David Wootton’s The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution is a tour de force of science, history, philosophy, language, cartography and sociology. Without some prior background on folks like Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Bacon, Popper, and Kuhn this densely packed reading may not digest easily for some readers. For those ready for the feast or willing to keep Wikipedia open as they read, there is much on offer here.

The Invention of Science

Wootton makes two main arguments regarding the Scientific Revolution. First, contrary to post-modern attempts to wipe it away, a revolution in thought with essential antecedents and radical consequences occurred. Second, that the revolution in technology and thought was mostly a 17th century happening and not, as is traditionally argued, a late 16th century transformation. The traditional view considers the 1543 publication of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium as the pivotal moment and that advances in technology and epistimology were inevitable. Wootton brackets the revolution into Brahe’s observation of a supernova in 1572 and the publication of Isaac Newton’s Opticks in 1704.

In the half-century or so between 1610 and 1665 this delightful picture of the universe as a home for humankind, an extension of Eden, was fatally undermined, and with it the notion that man is the proper measure of all things. (p. 236)

To establish the later revolution, Wootton offers a catalog of beliefs held by educated Europeans circa 1600 including that witches wreck ships, mice spontaneously generate (in piles of straw of course), murdered bodies bleed in the presence of the murderer, astrology accurately describes and predicts and, of course, the earth stands still. Some 125 years later, the moderately well-to-do peered through powerful telescopes, owned accurate pendulum clocks and evacuated barometers and were unlikely to know anyone believing in werewolves, alchemy or astrology. So, if 1543 was the watershed year, why did absurd ideas about nature hold sway for so many more generations?

Wootton provides a compelling answer as he traces the combined histories of book keeping, realist perspective in art, ‘testimony’ versus ‘facts’ versus ‘phenomena’ and other issues of evidence and language. With its 600 pages of text and 170 pages of notes and references, The Invention of Science is a detailed consideration of a compelling time in human development and has significant rewards awaiting willing readers.

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…They are, at first sight, merely words (‘facts’, ‘experiments’, ‘hypothesis’, ‘theories’, ‘laws of nature’, and indeed ‘probability’); but the words encapsulated new ways of thinking…Just as the telescope improved the capacities of the eye, these tools improved the capacities of the mind. (p. 565)