Post-classical history

A Scientific Revolution?

In June 1833, the British Association for the Advancement of Science met in Cambridge. Among the matters discussed was the curious fact that there was no overarching name for the men (not many women in those days) who studied the workings of nature. Science was coming on in leaps and bounds but its practitioners had no official title. At the meeting was the poet, author of Kublai Khan and Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772– 1834). He posed the question of what would be a suitable name for the student of nature. The ensuing discussion was reported shortly afterwards:

Philosophers was felt to be too wide and too lofty a term, and this was very properly forbidden them by Mr Coleridge, both in his capacity of philologer and metaphysician; savans was rather assuming, besides being French instead of English; some ingenious gentleman proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist, and added that there could be no scruple in making free with this termination when we have such words as economist and atheist – but this was not generally palatable.1

The ingenious person in question was William Whewell (1794–1866), president of the British Association and a notable author. He had helped feed the fashion for science in the Victorian era and could be called one of the first popular science writers. Although his suggestion of ‘scientist’ did not go down well at the meeting, Whewell promptly started using it in his books and the term soon caught on.

The word ‘scientist’ was not coined until 1833 because only then did people realise it was needed. Science had become an autonomous subject that was completely separate from philosophy and theology. Although assumptions about God and creation had been necessary for science to get this far, it was now so successful that it no longer needed them. In this book, no one from the Middle Ages is called a scientist. Indeed the word isn’t used at all, and not just because the term had not been invented. Rather, the kind of person we call a scientist did not exist in the Middle Ages. This book is the story of the gestation of science and obviously, before modern science was born, there could be no scientists.

The phrase ‘before modern science was born’ is not quite apposite. There was no moment of birth, no crisis from which science burst forth. All we can say is that by the time the British Association met in 1833, the process was complete and modern science undeniably existed as a younger version of what we have today.

At that point, people started asking where science came from. The general consensus rapidly emerged that it began with the ancient Greeks. Scientific progress was thought to have stalled when medieval Europe dropped the baton. Then, in the sixteenth century, Copernicus and Galileo picked it up again. But, as this book has explained, that picture is inaccurate and unfair. So, let us now briefly recap how the Middle Ages laid down the foundations of modern science.

There were four cornerstones, which can be described as institutional, technological, metaphysical and theoretical. Since this book tells the story in roughly chronological order, we have come across many instances of these cornerstones as they arose. For this summary, we can group the examples together to present a clearer picture of the medieval achievement.

The main scientific institution of the Middle Ages was the university. Although these were primarily intended to educate prospective members of the higher clergy, they also provided a home for natural philosophers. As it turned out, many theologians also wrote important works on natural philosophy and they considered the subject an essential part of their training. Protected by both Church and state, universities gave students and their professors unprecedented levels of security and intellectual freedom. Students enjoyed the same legal status as clerics and it was difficult for local secular authorities to restrict what they studied. For the Church’s part, it never offered unqualified support for all branches of science and set limits beyond which natural philosophers were not allowed to go. However, we have seen that most of the stories about how the Church held back science are myths that arose after the Middle Ages had ended. Overall, the relationship between Christianity and natural philosophy that we have seen played out in this book might best be summed up with the words ‘creative tension’.

Today, western universities remain the premier institutions for scientific research and training. The model pioneered in the Middle Ages, whereby the universities were self-governing corporations, has spread around the world, even to those places that were never colonised by Europeans. Almost all the earliest universities are still with us and some, like Oxford and Cambridge, are going from strength to strength.

Technological advances during the Middles Ages led to enormous increases in agricultural productivity and improvements in living standards. Some also had a direct impact on science. For example, we have seen how a glassmaker in Venice or Pisa invented spectacles in the thirteenth century. The Venetians became expert at grinding lenses and it is no coincidence that Galileo was working near Venice when he built his telescope. The navigational compass inspired the investigation of magnetism by Peter the Pilgrim and William Gilbert. Other inventions had less direct, but still profound, effects on scientific thinking. The mechanical clock, with its 24-hour cycle, closely resembled the medieval world-picture. The heavens themselves supposedly revolved around the earth each day. So the metaphor of the world as a clock built by a divine clockmaker came naturally to Thomas Bradwardine and Nicole Oresme. This encouraged thinking about nature as a mechanism that could be investigated by reason.

Much of the technology we take for granted today, like the computer upon which this book was written, would not exist but for the achievements of modern science. In the Middle Ages, technology and engineering did not owe anything to natural philosophy. The relationship was the other way around. Technical advances gave natural philosophers clues about how the world worked as well as providing the equipment that they needed to investigate it. They could not point to any practical benefits of their work, still less applications that proved their theories were correct. This meant that they needed other ways of justifying their activities.

The metaphysical cornerstone of modern science is often overlooked. We take it for granted and we do not worry about why people began studying nature in the first place. Today you can enhance the credentials of any outlandish theory you like by labelling it ‘scientific’, as advertisers and quacks well appreciate. But, back in the Middle Ages, science did not enjoy the automatic authority that it has today.

To understand why science was attractive even before it could demonstrate its remarkable success in explaining the universe, it is necessary to look at things from a medieval point of view. The starting point for all natural philosophy in the Middle Ages was that nature had been created by God. This made it a legitimate area of study because through nature, man could learn about its creator. Medieval scholars thought that nature followed the rules that God had ordained for it. Because God was consistent and not capricious, these natural laws were constant and worth scrutinising. However, these scholars rejected Aristotle’s contention that the laws of nature were bound by necessity. God was not constrained by what Aristotle thought. The only way to find out which laws God had decided on was by the use of experience and observation. The motivations and justification of medieval natural philosophers were carried over almost unchanged by the pioneers of modern science. Sir Isaac Newton explicitly stated that he was investigating God’s creation, which was a religious duty because nature reflects the creativity of its maker. In 1713, he inserted into the second edition of his greatest work, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, the words:

Blind metaphysical necessity, which is certainly the same always and everywhere, could produce no variety of things. All that diversity of organisms which we find suited to different times and places could arise from nothing but the ideas and will of a Being necessarily existing … And that is enough concerning God, to discourse of whom from the appearances of things does certainly belong to natural philosophy.2

It would take Charles Darwin (1809–82) to prove Newton wrong.

The final cornerstone is the set of theories about the world that the Middle Ages bequeathed to the early modern period. Here are a few of them: John Buridan’s impetus theory was a vital stepping stone towards modern mechanics. He also showed how a planet that does not suffer any resistance keeps going forever and he explained why we cannot feel the rotation of the earth. William Heytesbury described the motion of an object subject to constant acceleration. Nicole Oresme proved Heytesbury’s theorem right by using a graph. Nicholas of Cusa went so far as to suggest a limitless universe and life on other planets. And Peter the Pilgrim analysed magnets and suggested the use of a spherical magnet to William Gilbert. Without these scientific advances, it is hard to see how Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo could have made the progress that they did.

The power of many medieval theories was derived from the way that they combined mathematics with natural philosophy. Aristotle kept these two subjects distinct but in the Middle Ages they were increasingly linked together. Thomas Bradwardine had shown that a successful mathematical description of nature should work all the time, while the Merton Calculators popularised the idea of using numbers to study physical problems. This meant that by the sixteenth century, the boundary between mathematics and natural philosophy could effectively be ignored.

Nowadays, it is a commonplace to refer to the period between Copernicus and Newton as ‘the scientific revolution’. Although this phrase was only invented in the mid-twentieth century, it has already become an unquestioned part of the language.3 Most historians do think that something revolutionary happened, even if they dislike the label. Some lonely voices, like Andrew Cunningham at Cambridge and Steven Shapin in California, challenge this hegemony.4 Cunningham believes that modern science was born in the years around 1800, which were revolutionary in other respects as well.5 That modern medicine did not exist prior to the mid-nineteenth century and that it bears no resemblance to earlier medical practice is beyond dispute.6

This book should lend some support to the sceptics claiming that the term ‘the scientific revolution’ is another one of those prejudicial historical labels that explain nothing. You could call any century from the twelfth to the twentieth a revolution in science, with our own century unlikely to end the sequence. The concept of the scientific revolution does nothing more than reinforce the error that before Copernicus nothing of any significance to science took place at all.

Life in the Middle Ages was often short and violent. The common people were assailed by diseases they didn’t understand; exploited by a distant ruling class; and dependent on a Christian church that rarely lived up to the ideals of its founder. It would be wrong to romanticise the period and we should be very grateful that we do not have to live in it. But the hard life that people had to bear only makes their progress in science and many other fields all the more impressive. We should not write them off as superstitious primitives. They deserve our gratitude.

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