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The Scientific Revolution: Definition, History, Causes & Leaders

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  • 0:06 The Scientific Revolution
  • 1:40 Background and Debate
  • 2:39 Thinkers: Copernicus
  • 4:05 Thinkers: Brahe & Kepler
  • 5:27 Thinkers: Galileo
  • 6:17 Thinkers: Francis…
  • 7:22 Thinkers: Newton
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the Scientific Revolution and the controversy which surrounds the very term. Additionally, we learn about just a few of the most important thinkers of the period who laid the foundation for our modern understanding of the world.

The Scientific Revolution

Political revolutions are easy to identify. They often accompany recognizable, life-altering events. America's, for example, featured the iconic Boston Tea Party and Washington's triumphant victory at Yorktown.

Social, cultural and intellectual revolutions are harder to ascertain. They are often slower; the changes they precipitate are less momentous, though their impact on human society may be far greater than any political upheaval. As such, the periodization and components of intellectual revolutions are often debated and argued.

Such is the case with the Scientific Revolution in Western Europe. Though historians often disagree on when the revolution started, when it ended and which thinkers qualify as members, nearly all agree that its impact on the collective worldview and mindset of Europeans was unlike anything Europe had ever seen.

Definition

The Scientific Revolution is a complicated and disjointed movement upon whose periods and actors historians do not always agree. Some scientists of the period built on the works of those who came before them. Others made their own contribution strictly from their own observations and at times contradicted the evidence and conclusions of their contemporaries. With that caveat made, many historians claim that it began with Copernicus and ended with Isaac Newton 150 years later. But we'll get to them later.

During this century and a half of scientific innovation, numerous achievements were made in science and astronomy. The modern scientific method of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, analysis and conclusion was sculpted and refined in this era, and important discoveries were made concerning gravity, the skeletal and muscular systems of the human body and the rotations of the planets.

Background and Debate

The traditional view of the millennium preceding the Scientific Revolution was that the era was intellectually dormant after the fall of the Roman Empire. This is perhaps best exemplified by the name which early historians gave the period from roughly 500 to 1500 A.D.: the Dark Ages.

In recent years, this theory has been refuted by those who study the period. They 'enlightened' the Dark Ages - if you will - and highlighted the important scientific and mathematical work of European thinkers, such as Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste and Nicole Oresme. Furthermore, historians of science importantly note that scientific and mathematical achievements continued to be made in the Muslim world during the Middle Ages, including in territory that would become Spain.

Regardless of this debate, the burst of scientific and intellectual activity that took place during the Scientific Revolution is important because it laid the foundations for many of the modern scientific disciplines, and in some cases drastically altered our view of ourselves, the world and humanity's place in the universe.

Thinkers: Copernicus

As mentioned earlier, the man who arguably began this revolution was the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. Born in Thorn in 1473, Copernicus studied in Krakow, Bologna, Padua and Rome before returning to Warmia, Poland to teach and study for the remainder of his life.

Copernicus worked on a heliocentric model - where the sun, and not the Earth, was the center of the solar system - for nearly his entire life. Unlike previous astronomers and mathematicians who had used heliocentric models simply to make their mathematical calculations of the planet's orbits more accurate, Copernicus firmly believed the sun to be at the center of the solar system. Likely due to fears of potential backlash from church authorities, Copernicus waited to publish his theories and calculations until shortly before his death.

When he did publish at the behest of one of his students, his 1543 work, On the Revolutions of Heavenly Bodies, was one of the first scientific works which posited heliocentrism as reality rather than as a mathematical device or thought experiment. The system Copernicus worked out was not perfect nor truly heliocentric; even the sun sat slightly off the geographic center of the solar system. Copernicus called this an 'equant point.' This was necessary for Copernicus' observations and math to agree because he insisted that the planets revolved along perfectly spherical orbits.

Regardless of errors and discrepancies in his final theory, Copernicus' greatest achievement was the removal of the Earth from the center of the universe and solar system.

Thinkers: Brahe and Kepler

The heliocentric theory Copernicus posited required refinement to accurately represent the universe. The greatest advances of the sixteenth century in terms of observational and instrumental accuracy were made by the Danish nobleman, Tycho Brahe. Born in 1546, Brahe's observations about the stationary nature of the stars caused him to believe the Earth to be motionless and at the center of the solar system.

Regardless of his incorrect theory, Brahe invented new instruments to observe the heavens and provided the astronomical community with detailed and precise data concerning the movements of the planets, comets, and even a supernova which was visible on Earth in 1572.

A contemporary - and rival - to Brahe in the later sixteenth century was the German astronomer, Johannes Kepler. Kepler actually began his work as Brahe's assistant, though the younger German was more adept at creating theories than his Danish superior.

Kepler agreed with Copernicus that the sun was the center of the solar system, and he used the precision of Brahe's measurements to improve upon the Copernican model. Kepler discovered that planetary orbits were not perfectly circular, but elliptical, with the sun being one focus of the ellipse and something similar to Copernicus' equant point being the other. Kepler was further able to derive a mathematical equation (known today as 'Kepler's Third Law') that could be used to determine orbital periods and speed.

Thinkers: Galileo

The next major astronomer that helped alter our understanding of the universe was Galileo Galilei. The Italian-born astronomer nearly joined a monastery before devoting his life to mathematics and science, teaching in Pisa and Florence throughout his career. Likely his greatest achievement was his usage of the newly invented telescope to observe the heavens.

Within months of hearing of its invention, Galileo had constructed his own and began making observations and measurements. With it, he observed the phases of Venus, the moon and discovered several previously unknown moons of Jupiter. Galileo's observation of the phases of Venus was likely the most pivotal, as their existence proved that Venus revolved around the Sun and not the Earth. Galileo made several other contributions important to the development of science, especially concerning inertia and other properties of bodies in motion.

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