Nats 1760 – Lecture 8 The Scientific Revolution Part 1



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NATS 1760 – Lecture 8 - The Scientific Revolution Part 1

  • The so-called Scientific Revolution occurred during the 16th and 17th centuries, roughly around the same time as the Renaissance

  • Rather than treating economic and political factors as context, Bernal views them as the sources of the scientific revolution

  • Most historical interpretations consider the ideas to be central to the transformation

  • Review: economic and political conditions in the transition from Medieval feudalism to Renaissance capitalism

      • The medieval agricultural revolution (ploughs and horses, crop rotation, fertilizing) had increased crop output and population

      • Europe was a collection of states, not a centralized empire like in Roman times

      • Capitalism was emerging from feudalism, a shift from a land based economy to a goods based economy

      • International trade, using the oceans for transport, was increasing

      • Ancient knowledge was rediscovered after the re-conquest of Islamic Spain, translations of ancient sources become available in Europe

      • Universities and court science drew on classical ideas




  • Bernal highlights the transformation of the Feudal economy

  • The feudal system had a loose collection of minor royalty who owned land and maintained power through the use of force, while producing a minor agricultural surplus and generating revenue through taxation

  • As trade, population and urbanization increased in the 15th and 16th centuries, monarchs came to power in various areas, relying on the support of an emerging class of merchants (bourgeoisie)

  • Trade increased for two primary reasons:

    • Technical improvements in agriculture and cloth-making allowed the production of a surplus

    • Technical and theoretical developments in navigation (shipbuilding, astronomy, telescope, clocks) allowed sea-faring trade to increase distribution from the previously land-based system (increasing the market and adding New World – resources and Eastern luxury items to European markets)

  • Spain, Portugal, Holland and England benefited from the new trade routes as they had the most developed sea technology

  • The increase in trade led to the production of surplus capital, and some of this capital was invested in science and technology (state and commercial support of science)


Marxism in Theory

  • It is helpful to look at some of the Marxist underpinnings of Bernal’s analysis

  • For Marxists, society evolves through stages of exploitation, communal property and the exploitation of slaves, feudal land ownership and the exploitation of serfs, and bourgeois (capitalist) private property and the exploitation of the proletariat (wage workers without property)

    • This is the transformation from “forced services” to “money payments” Bernal mentions

    • The Capitalist owns the means of production (e.g. the factory), the wage-labourer sells work to capitalist, the product of the factory is owned by the capitalist, who sells it for profit

    • The labourer is “alienated” from his or her labour, dividing the natural relationship between worker and product. This is a negative term, so you can expect that Marx thinks it is a negative process in some way

    • Eventually the proletariat will increase in size and poverty, and will eventually overthrow the capitalists and communism will emerge, capitalism is only a stage

    • Marx was a Hegelian, and he viewed history as a series of transitions, where old systems would collapse and new systems would emerge

    • Note the role of science and technology to this process

      • You don’t need advanced technology to divide worker from product, all you need is to own land and produce more than you consume

      • Still, technology makes this easier, by increasing production and making production too complex for the individual to carry out

  • Bernal argues that scientific and economic changes in this time period were interrelated

  • He also argues that the scientific, economic and technological revolution is more important than agriculture, as it has the potential for “indefinite advance”

  • In the beginning, the economic transformation from feudalism to capitalism was more important to science than the reverse

  • The rise of capitalism that made, “experimental science possible and necessary”

  • Capitalism created the need for advancements, and experimental science was oriented towards this need, even if it took many years to realize this goal

  • Science is permanent, capitalism is temporary

  • Developments in trade and commerce (of interest to the ruling classes) drove improvements in navigation through astronomy, and challenged ancient authority

  • The need for compass, map and instruments in navigation led to the creation of a mathematically trained craftsmen

  • Bernal links the new desire to know nature’s laws to the desire to control nature, and links this to the new concern with material wealth

  • This re-connects the practical and the abstract elements of science that had been separated since classical times, through economics

  • Bernal links the ability to challenge scientific ideas to the challenges to the “foundations of society” that were happening at the time (economic and religious changes)

  • Bernal stresses that the early stages of the revolution were marked by buttressing one authority against another, rather than creating new authority (Copernicus as last of the ancients)


Professional Science

  • scientists of the renaissance were often courtiers, or members of the new bourgeoisie (doctors, lawyers, minor nobles and clerics) combining science with other occupations

  • most scientists believed that their work was to be practical, and worked for private or state interests


Science, Art and Engineering During the Renaissance

  • Two major scientific accomplishments of the revolution were the complete anatomy of the human body offered by Vesalius, and the reorientation of the cosmos by Copernicus

  • Important books in chemistry, mining and botany were also written in this period, many inspired by the voyages to new lands that discovered new plants and animals never before seen by the ancients

  • The increase in wealth led to an interest in painting, sculpture and music, and wealthy merchants and princes sponsored the arts for prestige

  • New artistic techniques were developed that contributed to science, for example, the use of perspective and realism in artistic representation (see slides)

  • The drive for realism led to the collection of observations of nature, technologies, animals and people to ensure accurate depictions, and aided the emergence of descriptive science

  • In medicine, there was a turn to more descriptive work rather than the parroting of ancient sources

  • Mining grew in economic importance, and with it the chemical techniques for separating valuable metals


Astronomy and the Scientific Revolution

  • Several factors contributed to the revolution in astronomy: the demand for better navigation, the extensive body of observations and mathematical structure of astronomy allowed testing of hypotheses

  • The key elements of the new astronomy, a moving Earth and a sun-centered system, were around as far back as the Greeks, these ideas were rediscovered and improved upon in the scientific revolution

  • Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) was born in Torun, in northwest Poland.

  • In 1512 he took up duties as a Canon in Catholic Church. He published his most important work, De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium on his deathbed, as he was concerned with the possible religious repercussions of his ideas.

  • Rediscovery of ancient texts led to the discovery of errors in Ptolemy

  • Ptolemaic astronomy had suffered from hundreds of years of reinterpretation and expansion; it was now incredibly complex and cumbersome.

  • Copernicus sought to change all of this. His Earth was spherical like Ptolemy’s, but it also rotated on its axis.

  • Copernicus agreed that motion in the heavens should be explained by a combination of circular uniform motions, but he also held that the Earth was a mere speck in a universe much larger than Ptolemy’s.

  • The most significant departure of Copernican astronomy was its assumption that the Earth and the known planets rotated around the sun.

  • It could also explain certain things quite well, for example, it had been noted for centuries that Venus and Mercury were always close to the sun.

  • On the Ptolemaic system, this was explained by postulating that Venus, Mercury and the sun rotated at different speeds and in such a way that they always lined up with each other

  • In the Copernican system there was no need for this assumption, as Mercury and Venus were closer to the sun, so from the Earth they would appear to be close.

  • In addition, the Copernican system provided a simpler explanation of retrograde motion, something that was explained in a complex way in Ptolemaic astronomy (see illustrations)

  • Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), a Danish astronomer who was renowned for his precise naked eye observations of the heavens

  • Tycho contributed to the decline of Ptolemaic astronomy through his observation of a new star in 1572, and a comet in 1577, led him to question Aristotle’s claim that the heavens were immutable and the planets moved on crystalline spheres.

  • Tycho proposed a geocentric model that had all of the planets revolving around the sun, and the sun revolving around the Earth (see illustration)

  • Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), mathematician and a supporter of the Copernicus

  • Kepler worked for 6 years, using Tycho’s observational data in an attempt to reconcile the orbit of Mars to circles

  • The result of his labor was the claim that the planets traveled in elliptical orbits at non-uniform velocities, a claim contrary to Copernican theory and ancient astronomical assumptions

  • Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)

  • Like Aristotle, was a man of many interests, mathematics, astronomy, mechanics, and instrumentation to name a few

  • He held various professorships during his lifetime, and he was even appointed “superintendent of the waters” in charge of land drainage schemes in Florence in 1630.

  • His astronomical work generated the most controversy, and it all started with a Dutch toy, the spyglass

  • It seems a ridiculously simple thing, to turn a telescope to the sky and start making observations, yet the payback from this “simple” move was breathtaking and revolutionary.

  • Galileo’s telescopic observations of the night sky produced a new host of criticisms of Ptolemaic and Aristotelian cosmology, and renewed support for the Copernican system.

  • Jupiter had moons in orbit, something that was forbidden in a universe where all celestial bodies rotated around the Earth.

  • Craters and mountains on the moon, and spots on the sun revealed imperfection in what was previously thought to be a perfect celestial realm

  • Venus was shown to have phases, much like the moon. In the geocentric system Venus is in line with the sun at all times and only appears as a crescent

  • In the heliocentric system it goes behind the sun and can appear nearly full, which the telescope revealed.

  • The planets appeared as circles in the telescopes, small discs, whereas the stars still twinkled, implying that they were at a great distance away, just as Copernican theory predicted.

  • Initially, these observations were disputed, looking through a telescope is a new way of seeing

  • Like any other new way of seeing; the viewer must interpret observations

  • All manner of explanations were given as to why Galileo’s telescopic observations were invalid, for example, the claim that the telescope distorted visual appearances

  • For a time these objections were influential. Many critics could not see what Galileo saw with a trained eye.

  • For example, Galileo had to observe changing shadows over weeks infer the existence of mountains on the moon

  • A similar amount of time was needed to “see” the moons of Jupiter. Some critics simply refused to look through the device

  • However, terrestrial experiments were useful in proving the basic soundness of the technology. For example, a distant ship could be spotted on the horizon, and when it arrived in port, its markings could be confirmed

  • Thus it was possible to slowly win over converts through a process of controlled demonstration and repeated use.

  • Galileo’s success with astronomical observations brought him fame and fortune, he went from an obscure position to a professorship at a powerful university

  • It also brought him the enmity of the Church and the Inquisition. The Roman Catholic Church condemned Copernicanism in 1616, due to its irreligious implications, and Galileo was censured from holding, defending or teaching it.

  • Built on this success in astronomy, given permission by the Pope to write a book comparing the different astronomical systems

  • He produced was a scathing condemnation of Ptolemaic and Aristotelian astronomy, written in the vernacular Italian for mass consumption

  • The Church had officially “adopted” these systems as part of their faith, and conflict was inevitable

  • Galileo was forced by the inquisition to publicly recant his Copernican beliefs

  • In one important sense, Galileo was a victim of his own success, he was not an obscure professor at a backwater university

  • He was a rising star in the Renaissance world and a favourite of the court and the church, his work could not go unchallenged

  • He was also a victim of timing, the Protestant reformation had shaken the Roman Catholic Church, and his rebellion was unwelcome.



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