Science During the Enlightenment Period: Innovations, Discoveries & Major Figures

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  • 0:01 Scientific Revolution…
  • 1:58 Astronomy
  • 3:54 Physics & Other Fields
  • 6:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about the Scientific Revolution that preceded the Enlightenment. We will highlight the major themes, innovations, discoveries, and figures associated with this revolution in science.

The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment

A lot of people confuse the Scientific Revolution with the Enlightenment. While the two overlap in many respects, they are technically not one and the same. The Scientific Revolution took place earlier than the Enlightenment. While there are no clearly defined dates, the Scientific Revolution lasted throughout the 16th and 17th centuries and was characterized by the emergence of modern science.

The Scientific Revolution resulted in science becoming a distinct discipline separate from philosophy or theology. This revolution was characterized by numerous advances in the fields of physics, mathematics, astronomy, and biology. It also helped undermine the influence of the Catholic Church. Galileo, Copernicus, and Isaac Newton were leading figures of the Scientific Revolution.

The Enlightenment, on the other hand, extended beyond the field of science and was a much broader intellectual movement. It lasted from the late 17th to the early 19th century and emphasized themes like reason, individualism, and skepticism. In many respects the Enlightenment was anti-clerical. Deism was a major product of the Enlightenment. Deism is the belief that God allows the universe to operate according to natural law, with no supernatural interference.

Tolerance, religious liberty, limited government, and human rights are other key themes associated with the Enlightenment. The Scientific Revolution helped lead to the Enlightenment. Because the two are so closely related, we will include the major themes of the Scientific Revolution in this lesson.

Advances in Astronomy

Many important astronomical advances were made during the Scientific Revolution. Let's highlight a few of them. The shift from a geocentric view of the universe to a heliocentric view of the universe is one of the most important advances of the Scientific Revolution. Of course, geocentric means 'Earth-centered' and heliocentric means 'sun-centered.' Throughout ancient times, and even the Middle Ages, it was widely held that the Earth was at the center of the universe. This longstanding view was based on the work of ancient Greek scholar Ptolemy.

By the 16th century, the geocentric view was increasingly coming under attack. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) formulated the modern heliocentric view, which he set forth in his 1543 work On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. Copernicus' view revolutionized the field of astronomy. Interestingly, the heliocentric view was met with resistance by the Catholic Church because this new view was believed to contradict the orthodox doctrines of the day.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was another important figure of the Scientific Revolution. In addition to being a staunch supporter of Copernican heliocentrism, Galileo helped pioneer the development of the telescope. Because he did not ascribe to geocentrism, he was condemned by the Catholic Church as a heretic and spent the last years of his life under house arrest.

German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) is another key figure. Kepler specialized in planetary motion and is remembered for formulating what is now commonly called 'Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion.'

Advances in Physics and Other Fields

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is arguably the most important figure of the Scientific Revolution. In his monumentally important work Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, Newton formulated the Laws of Motion and the Law of Universal Gravitation. Newton was giant of his field, and his discoveries form the basis of modern science today.

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