As science advances, human society’s view of science also evolves. In today’s world, science is more than science: once an esoteric subject of study, science has become an integral part of our culture and has shaped our modern conversation. A result of this is that people often use concepts related to science – from the gravitational wave to cloning, from the scientific revolution to the scientific method – without carefully examining their meanings. Instead, I believe that we should take a closer look at the very words and phrases we use, think about them in different contexts, and try to gain an informed understanding. So what do we mean by the scientific revolution?
The standard answer to this question is a unique event that took place in the 16th and 17th century, which revolutionized human’s understanding of natural science, transforming it into a mathematically precise, experimentally based objective knowledge. This revolution marked the transformation from the Medieval world to the modern world. We have long taken the term “scientific revolution” and its standard definition for granted. However, upon closer examination of its literal meaning, by asking simple questions such as “how scientific is it”, “how revolutionary is it”, and “how unique is it”, we can gain some insights into the historic event.
A noteworthy fact of the scientific revolution is the phrase “scientific revolution” itself. The phrase, counter-intuitively, was not coined by later historians, but by those who took active parts in the scientific revolution. In their age, the word “science” and “revolution” both had different meanings from our age. For example, “revolution” came from revolve, which, in context, meant going back to the glorious Greek and Roman Period. Moreover, those who started to use the word “revolution”, Bacon for example, exaggerated the leap they made: the Medieval was not as primitive as they described. “Science”, on the other hand, is not scientific according to 21st century standard, for it still had much to do with politics, religion, superstition, and ethics.
Despite the fact that “the scientific revolution” was technically neither scientific nor revolutionary, the term has become a part of our contemporary conversation. In other words, the phrase has gained a cultural meaning in addition to its literal meaning. Therefore, we should not be too critical of the use of this phrase, or be too confident in our definition of the scientific revolution. Note that just as the definition of science and revolution has changed since 17th century, it will probably change in the future. Signs of this can be seen in the academia’s reception of the string theory. Though the theory cannot be tested, which contradicts our current definition of science, it is still considered a scientific theory.
To further explain this phenomenon, we can look at other scientifically revolutionary non-revolution events, such as the discovery of irrational number in math, the cell theory and the theory of evolution in biology, and the creation of the periodic table in chemistry. Though they are equally revolutionary, they are less referred to as “revolution” in daily conversations.
Therefore, referring to the 16th and 17th century event as the scientific revolution in modern conversation is scientifically inaccurate yet culturally precise. The main takeaway, however, is that we should be aware of the meaning behind the words and phrases we use.