Discovery: The Invention of Science 1500-1750


Professor David Wootton, Anniversary Professor of History, University of York

27 November 2015


We live in a world made by science. How and when did this happen? In his talk to the Science Group of the BRLSI (30th October 2015), David Wootton told the story of the extraordinary intellectual and cultural revolution that occurred primarily in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and which gave birth to modern science.

Before 1492 it was assumed that all significant knowledge was already available; there was no concept of progress; people looked for understanding to the past not the future. Wootton argues that it was the discovery of America in that year by Christopher Columbus that demonstrated that new knowledge was possible: indeed it introduced the very concept of 'discovery', and opened the way to the invention of science.

The first of these subsequent and crucial discoveries was Tycho Brahe's observation of the supernova of 1572: proof that there could be change in the heavens. Galileo's use of the telescope (1610) then rapidly rendered the old astronomy obsolete. Torricelli's experiment with the vacuum (1643) led directly to the triumph of the experimental method in the Royal Society of Boyle and Newton. By 1750 Newtonianism was being celebrated throughout Europe. The new culture had its martyrs (Bruno, Galileo), its heroes (Kepler, Boyle), its propagandists (Voltaire, Diderot), and its patient labourers (Gilbert, Hooke). It led to a new rationalism, killing off alchemy, astrology, and belief in witchcraft, to the invention of the steam engine and to the first Industrial Revolution.

Wootton describes himself as a historian of ideas, and in his talk he argued that the new science did not consist only of new discoveries or new methods, but relied on a completely new understanding of what knowledge might be. With this new way of looking at the world came a new language: discovery, progress, facts, experiments, hypotheses, theories, laws of nature - almost all these terms existed before 1492, but their meanings were radically transformed so that they became tools with which to think scientifically. We all now speak this language of science, which was invented during the Scientific Revolution. Wootton's analysis in fact relies heavily on the computer analysis of the digitised books of the period - a nice example of the tools of science being used to enquire into its own history.

Professor Wootton's talk was in effect an abstract of his 2015 book "The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution" (Allen Lane, The Penguin Press). In both the talk and the book Wootton advances the view that looking at science as a system for discovery has philosophical significance. In particular, it implies that science is indeed a system that is based on the discovery of facts (the word "fact" in its present meaning was actually one of the crucial tools of the new scientific approach to understanding) which are actually "true", as working scientists have always assumed them to be. In this, Wootton mounts a major challenge to the prevailing relativistic orthodoxy of many current historians and philosophers of science that the received wisdom of scientific knowledge prevailing at any one time is simply one of many possible, equally valid paradigms, to be understood only in terms of its historical and sociological context. Instead, Wootton argues, scientific revolutions are indeed overnight events, representing real progress. In fact, the discovery of "killer facts" leads to the pulling down of the pillars of existing paradigms to replace them with new ones which are definitively more "true" than what went before.

The talk was followed by a lively and enthusiastic discussion.