Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, by David Wootton

Staff review by Chris Saliba

In this erudite and deeply absorbing book, historian David Wootton describes how modern science as we know it came into being.   

British historian and author David Wooton is Anniversary Professor of History at the University of York. This very considerable volume, The Invention of Science, concentrates on what Wootton calls the Scientific Revolution, a period roughly covering the 16th to 18th centuries. (The official dates we are given for this revolution begin in 1572, when Tycho Brahe identified a new star in the heavens, and finish with Isaac Newton's publication of Opticks in 1704.) It's also a time of Galileo, Kepler, Bacon and Pascal, among many other thinkers and philosophers. Wootton charts not only the scientific revolution, but how a new type of thinking came into being. The period of the Scientific Revolution would introduce a whole new vocabulary, a key word being "discovery", a concept that had never really existed before. Writes Wootton:

Modern science, it should now be apparent, depends on a set of intellectual tools which are every bit as important as the abacus or algebra, but which, unlike the abacus, do not exist as material objects, and which, unlike arabic numerals, algebra or the decimal point, do not require a particular type of inscription. They are at first sight, merely words ("facts", "experiments", "hypotheses", "theories", "laws of nature", and indeed "probability"); but the words encapsulate new ways of thinking.

While The Invention of Science mostly concerns itself with the European Renaissance in thought, it also discusses the ancient philosophers, and how radical a change the new thinking was. It had always been accepted that knowledge was static and established beyond doubt. Aristotle was held to be the oracle of indisputable truth about nature, the earth and the stars. This was accepted by all. There was no idea of progress, of new discoveries. To talk of new ideas could also be a threat to authority. But slowly, over a long period of time, that whole notion changed and the idea of scientific progress came to be accepted. Old ideas, proven wrong, were discarded. New truths took their place.

Another major engine of change was the printing press. Suddenly knowledge could be set down and compared. Scientists in different countries could read the same books and create a virtual intellectual community. Facts recorded in books as opposed to manuscripts were far more reliable and could be fact-checked. Wootton writes:

In comparison to the world of print, manuscript culture is one of rumour and gossip. The printing press represents an information revolution, and secure facts are its consequence.

Whilst reading The Invention of Science it was hard not to think of our present difficulties accepting climate change. In the past all sorts of wild and woolly things were believed as being factually true. Trying to present new knowledge was often seen as a direct affront to authority. You could find yourself quite quickly on the wrong side of church and state. It seems not much has changed as powerful interests today resist climate change science.

Wootton's new history is an immensely rewarding read. Full of erudition and deep reading of the classical texts, The Invention of Science will open your eyes not only to the history of scientific progress, but also to the truly revolutionary change in mindset that accompanied it. A brilliant achievement.

The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, by David Wootton. Published by Penguin. ISBN:  9780141040837  RRP: $29.99

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