Author Insights Podcasts

12

What was so revolutionary about the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, if so many of its achievements were anticipated in the Hellenistic world almost two thousand years earlier?

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What was so revolutionary about the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, if so many of its achievements were anticipated in the Hellenistic world almost two thousand years earlier?

Carol Symes: One of the things that I really emphasize in chapter four of my volume is the fact that a lot of the scientific discoveries that we attribute to the great scientists of the early modern period-Copernicus and Galileo and their colleagues-were actually experiments being done in the third century BCE. Things like the Heliocentric Universe, the idea that the sun is the center of the cosmos and not the Earth; the fact that the heart pumps blood and is not an organ of emotion; that the brain is the seat of the intellect are all discoveries that are attributed to modern science but were actually discovered and accepted in the third century. And I want to emphasize for three reasons. One is that I think it's important to celebrate those accomplishments. Two, I think that a lot of people tend to assume that these ideas must have been repressed by Christianity, when it was actually Roman scientists of the second century, who were pagans, who couldn't accept these ideas and suppressed this information. And the third reason, for me, is that even the most sophisticated societies are susceptible to censorship, and that even the most amazing human discoveries are not necessarily going to be perpetual. This is kind of a scary object lesson, that just because we discover something we think that it's going to be perpetual. What if that's not true?

Joshua Cole: Yes, I think it's pretty clear that the Scientific Revolution is a term that's applied to these developments after the fact. Using the term, "revolution," implied an abrupt transition, a rupture with previous ways, emphasizes first of all the drama of the event and adds greater prestige to the heroic figures who are highlighted as the antecedents of present-day scientists, whose own prestige is in some ways glorified by their ability to connect themselves directly with this lineage of great heroes from the past. I don't mean to diminish the accomplishments of scientists in the early modern period by saying this but we have to understand the ways in which these scientific researchers were very much products of their own time and place. They didn't come upon their breakthroughs solely because they defined themselves in opposition to everything that existed at that time. Many of them remained devoutly religious in their worldview. It wasn't because they had a secular agenda that they decided to aim their telescopes at the sun and look for sunspots - far from it, in fact.

Also, there are ways in which we can think about certain things we consider characteristic of modern scientific practice, such as the give-and-take of scientific debate. Imagine all the different kinds of discussions that take place at international scientific conferences where scientists from one country, who might speak a different language than scientists from another country, can meet on the common ground of science and assess carefully and rationally the contributions of other people. Those habits of speech and of inquiry, even the tendency to avoid emotional language in the defense of scientific theories, all have their origins - and historians have looked at this very closely - in the rules of etiquette that govern the relationships between gentlemen in the early royal academies. Am I exaggerating?

CS: No, but here is where the medievalist in me wants to say that's the dialectic model of the medieval university. This is a type of give-and-take, an academic debate - and there are certain aspects governing the protocols of these exchanges that come from the early modern ideas of etiquette - that I think we can see this kind of dialogue happening in medieval universities as well.

The other thing I want to emphasize, and this comes from what you were saying, Josh, is that we have to think about these scientists as products of there time. Here I think there is an interesting parallel between what is going on in the Hellenistic world of antiquity and what's going on in the 17th century: new media for communication. In the Hellenistic world, it's that Greek has become a universal language that is uniting practitioners of science in ancient Egypt, in Mesopotamia in the Near East, in the former Persian Empire, and in mainland Greece. And so you basically have this exchange of ideas and observations that had been happening all around the Mediterranean but that for the first time could be shared in a common language. Something that I would say is kind of similar in the 17th century is the patronage of princes, of these princes competing with one another to be the sponsors of scientific discoveries. These princes do this party because it enhances their own prestige but also because these discoveries will lead to useful inventions that might well have military applications. This brings to mind Leonardo applying for a job with the Sforzas of Milan on the strength of the fact that he could make bombs. And he ends his letter with, "P.S. I can make pretty pictures, too." But he really is emphasizing the destructive capacity of what he can do.

JC: I actually think that we're really in agreement here. Whether it's the rules of etiquette that governed relationships between gentlemen in the academies or whether it's the sort of dialectical debates that take place on theological matters in the medieval university, the point is that these habits of mind, these habits of inquiry, develop at specific times in specific places and become a part of what we think of as modern scientific practice not because they are modern but because they are rooted in the societies from which they arise.