The Scientific Revolution and the Discoveries of the Solar System

The scientific revolution is a term that broadly refers to the radical advances in science that occurred between the sixteenth century and eighteenth century, although the exact beginning and end of the revolution have been disputed to a certain extent. The most widely accepted view amongst historians is that the scientific revolution started with Copernicus’ revelation concerning the structure of the solar system and finished with Newton’s discovery of gravity and his subsequent theories of motion. Although there had been some advances in science throughout the medieval period many intellectuals still devoted their time to alchemy, with the result that little real scientific progress was made. In early modern Europe however, throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was a multitude of advances made by many key figures that revolutionised science. Some of the most important discoveries were made regarding the nature and structure of the solar system, and the ways in which it operated.

Whilst one could argue that the scientific revolution was mainly concerned with advances on the subject of the solar system and the universe, there were many other important discoveries made regarding other aspects of science. Not only were there developments made in physics, but there was also great advancements made in biology and chemistry; indeed even the nature of knowledge itself was questioned by individuals such as Descartes. Science was given new importance as a result of the upheaval – the establishment of the Royal Society in Britain, the Accademia del Cimento in Italy and the Acadmie Royale des Sciences in France shows the new importance placed on science. In order to ascertain whether the scientific revolution was primarily concerned with the solar system it is necessary to analyse the significance of great advances made during the period. The importance of the advances concerning the solar system must be compared to the significance of the other major discoveries in other scientific disciplines in order to assess whether or not the scientific revolution was primarily concerned with the solar system. The nature of the scientific revolution can also be considered some historians believe that the scientific revolution was one of steady advance, whilst others believe there were key bursts of genius. In order to assess whether the scientific revolution was one principally related to the solar system, it is required to look at the key discoveries and advances in two basic periods from 1450 1600 and from 1600 1789.

In the years preceding the 1450 1600 period the most generally accepted view on the solar system was that of Ptolemy and Aristotle’s view that the Earth was the centre of the universe. This standard theory was characterized in Ptolemy’s book, the Almagest. Through careful measurement and observation of the stars and planets, Copernicus managed to challenge this view and put forward his own theory on the structure of the solar system. He believed that the solar system was a heliocentric system one where the sun was at the centre and so published his theories in 1543 in the infamous On the Revolution of Heavenly Spheres. This is often the point of which most historians would claim was the beginning of the scientific revolution. Whilst studying in Cracow, Copernicus was aided by the Alfonsine Tables astronomical tables compiled by Arabic scholars, first circulated in 1483 in manuscript form. These were no doubt influential in Copernicus’ work, and showed how the start of the scientific revolution was primarily concerned with astronomy. In the sense that Copernicus’ actions in changing the view of the solar system triggered the beginning of the scientific revolution, it can be seen that the solar system was a significant part.

Further advances in astronomy were made during this earlier period Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler were both prominent figures. In 1609 Kepler demonstrated in his book New Astronomy that planets orbit in ellipses rather than circles, which was a fundamental discovery. He also later found out the mathematical relationship governing the orbital speed of planets and their distance between the sun and their orbital period. It was Brahe’s data that Kepler used to found his laws of planetary of motion. Using a large mural quadrant at his observatory on the island of Uraniborg, Brahe made detailed observations and records, which were not only important in themselves, but they aided Kepler in his great work. It can be seen that in the early stage of the scientific revolution, much of the discoveries lay in the field of astronomy, regarding how the solar system works. Age old ways of thinking were being overturned and new ideas and theories were being developed at a swift rate. However, whilst the starting phase of the scientific revolution was dominated by thoughts concerning the solar system, there were many other discoveries being made during this early period of 1450 1600.

Aside from astronomical advances during this period, there were other revolutionary ideas and figures that changed science for the better. There was no scientific discipline of chemistry in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, rather alchemy was still a powerful attraction to many intellectuals. However the scientific revolution saw the first signs of chemistry being developed. From 1531 onwards, Georgius Agricola undertook systematic enquiries about geology, mineralogy, mining and metallurgy, outlined in his dialogue Bermannus. Biology also came into being during this time; although medicine at this point was still in its infancy, with bloodletting being the cure’ for most ailments, for the first time some diseases were actually identified. The major success of the time was the “virtual elimination” of the bubonic plague proving that gradually some people understood how the manner in which disease spreads which may explain the increase in care for public health and sanitation a product of the scientific revolution. Andres Versalius was the unmistakable pioneer of anatomy his dissections of human bodies, which were illegal at the time in Italy, led him to dispel many myths over the constituents of the human body. His work, which was carried out in the 1540s, dismissed long-standing beliefs that the human body was comprised of the Galenic four humors. Versalius’ book, De humani corporis fabrica, was undoubtedly one of the most significant works in the history of medicine, as well as in the scientific revolution.

To further prove that the scientific revolution was not predominantly concerned with the solar system, other significant discoveries of the time must be studied. In the realm of botany, Garcia D’ Orta was the first European to bring back accurate drawings of medicinal plants from India as well as how to prepare them. His work was so reliable that his book continued to be used in the twentieth century and so his work must be regarded in the highest esteem and as a highly important point in the history of medicine. This man’s discoveries were the result of another phenomenon that developed during the scientific revolution navigation and exploration. It was the result of the emergence of empires and the exploration of unchartered territory, as well as the subsequent growth of cartography that enabled these types of plants accessible. It can be seen that whilst much of the scientific revolution was concerning the solar system, there was also many other very important discoveries made in other disciplines of science.

One crucial development that occurs as a result of this first part of the scientific revolution is the emergence of scientific method. Rather than using magic and sorcery or outdated ideas that were accepted without question, intellectuals began to use observation and systematic testing as the basis for discovery empirical evidence. Francis Bacon is usually seen as the pioneer of scientific method, as it was he who advocated the need to change the way in which knowledge was accumulated. He believed that new information “should be sought not from books, but by the direct observation of nature.” This was perhaps the most important result of the scientific revolution which applied to all branches of science, whether astronomy, physics, biology or chemistry. The use of scientific method helped accelerate the scientific revolution in the latter phase, from 1600 1789.

Once again in the second phase of the scientific revolution, akin to the first, there were incredibly important discoveries made regarding the solar system and the universe. Following the invention of the telescope in 1609, Galileo used the device to spot the moons of Jupiter, as well as the craters and spots on the moon, which all helped illustrate the reality of the heliocentric system. This helped further cement the idea amongst intellectuals that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, but was orbiting the sun. However he also developed other ideas; establishing mathematical laws for moving particles which was not only used in astronomy, but also in physics was possibly his finest discovery. Galileo’s findings made certain that the solar system was still a central topic throughout the latter parts of the scientific revolution.

The other major discovery concerning the solar system in this period was Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity. His inception of the three laws of motion, which were mathematically solid, helped further understand the solar system and the nature of the universe these laws were published famously in Newton’s Principia. Together with Kepler’s work, Newton developed “universal laws that applied anywhere.” Whilst Newton’s work cannot be doubted in its supreme importance in furthering the understanding of the solar system, in the second half of the scientific revolution there were many other discoveries and revelations that occurred unrelated to astronomy.

Newton, aside from his work on gravity and the laws of motion, was also responsible for advancing other pieces of scientific thought unrelated to the solar system. He investigated the refraction of light through prisms and also developed calculus. Newton’s work on optics and mathematic shows a greater diversity of science than merely that concerning the solar system. Whilst his discovery of gravity was crucial in the scientific revolution in helping to further understanding of the solar system, his work extended into other disciplines of science.

Arguably one of the most important figures of the scientific revolution was Ren Descartes. As a philosopher he helped create the discipline of epistemology questioning the validity of knowledge itself. He developed the principle of systematic doubt and emphasised the power of deduction. Descartes, along with Bacon, advocated reason, observation and analysis as the tenants of discovering true knowledge. His work was without doubt hugely influential in helping to establish scientific method as the means of discovery hugely significant in relation to the scientific revolution, perhaps crucial in explaining the speed in which advances were made during the scientific revolution.

The second phase of the scientific revolution was when the birth of chemistry occurred. Two of the most prominent chemists of the time were Antoine Lavoisier and Robert Boyle. Lavoisier successfully managed to identify oxygen and simultaneously discount the misguided belief in phlogistic chemistry. Boyle’s greatest work, The Sceptical Chymist of 1661 illustrated that matter is made from single particles and groups of particles he also described the properties of an element, dismissing belief in the four elements of earth, fire, water and air. It was in this period of time that chemistry properly emerged from the dark age of alchemy into a real science. Alchemy was however at this point still very popular amongst many intellectuals great thinkers such as Boyle and even Newton still believed it was possible to transform metals into other metals. Other advances were made by William Gilbert in the field of magnetism. In De magnete Gilbert suggested ways in which experiments could be conducted to understand the behaviour of magnets in order to aid navigation. Regardless of the continued interest in alchemy, the scientific revolution was the period in which chemistry emerged as a separate science.

Whilst the first phase of the scientific revolution was primarily concerned with the solar system, overall it was not. There were too many crucial discoveries and revelations to be able to claim that the scientific revolution was mainly concerned with the solar system. Whilst the discoveries regarding the solar system made by Copernicus and others were immense in their impact of changing the view of the universe, other advances were equally important. The advances made in medicine following from Andreas Versalius’ work may make his work on anatomy perhaps the most important event in the scientific revolution. The development of scientific method was unquestionably the most vital result of the revolution. Descartes’ inquisitions into the nature of knowledge surpass the importance of all the other events as without understanding how to establish genuine knowledge, perhaps many discoveries in the latter half of the scientific revolution would not have been made.

The first event which most historians herald as the beginning of the scientific revolution was Copernicus’ work, namely the publication of On the Revolution of Heavenly Spheres. This was the beginning of an upheaval of traditional thought on the nature of the solar system. Indeed, some of the most important events during the scientific revolution were concerning astronomy Kepler’s work and Newton’s laws of motion were pivotal points. The first stage of the scientific revolution, from 1450 1600, was primarily concerned with the solar system Copernicus, Kepler and Brahe all helped advance the understanding of astronomy. Whilst there were other significant advances during this period, perhaps most importantly Versalius’ work, the first phase of the scientific revolution was predominantly based on the solar system. However after 1600 the other scientific disciplines were expanding in their knowledge and following. Chemistry in particular grew from alchemy to a real school of thinking. Descartes’ insights into the nature of knowledge and Francis Bacon’s work helped cement the use of scientific method as the correct means of studying science. Scientific method was perhaps the most critical result of the scientific revolution as it enabled intellectuals to make genuine progress.