Category: September 13 (Page 1 of 4)

What is a revolution?

What does it mean to be revolutionary? To go somewhere no one’s ever gone, to do something no one’s ever done? This might be true on a personal level but what does it take to be revolutionary in a world view with thousands of years of history in between. This is one point Dan Cohen was making in his lecture. To be revolutionary on this scale means you have to be able to affect the world. One reason I feel like some “revolutions” aren’t very powerful is because the events in and around them are too small and affect too little people. Revolutions like the French and American stood against tyranny yet tyranny in our world is ongoing. The technological revolution is amazing. The new ways of communication are wonderful and truly revolutionary to those that have it at their fingertips, but if only a handful of people have phones and computers it in fact isn’t very revolutionary at all. The rest of the world has to be “tied in” to the amazing feats of specific areas. This is so history doesn’t repeat itself and ignorance can be put away for good.


The subject of a revolution can be obscure especially in the beginning stages. This is one point that Cohen stated about the infamous scientific revolution. He pointed out that it actually wasn’t very scientific and a lot of the unprecedented “science” events often happened by mistake and did not involve much science in them. It was only after the fact; with the study of history that we realized the beginnings of science. In fact, the ‘scientists’ of the day were usually thought of as wrong and blasphemous. The evolution of a revolution is common throughout history. Many revolutions start as a step or solution against a small problem that evolves into a massive radical movement supported by many. What fuels this evolution? What propels a movement to grow larger and gain support?


For this answer we have to look at the root of the word revolution, which is to revolt. The forces acting directly against the revolution are what feeds it. The taxes in the American revolution, the bankruptcy of the French government in the French revolution, the church in the scientific revolution. All forces acting as gasoline to a small kindling flame. The more pressure and force they exerted on the revolution, the more it evolved into something bigger than itself. If it weren’t for the forces acting against it a revolution would have nothing to be fueled by.


So what does it mean to be revolutionary? You have to be big of course, as big as the world. And you need an opponent. Something that drives you to the breaking point, something that drives you to a point that you never thought you could get to. And then you need support. You need to make others believe in the same thing you do with the same passion you have. The world needs to be against you, then with you.

The Origins of Revolution

In attending our first evening lecture in the Revolutions cycle I was surprised by a number of things. First was the complexity of the argument. I certainly was not expecting to have to have learned about the different philosophers and their theories beforehand, nor was I expecting the conversation to get to heated and open and the end of the lecture. I was also not so much surprised, but interested and excited by the nature of the discussion. In school, most of the time you are not taught to question history, it is something you learn, memorize, and at times interpret, but never question the validity of. In listening to Dan question whether or not the ideas of many of these esteemed philosophers were actually revolutionary, it reminded me of a quote I heard in the movie, “The Big Short.” The quote goes something like “It is not what you do not know what hurts you. It is was you know for sure that just a’int so.” I find this quote to be applicable to Dan’s discussion. You can always learn what you do not know, but it is hard to both unlearn what one perceives to be fact, which is less difficult still than unlearning a way of thinking and framing learning.
To me the next and possibly most important point was the discussion on what it means to be be revolutionary, and whether or not the Scientific Revolution should be categorized as such. I think that revolutions can be both big and small, macro and micro, in both a personal and worldly sense. Two definitions of revolution, “an overthrow of or repudiation and the thorough replacement of an established government or political system by the people governed” or “a radical and pervasive change in society and the social structure, especially one made suddenly and often accompanied by violence” both seem to me to be extremely macro in the sense that both government and social structure apply to a large population of people. On a personal note, I believe that a liberal arts education can revolutionize the way in which a student can think about learning, as well as the skills a student believes that he or she is capable of developing, and finally how those skills are valued. We are constantly told that a liberal arts educations “teaches you how to think.” This is revolutionary, at least to me, in that it totally changes your previous framework on how you perceive problems and issues, but how one might view themselves as well. It is not a matter of self-confidence or gravitas, it is an issue of totally changing values an inputs. In circling back to whether or not the Scientific Revolution was actually revolutionary, it may have not been revolutionary in the sense that other people around the world had previously come up with these ideas, but it was revolutionary and original in that it totally changed how an extremely influential region of the world thought about thinking.

Thoughts on the (or a) Scientific Revolution

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.

~Nick Archibald

Revolution or Evolution: Questions about the Cosmos that have changed the direction of history

Professor Cohen’s lecture began with an interesting definition about exploration of ideas explaining humanity’s relation to our planet. Basically he states that science is about exploring the cosmos in order unfold the essence of us. He believes that all people desire to know more about our purpose on earth through understanding more about our earth and how our existence affects our earth. Now I thought this was an interesting way to begin a talk on the scientific revolution because usually professors who discuss this period talk about the production of knowledge and how these developments are the crux of advancing knowledge. While important, I believe this idea of exploring the cosmos in order to unfold the essence of humans really allows us to understand whether the Scientific Revolution of 16th century is truly a revolution or merely evolution. What I will argue is this period does not mark a period of revolution in our view of the cosmos, and that I believe it merely an evolution in the depth that we explore the cosmos.

The main reason I believe the Scientific Revolution to be merely an evolution of ways that we explore the cosmos is that much of the empiricism that was supposedly revolutionary developed out of Greek, Indian, and Islamic discoveries. Specifically, thinkers like Ibn al-Haytham developed a system of empiricism that many European scientist and mathematicians were noted as being the pioneers of, such as the development of hypotheses. This is important because this empiricism has been articulated as being the fundamental reason for Europe’s superior advancement at this period. But as you can see that assertion actually a historical misconception that does not give credibility to the legacy it developed from. Further, many of the hypotheses that developed and were seen as changing our view of the cosmos were often later disproved and or merely developed in Europe at the time and were believed in other parts of the world earlier. Views, such as heliocentrism that were supposedly discovered by the European intellect Corpernicus, who developed a system of astronomy that we note as giving us our view toward Earth’s rotation, seasons, and the understanding that we revolve around the sun. However, this view does not give proper due to previous thinkers hundreds of years before such as al-Buruni who discovered the notion of heliocentrism in Iran. This is important because this apparent new understanding about our relation to the cosmos is seen as a large reason for this period being revolutionary but it merely discredits non-European thinkers and doesn’t articulate the discovery for what it is, an evolution on inherited theories.

Overall, it is apparent that although the period of the Scientific Revolution marks a deeper understanding and development of empirical study about the cosmos in the European tradition it does not mark a revolution in how the whole world explored the and understood cosmos. Merely, this period marked an evolution in the understanding that European intellectuals had about our earth and the world around us.

Shoot the Messenger: Not the Science

The history of science was throughout my primary and secondary schooling, the unit I hated.  I just didn’t and still to some degree don’t really care about the so called “brilliantly designed” experiments and “great discoveries” made by some guy that’s been dead for hundreds of years and probably wore a wig when he was alive.  That’s always been my view on the Scientific Revolution.  So I was delighted when I saw the title of the first lecture, “How Scientific was the Scientific Revolution”.  “Finally”, I thought, “someone’s going to actually criticize the view that Newton, Galileo, Descartes, and company are to be revered as some sort of Mt. Olympus of science”.   The lecture didn’t actually take down the scientific-man in the closest form to a punk rock anthem I can imagine a philosophy professor getting, instead it recognized but didn’t mythologize, the figures of the scientific revolution.


That is to say that yes, Professor Cohen did like to name drop a lot during his lecture, but it wasn’t to say that the men of the scientific revolution were extraordinary in their motives for change.  His examination for the motives behind the revolution as a whole basically came down to that the partakers in the scientific revolution weren’t trying to forge something new, but instead were trying to capture a classical spirit for knowledge about the natural world.  In short, they were trying to be Aristotle.  I don’t necessarily think this gives men like Newton and Descartes enough credit, it makes them sound like fanboys, or imitators.  They weren’t I don’t think, trying to be Aristotle, but were I think grounded in the same spirit as him, one of curiosity for the natural world.  Curiosity, not classical studies, is what made the scientific revolution revolutionary.  Cohen concluded with the notion that the scientific revolution resulted in a greater of variety of voices in intellectualism for Western culture.  Where once there was just Aristotle there was then Descartes for philosophy, Newton for physics, Galileo for Astronomy, and everyone who followed them.  That is what was revolutionary about the scientific revolution, it was the moment western culture stopped obsessing over the Greeks and Romans and started to find that it had voices who were just as curious.


As far as the scientific revolution being scientific then, it doesn’t by modern senses.  Newton’s most famous works weren’t empirical, scientific method-driven, peer reviewed journal entries into investigating the natural world.  Yes, they employed some of each but in large part they were original inquiries into the stuff around him using logic.  He would have been a star pupil in a philosophy department. By modern standards no the scientific revolution was not scientific but that is because it wasn’t about a shift in science, it was a shift in ideas which led to the scientific method, scientific publishing, and modern science itself.

The Scientific Revolution???

While I have heard mentions of the Scientific Revolution in passing, I have never stopped to question or ponder its meaning, implications, or what it truly was. Colloquially it is popular to call almost anything a revolution nowadays. A company, like Apple for example, is often described as revolutionary in terms of its products, designs, or trends set. And maybe this is why I find the Scientific Revolution hard to understand at first glance. This lecture helped me understand what the Scientific Revolution was, and that our modern use of the word “revolution” is rooted back in the Scientific Revolution. As Professor Dan Cohen concluded: The most revolutionary part of the Scientific Revolution is that we now use the word “revolution” as a metaphor. For instance, the “mobile revolution”, which describes a series of inventions and innovations (rather than a violent change of power or politics), has allowed me to type this up!

The change in usage and meaning of words over time adds to the ambiguity of understanding the Scientific Revolution (or indeed many other things in the past!). From given name alone, it is impossible to interpret the significance or context of the Scientific Revolution. In its current and least potent form, a “revolution” can be something as simple as any notable change. However, from my involvement in science classes, both before and at Colby, it is clear that my experience is unlike that of a scientist (whatever that may mean across time) four or five centuries ago. So something did happen. Maybe what happened led to the great advances of science mentioned so often in modern physics. It seemed like almost every day during my modern physics classes we were covering material and scientists that had earned Nobel prizes in their time. Furthermore, they built off of and improved upon Newton’s and others’ work closer to the time of the Scientific Revolution. So really it was a revolution in our way of thinking, and the way we do science? As I have gathered, that is one interpretation.

The Scientific Revolution may not be described as change happening at the pace one might expect from a revolution, or with the brand new findings that would be anticipated. However, across the wider scale of science in humanity, not just Eurocentric science history, it seems like in the time of the Scientific Revolution up until now that there have been massive advances in science, worthy of the designation “revolution.” At this pace – with big data, artificial intelligence, and machine learning no longer on the horizon but here already – it is doubtful that we will recognize the science of the future. It would be fascinating to see what our period in time will be renamed as, and would we find it suitable?  

I conclude, from my relatively limited knowledge on the subject, that using the word “revolution” in the title “the Scientific Revolution” is at the very least appropriate by the standard to which we use “revolution” today.

The Scientific Revolution

The Scientific Revolution was, as Professor Cohen explained, not a single, observable moment or occurrence. It was rather, a blurry movement propagated by great philosophers who theorized about the universe based on empirical observations of the world and the heavens. If there was a particular instance that can be identified as a start to the Revolution, historians agree it was the supernova of 1572. Signified by the appearance of a new star in the night sky, the supernova of 1572 caused extreme confusion and interest within the philosophic community. It was a phenomenon that could not be explained, and therefore started a standard of precise record keeping for coming up with better and more accurate theories.


After 1572, progress, or should I say, a change from traditional views to newer views that explained the world with fewer inexplicable phenomena, certainly happened; no question. There is debate however, acknowledged by professor Cohen, of whether this change could be considered scientific and/or revolutionary.


It is worth examining, I think, as David Wootton does, that this is perhaps a sticky issue, because the language has changed from then until now. What was considered science back then, included things such as natural philosophy and logical reasoning. So indeed, if we could ask someone like Aristotle or Galileo, or even Newton, if they thought the Scientific Revolution was scientific, their answer would most likely be different than ours, because there interpretation of the word scientific was different than ours. The same can also be said of revolution. Thus, our perception of how scientific the Scientific Revolution was has no definite answer. However, I do think there is agreement that the Scientific Revolution was revolutionary. For one thing, we have labeled it as such. As Professor Cohen suggested, perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the Scientific Revolution was that we acknowledged it as a revolution. The prominent scientists and philosophers of the time understood that their work was on the cusp of something big, and for that to come to fruition is, in my opinion, certainly revolutionary. To be clear, they didn’t know exactly what was to become, nor did they set out to achieve any specific goal, but they did theorize about phenomena and establish laws that are the basis of science to this day, such as those of gravity and heliocentrism.


Ultimately, the Scientific Revolution highlighted the ability of human reasoning, specifically supporting the idea that it is sufficient enough to learn the ways of nature. Part of this included an effort to rid teleological explanations, i.e. Aristotle’s final cause, from explanations of the ways of nature. In this way they made a radical break from the medieval worldview, and gave precedent to modern ideas. And although technology and modern science has drastically increased since the 16th and 17th centuries, the ideas generated by during the Scientific Revolution are still the foundation of ideas we hold today. Ideas such as human inquiry through empiricism and rationality, as well as the idea that progress is always achievable, and there are always things to be learned and discovered.


The Scientific Revolution: Exemplary and the End of Scientific Discoveries

The Scientific Revolution was thought of as impeccable and the end of huge scientific discoveries. The latter being a point Professor Cohen briefly mentioned in his talk. Specifically, he stated that at this time in history it was believed that future research would simply consist of tweaking what’s has already been but no breakthroughs. One reason The Scientific Revolution was understood as the optimum point in science is due to the select few who were a part of this history, privileged, white males. The people who made the Science Revolution what it is, was such a small population. Thus, I agree with Professor Cohen’s remark on future advancements: what’s to come in science will be completely different from what was done then and is being done now. I believe the future of science will be even more praiseworthy as our world has so many prospective “scientist” who have many platforms to be inspired and also, create.

The Science Revolution as exemplary. The scientific revolution holds a special spot in history for the people and the advances they made at the time. Some examples are, Nicolas Copernicus and his publication, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, Galileo with, Dialogue on the Two Chief Systems of the World, and Johannes Kepler’s third law of planetary motion. Professor Cohen had challenged how scientific these scientists were as there standards differ from those that exist today. Nonetheless, the advances stand as very scientific and revolutionary. Moreover, The Scientific Revolution stands out for its transition from “the blend of medieval and modern elements to the triumph of the modern.” This is distinctive as a typical revolution is thought to lead to something completely new, however, this revolution simply transitioned to the end of something.

Hence, why wouldn’t the people of this era think this was the prime of science discovery? This idea nonetheless was ignorant and self centered of the scientist at the time. Those most noted as the revolutionaries are white, Christian, and males. This shows how close minded and unhopeful society was of having different kinds of people contribute to these meaningful events in history. On the other hand, those to blame for the chosen handful thought to be revolutionaries could solely be those responsible for writing and passing history down.

Thus, there is a dramatically different future awaiting. The advancements of today and the various forms of media allow the average person to think of countless possibilities. The movies and TV shows of today already show how creative people can get. An example TV show is one from Disney channel, Phil of the Future, meant for young adults can be seen as inspiring people from a young age to think outside the box. Consequently, the scientific revolution to come will be completely different from the one of the past and what we are doing now.



Does a Another Paradigm Shift lie Ahead?

The Scientific Revolution was a monumental time period for the advancement of human kind. Not only did the discoveries of the time make us rethink our place in the universe, but the Scientific Revolution initiated a paradigm shift that would change the way of thought for future generations.

One of the fundamental inventions of the revolution was The Scientific Method. Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes helped innovate this idea. The idea was a step by step method for conducting experiments which emphasized gathering data and doubting all assumptions until evidence says otherwise. The Scientific Method was only one of many inventions of the time that allowed for this paradigm shift. Some of the other important creations of the time were the microscope, barometer and the telescope. Most notably, the telescope which was invented by a dutch priest in the early 1600’s, and refined by Galileo later on, allowed astronomers to see further into the cosmos. This extended human capability allowed Galileo to see discover Jupiters largest moons, many new stars but most importantly it allowed him to confirm Copernicus’s model of an heliocentric Solar System. By being able to observe the sunspots on the sun, he confirmed that the sun rotated and that the planets orbited it. Without these innovations in experimentation and observation the paradigm shift that was The Scientific Revolution would not have happened.

As the human kind enters the most dramatic time of technological change our species has ever endured, I wonder if another paradigm shift lays ahead. The advancements in information technology have provided humans with a platform to observe the knowledge of human kind with ease, and preform calculations that are virtually instantaneous. In some ways the internet has already created a paradigm shift of mind. People have started to no longer make bold assumptions or claims about past knowledge before accessing the internet to see if the rest of humankind agrees. Some futurists believe that this access to big data and future technologies will cause a paradigm shift that could affect our every thought. As our world continues to integrate with technology every thought we have could be checked or added to with technological aids. It may be that rational experimental and scientific thought is no longer trusted or helpful without the aid of artificially intelligent brain integrated systems. A human with extended brain power may be able to answer our species greatest questions such as the nature of our existence, and the mystery of life in the universe. A new scientific revolution may be just around the corner.

The Relativity of TSR

How scientific was the Scientific Revolution? Was it scientific at all, was it even a revolution, or was it just a period sometime in the 16th and 17th centuries that has been given a name for the sake of naming? Of course, such a subjective question has an equally subjective answer, however there are a number of factors to take into account when exploring the answer. Was it a transitionary period, or one marked by a single effect? Was it riddled with philosophical confusion that has carried through the 21st century? Why are we still discussing it today? The endless list of questions nevertheless marks an important period in global history, worthy of examination by all who study it.


Basil Willey has been quoted claiming that the 17th century began with medieval and modern society, but ended with a triumph of the modern. However, it’s important to address here that by “modern,” Willey is actually pointing to the definition of classical. Again, riddled with subjectivity (“what do medieval and modern respectively entail?”), Willey’s claim also matches the philosophical shift that occurred so notably. Although predating the Scientific Revolution a significant number of years, Aristotle’s “seemingly-outlandish-outlook-at-his-time” viewpoint reflected one of continuous learning and growth – the same perspective that marked the shift in thinking representative of the Scientific Revolution. “All people by nature desire to know,” said Aristotle, a thought process reflected with the Scientific Revolution’s shift to a more experimentally based culture. Other factors labeling the shift such as science being defined as “mathematically precise,” and a radical break from the “medieval mind” question the very fact that many of the “revolutionary” changes during the Scientific Revolution weren’t in fact scientific at all, and many of the scientific discoveries weren’t much of a revolution. We can further question the definition of “scientific” and “revolution” by looking at such feats in modern times. A number of “non-scientific changes” which occurred during the Scientific Revolution are unlikely to be recognized as “non-scientific” now, though David Wootton is credited with stating that “Modern Science” was invented in 1572-1704. Would the science that was considered to be modern at the time, be considered modern now? Should we change what is called “The Scientific Revolution” to “A Scientific Revolution?” We must look at the feats and global transformations of the 16th and 17th centuries relatively, for it is truly impossible to define and compare “modern science” or even “modern revolutions” with those considered great in our past.

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