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Contextualizing The Scientific Revolution

The commonly conceived notion of the Scientific Revolution during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is the tension between modern discoveries and methodologies against ancient traditions and practices. Many introductory science courses reflect on the contributions of Galileo, Descartes, and Newton. Their roles in establishing the distinction between religion and antiquated modes of thought and the natural sciences are no doubt, substantial. Yet, these select narratives are limited in scope and do not reflect the broader political, religious, and cultural factors affecting scientific progress. In The Scientific Revolution, Steven Shapin presents a broader context by discussing commonly undisclosed factors that shape the Revolution.

One reason why the Scientific Revolution is misconceived is due to the brevity in which students learn about the history of science. Courses typically have one or two days to go over these concepts, which glosses over two centuries worth of history. It is only in advanced coursework or independent study focusing on the Scientific Revolution that students can engage in a deeper level of analysis and inquiry. As a result, students that do not inquire about the history of science do not get a broader and deeper understanding of the myriad of contributing factors.

In the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon believed there was a necessary to create a “catalog…of all the effects that could be observed in nature” (85), which is similar to how modern scientific organizations and standards operate today. Shapin argues the purpose of these catalogs was to provide a “register of fact…to provide the secure foundations of natural philosophy” (90). The metric system can be considered a modern example of a catalog as it is an internationally adopted decimal system of measurement used in all facets of life. Using the metric prefix system for weights, shipments of goods can be measured in a standard unit, kilogram instead of constantly converting between units. Another example is the world’s largest technical professional organization for the advancement of technology (IEEE), which has established standards for software and research development life-cycles. Many research facilities, universities, and companies adhere to the IEEE standards today. In the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon understood the need for these catalogs, which have manifested in modern scientific organizations and standards.

Against most preconceived notions of the Scientific Revolution, modern science emerged under the influence of various intellectual and societal factors. As Shapin describes, the contributions of religion,  philosophy, and naturalism were additional factors affecting the development of scientific inquiry. Legacies of the Scientific Revolution are still apparent today in the form of internationally recognized scientific organizations and standards. Despite the importance of the Scientific Revolution, not every person will dig deeper into its complex history. Most people blindly accept and take for granted the science and technologies they depend on everyday.

Shapin, Steve. The Scientific Revolution. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

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