For many centuries, scientists had accepted the writings of ancient scholars and the teachings of religious leaders about science and nature. Early in the Renaissance, scientists began to use new methods to study nature. Conclusions based on observation and experimentation became the basis for scientific theories. Statements put forth as facts were accepted as truth only after they had been tested in experiments. These tests and their results were written down so that other scientists could repeat them. Gradually, the scientific method of observation, experimentation, and drawing conclusions came into common use. This method made such major changes in the study and understanding of nature that it was said to have caused a scientific revolution.
What became the basis for scientific theories?
How would you define the scientific method?
How would you define the scientific revolution?
The Renaissance Affects Methods of Science
Renaissance scientists changed their ideas of what the heavens were like. The new understanding of the universe came about as the result of applying the scientific method to observations and theories. People of the Middle Ages acquired concepts of the everyday world from Christian teachings. Ideas also came from the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Christian theologians believed that the biblical account of creation was literally true. God’s realm was, of course, the most important part of the universe, but it was somewhere beyond and above the solar system. Earth, being the home of human beings created by God, was the focus of God’s attention. Therefore, the religious leaders and scientists of the Middle Ages thought that the earth was the center of the solar system. Aristotle’s theory that the solar system is geocentric supported this belief. A geocentric solar system is one in which the sun and all the planets revolve around the earth, which does not move.
Interestingly enough, the first person who challenged this view of the solar system was a devout clergyman from Poland called Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). Copernicus was an astronomer as well as an authority on church law. In his astronomical studies, he had read the theories of the astronomer Ptolemy, who lived during the 2nd century CE in Egypt. Ptolemy developed rules based on the geocentric model of the solar system. These rules were so complicated and sometimes so inaccurate that Copernicus began to feel that God could not have made a geocentric solar system. Copernicus turned to another theory proposed by a Greek. This was the heliocentric model in which the earth and all the other planets revolved around the sun. For nearly forty years, Copernicus studied and tested the heliocentric theory and published a book, On the Revolutions of Heavenly Bodies. This book outraged religious leaders. Not only did it contradict the Bible, it gave human beings an insignificant place in the universe.
Another key figure at this time was Galileo Galilei, a professor of mathematics in Italy. Galileo also accepted the heliocentric theory. He, too, realized that only the heliocentric model could answer such questions as: Why do the planets appear to be different distances from the earth at different times of the year? A newly invented device, the forerunner of the modern telescope, provided Galileo with visual evidence that supported Copernicus.
Sir Francis Bacon, an English philosopher, writer and public official, felt scientists should use inductive reasoning to develop general explanations. Inductive reasoning is a process in which repeated experimentation allows a scientist to gather information that is then used to develop a general explanation. This explanation could be further tested through other experiments. A French scientist, Descartes, believed that deductive reasoning, or observation of basic truths and principles, was an acceptable way to determine natural laws. He is most famous for the declaration: “I think, therefore I am.” Furthermore, Descartes is remembered for emphasizing the importance of questioning all established ideas.
European scholars soon realized that combining the two methods of Bacon and Descartes provided the most powerful means of investigation. The combination of logical deductive reasoning from self-evident principles, and inductive reasoning from the collection and observation of data through repeatable experiments, is what we now call the scientific method.
Another scientist who made important discoveries was a mathematician from England, Sir Isaac Newton. He created the advanced system of calculus, a type of mathematics used to describe and measure motion. Newton also developed the law of universal gravitation, which explained the operational force of gravity. Newton used this law to explain how gravity keeps planets in orbit around the sun and how objects fall to the earth.