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.
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
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.
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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