Professor Dan Cohen’s lecture on the Scientific Revolution was the rare lesson that brings up more questions than answers. Is something truly “revolutionary” if many of its greatest achievements call on the teachings of civilizations that preceded the time of the revolution by thousands of years? Is a revolution truly “scientific” if many of the scientific discoveries were not a product of an experimental process but rather the most aesthetically pleasing alternative? Was THE Scientific revolution the only scientific revolution (probably not)?
Instead of trying to provide answers to those questions, which I could not (Dan Cohen spent over an hour trying to), I’m going to come up with more! Being a history major, and trying to see this and any revolution through a causality lens, what social/political conditions can lead to scientific revolutions? Logic would state a democracy with stable living conditions would be best, but didn’t the USSR get the first satellite in orbit? Some have even argued that the bubonic plague was a triggering event for advances in Europe over the next century that would lead to ‘world domination’ by that continent.
Can Scientific Revolutions be harmful to society? While we see plenty of innovated technology that helps the world, not just during THE scientific revolution but also during the 21st century, science can also be held partially accountable for advances in weaponry, before world war two that led to devastating bombs, before world war one that led to mustard gas and the advances in chemical warfare, even now with drones and all of the controversy that surrounds them. In the early 20th century the world outside of Europe, seeing the sometimes devastating impact of scientific ‘achievement’, turned away. “This is what your progress has done?” People like Gandhi said, and there is a valid argument to be made there.
A final question – when is the next scientific revolution going to be? I think, and I might be wrong (but I want to answer one of my questions), hundreds of years from now when humans are in flying cars going on time machine vacations on the weekends we will look back at this turn of the millennium and see it as a period of great technological achievement. The internet, which will only become a larger part of society as time goes on, is one of the greatest scientific achievements of all time. Advances in medicine, communication, transportation, and yes, the military, have all come thick and fast during our lifetimes. Professor Cohen said that many of the intellectuals and inventors during the Scientific Revolution knew something special was going on during that time period, that they were a part of something larger. I think if you asked Bill Gates or Elon Musk or whoever they might say the same.
There are so many more questions to consider: Will overpopulation as a product of scientific achievement extending people’s lives become a problem and how will we solve it? And one that particularly grabbed my attention as a result of that mini-debate at the end of the lecture between professors – Is our view of scientific achievement too euro-centric (even though most scientific discoveries, for a variety of reasons, have either come from or been stolen by these pale, white, men)? The Scientific Revolution is filled with these sort of questions, but, as we saw from the lecture, the answers are more difficult to parse out.