal algebra.
  • William Gilbert (1544-1603) published On the Magnet and Magnetic Bodies and on the Great Magnet the Earth in 1600, which laid the foundations for a theory of magnetism and electricity .
  • Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) made extensive and accurate eye observations of the planets in the 16th century. These became the basic data for Kepler’s studies.
  • Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) published Novum Organum in 1620, detailing a new system of logic based on the process of reduction , which Bacon intended as an improvement on the process philosophy of Aristotle the syllogism . This contributed to the development of what is known as the scientific method .
  • Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) improved the telescope , with which he made several important astronomical discoveries, including the four largest moons of Jupiter , the phases of Venus and the rings of Saturn , and made detailed observations of sunspots . He developed the laws of falling bodies based on pioneering quantitative experiments that he analyzed mathematically.
  • Johannes kepler (1571-1630) published the first two of his three laws of planetary motion in 1609.
  • William Harvey (1578-1657) demonstrated that blood circulates, using dissections and other experimental techniques.
  • René Descartes (1596-1650) published his Discourse on Method in 1637, which helped establish the scientific method . He also started the method of deductive reasoning .
  • Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) built powerful single-lens microscopes and made extensive observations which he published around 1660; he is considered a precursor of microbiology.
  • Isaac Newton (1643-1727) worked on the work of Kepler and Galileo. He showed that an inverse square law of gravity explained the elliptical orbits of the planets, and presented the law of universal gravitation . His development of the infinitesimal calculus opened up new applications of mathematical methods to science. Newton taught that scientific theory must be accompanied by rigorous experimentation; this would become the “cornerstone” of modern science.

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