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The Scientific Revolution (~1500-1700)


     The Scientific Revolution (either as an historical period or as a scientific movement) is generally believed to begin with the work of Nicolaus Copernicus, and end with the death of Sir Isaac Newton. The period can be broken into two main parts: the Scientific Renaissance and the "Scientific Revolution." The Scientific Renaissance occurred roughly around the 16th century and was characterized by an attempt to recreate the classical tradition. It coincided with humanism, which was a method of learning where ancient texts were read and then appraised through both empirical evidence and reasoning. The learning focused mostly on ethics, rhetoric, grammar, and poetry. It also praised the uniqueness of the human mind. The Scientific Revolution was, in general, an attempt to eliminate Aristotle and replace him with something new.


Characteristics of the Scientific Revolution:

  • Rejection of "common sense" theories of the world
  • Adoption of atomism as a dominant cosmology
  • Renewed emphasis on quantitative properties
  • Nature becomes a machine in which all pieces work together in harmony (analogous to a clock)
  • New equipment is developed that allows for new data (telescope, microscope, vaccuum pump, etc).
  • Development of a new (empirical) scientific method
  • Abandoment of the search for demonstrative knowledge and ultimate causes
  • New mathematics incorporated into all branches of natural philosophy


Renaissance Humanism


One of the key thoughts underlying the Scientific Revolution was the idea of Renaissance Humanism.  During this time period a great influx of previously undiscovered texts from the Latin and Greek world made their way to Europe. With such new learning at their disposal, early modern scholars sought to emulate and re-create classical traditions.  Their focus can be seen in their attention to proper rhetoric of Cicero, the great Roman orator and its placement in common language and scholarly writing. Humanists also turned their attention to other areas. In art, for example, Michaelangelo, in his painting and sculpture, focused on a "real" representation of the human body. Architecture, as well, began to take on a Greco-Roman bent. Most important to our discussion, however, is the desire to recover and restore ancient natural philosophy. With the texts of Aristotle, Ptolemy, Cicero, and others, along with their commentaries available, early Renaissance thinkers sought to conform their worldview to the classical systems.  The regression back to ancient Greek sculpture and texts stemmed from the belief that Medieval tradition and philosophy was considered "impure latin".  This emphasis on the glory of the past led to some conflict with the new proposals of Copernicus, as we will soon see.  

  In brief:

  • Scholars following the classical tradition.
  • Rediscoveries of Greek and Latin texts.
  • Ancient Latin valued for content and style, a la Cicero.
  • Revival of Greek and Roman influences in art and architecture.
  • Merging of mathematical and physical astronomy.





     Nicolaus Copernicus was born in Poland and studied at the University of Krakow and the University of Bologna.  In 1512, Copernicus wrote a very small pamphlet detailing a sun centered cosmos known as the Commentarioles.  Later, under the urging of the mathmetician Rheticus, Copernicus published the first complete work in astronomy which involved a sun centered cosmos known as the De Revolutionibus Celestium Orbum. This work was Copernicus' attempt to restore ancient astronomical tradition. It also is very much follows renaissance humanism as it basically re-writes Ptolemy's work ,The Almagest, with a sun centered cosmos as opposed to an earth centered one.   Copernicus also argued against Aristotle in that he believed the stars were not in a fixed sphere.  Copernicus significantly differed from Ptolemy in that he believed his theory actually represented physical reality. This was not necessarily reflected in the work because it was published with a preface by someone else stating that it was not intended to represent the actual nature of the world. Within his book, Copernicus attributed retrograde motion of the planets to their relative motions.



Many accepted parts of Copernicus' De Revolutionibus Celestium Orbum, but hardly anyone accepted it in its entirety, Rheticus and Thomas Diggs were two of the exceptions. Conversley, the Wittenberg Circle decided the theory was useful for making predictions, but that it did not actually tell how the cosmos was constructed.


The main argument for Heliocentricsm or Copernician system was based on two main points.  The first depends on Mercury and Venus' orbit around the Sun.  Since they can only be seen at dusk and dawn, they are tied to the sun's orbit, or in line with the sun.  The second argument depends on retrograde motion.  Although Ptolemy was able to explain retrograde motion, the Copernician system had superior precision and did not need the use of epicycles to explain the motion of the planets. 



Tycho Brahe

     Tycho Brahe (1546-1600) is considered to be the most skilled naked eye astronomer of all time. He was a nobleman who became an astronomer and even received money from the King of Denmark to fund an observatory, Uraniborg (Castle of the Stars), which had a full chemical lab, a printing press, and lab workers to carry out experiments and observations.  He used a quadrant for his observations to observe star angles.  He died approximately ten years before the invention of the telescope. Tycho is frequently noted for his unprecendented accuracy, his measurement of each of the planets through their whole orbit, his habit of being very thourough, the Comet of 1577, and the Nova of 1572.  He considered carefully the theory of Copernicus but rejected it on the basis that there was no stellar parallax.  He remained a geocentrist, but with certain modifications.  He concluded that it may be possible that the other planets revolved around the sun, but the sun orbited the earth.  Therefore, the fixed planetary spheres of Ptolemy and the ancients could not exist due to overlapping orbits.  

     Though Brahe rejected Copernican theory, Kepler would ultimately use Brahe's meticulous planetary observation  in one of his weightiest arguments for heliocentrism in the Astronomia Nova.



Primary Sources



Key Terms and Definitions


Renaissance Humanism:  A movement beginning in the 15th century among intellectuals in Europe that began a recreation, imitation, and rediscovery of ancient classical ideas in natural philosophy.

Stellar Parallax:  a term refering to a shift in the postion of stars that should appear as a result of the movement of the earth.

Melancthon Circle:  a group of scholars including Philip Melancthon and his students who believed Copernicus' theory to be useful in prediction but not physically true.




Relevant Links


Comments (5)

Grant Berry said

at 8:15 pm on Oct 26, 2008

Some basic stuff on the scientific revolution.

jgm829@... said

at 3:31 pm on Oct 27, 2008

I made a couple edits and wrote a little on Renissance Humanism.

Garry Polley said

at 5:05 pm on Oct 27, 2008

I am going to add a diagram where it is said to suppose to have one.

Kristy Carey said

at 12:13 pm on Oct 28, 2008

I added a section on Renaissance Humanism and did formatting/editing.

liz mastroianni said

at 1:08 pm on Oct 28, 2008

I just edited it, and fixed up the grammar alittle, overall a good summary

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