Sir Isaac Newton and the Heroes of the Scientific Revolution

Home History Sir Isaac Newton and the Heroes of the Scientific Revolution

The twentieth century has produced technology beyond imagination. It is unfortunate we are a nation fixated on O.J. Simpson and T.V. talk shows and our heroes are Tom Cruise and Dennis Rodman. The 16th through the 18th centuries marked a period of time when heroes were artists, authors, and scientists. Science in particular experienced several breakthroughs. This period is referred to as the scientific revolution. Scientists of this time felt a desire to improve, disprove, and vary the scientific concepts that had been proposed by the ancient Greeks. Who these scientists were and what they did is as important as any other subject in history. The inventions, principles, and laws founded during this period are still in use today and many have not changed. The strong interest in antiquity and magic invoked an intellectual revolution (Chambers).

Anatomy and Astronomy were the two main focal points of the earlier scientific revolution. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) formulated a connection between the earths movements and planetary motion (Shapin). In addition, he stated that mathematics must be used to describe this motion. The University of Padua medical school did a great deal of research in anatomy, and this would reveal an enormous amount of information about the mechanics of the human body (Chambers). The mechanical philosopher Robert Boyle (1627-1691) emphasized the relation of anatomy and astronomy (Shapin). Planetary motion and the human body are systems that rely on a harmony of motion and anything that disturbs this motion interrupts the fine precision timing. The body requires fuel and has a finite age, but the heavenly bodies are seemingly in perpetual motion. These characteristics are the basis of philosophical thought about physics for this period in

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), whose name in Latin is Copernicus, was not the first to put the sun at the center of the universe (Schwartz). He did however describe the relationship of the heavenly bodies with great accuracy through observation and mathematics. His findings led to a change in the Julian calendar, which had been in use since Roman times, to the Gregorian calendar (Chambers). The basic principles of planetary motion are found in Kepler’s laws named after German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). These laws govern not only planets rotating around the sun, but any natural or artificial satellite moving around a larger massive central body (Halliday). The connection between mathematics and nature was first brought to the general public by Galileo. His development of the telescope in 1609 helped him lay down the foundation of a branch of physics known as mechanics which is a key to understanding motion on earth (Schwa@.

A popular subject during the scientific revolution was the study of anatomy. Public dissections were a popular event as anatomists would describe the human body in great detail to a fascinated public (Chambers). French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes (1596-1650) mapped out the human body in great detail showing all pans connected to the brain (Shapin). He pointed out that the brain works as a central control station receiving and sending out information throughout the body. This mechanical philosophy is the basis for his famous saying, l think, therefore I am”, which simply means I have a brain in active use which substantiates my existence. The wide use of the microscope by inventor Robert Hooke (1635-1703) broadened the field by studying different forms of the human body as well as insects (Schwartz). Robert Boyle related the study of anatomy to many other branches of science including chemistry, hydrostatics and natural laws.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) is the person those of us in the twentieth century define as genius. The person that epitomized genius during the scientific revolution is Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the only son of a small landowner in England and the first scientist to ever receive a knighthood (Westfall). He set the standard that scientists have always measured themselves and their theories against. He is best known for his three laws of motion which are the basis for the study of mechanics. A great controversy arose when the Frenchman Gottfried Leibniz published a book on differential calculus. Newton, although unpublished, had simultaneously been teaching an identical form of mathematics as Leibniz’s calculus. Both men are given credit for the invention of calculus, however, due to Newton’s prestige he was considered the expert on this field of mathematics. Newton’s law of gravitation was developed when surveyors had trouble measuring near mountains. They used hanging pendulums which the mountain, a larger attractive mass, prevented from hanging straight down. Newton came up with a gravitational constant which surveyors still use today (Halliday). Newton’s monumental achievement is a book known as “The Principia,” which defined most of Newton’s findings. This book was the turning point of his life because it redirected him to more intellectual thought (Westfall). There was a void in scientific work for over half a century after publication of “The Principia” because it was felt that Newton had left no stone unturned (Chambers). No scientist today can study their respective field without feeling Newton’s influence.

Revisiting Rene Descartes, we are introduced to a great deal of philosophical thought about why science is an important branch of education. Science is the study of the unknown and we are usually always bettered by it. According to Descartes, all men possess the ability to discover new science but only a few capture this ability (Schwartz). Descartes felt himself to be a scholar and it was his duty to further society through his abilities. He generalized a study known as a mechanism which basically states that all things in the universe, including human beings, are subject to strict physical principles (Chambers). Descartes is most well-known for his work in mathematics. Any algebra student is introduced to a basic system of positive and negative integers which develop a starting point for algebra known as the Cartesian coordinate system named after Descartes. He combined algebra with geometry to form another field of mathematics known as analytical geometry. Although he was consumed with mathematics, Descartes still felt experience was needed to define nature while Newton assured us that hypothesis and logic could achieve desired results (Chambers).

Many units, laws, and principles are named after the scientists who founded certain basic theories and principles. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), who delved into many different branches of science, is no exception. He is probably most well-known by mathematicians for his calculating machine which led to a computer language bearing his name. Pascal’s principle is used by nearly every person every day when they squeeze a tube of toothpaste. It states, simply, that a change in pressure to an enclosed fluid will spread the fluid to the walls of the containing vessel (Halliday). This is the basis of hydraulics and interestingly is how the Heimlich maneuver works. Once again Pascal was honored with having the Pa unit for pressure named after him. He was most well-known during his life for “The Pensées,” a collection of papers regarding his reflections on science and revealing a deeply religious man (Chambers). Pascal left society with an unbelievable amount of scientific work in his short thirty-one years of life.

The importance of science has been defined by many but not with as much passion as Francis Bacon (1561-1626). He inspired a generation by describing what science could do for the human race (Chambers). He put forth his views that when human knowledge and human power meet the possibilities are endless. Bacon described science as being similar to a ship leaving the pier. By applying basic known principles to the experimentation of new areas, new discoveries will be found. Bacon, as did many others, felt that the laws of science and nature proved the existence of God not only as creator but also as keeping a watchful eye over the universe (Shapin). It was propaganda like his that led to the founding of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, a central think tank that not only boosted science but also showed the government’s presence in science and all areas of society (Chambers). Sir Isaac Newton was at one-time president of the Royal Society of London and dedicated his “Principia” to the organization. Newton, as did many other members, experienced conflict and factions developed usually over philosophical issues regarding theories and experimental methods (Westfall). Societies like this throughout Europe had a great impact not only on their members, but they also inspired future generations.

These scientists considered themselves as modern versus ancient and very much wanted to share their views with society (Shapin). Fortunately for them, they had an audience not only interested but thirsty for invention and understanding of the unknown. Throughout the scientific revolution, mechanical philosophers compared the universe to a wound clock. God set our world in motion and applied a set of natural laws to govern it. The heroes of this period discovered these laws, interpreted these laws and applied them to every aspect of human life. Mathematics was developed to define and experiment with these laws. The philosophical discussions that took place consumed much of the energy of these scientists. Society looked up to them with great admiration. They were superstars of intellectual thought and authors of the most thought-provoking literature of the time. They did this without calculators, computers, media, or electrical power. The twentieth century has seen space travel, nuclear power, and computers which are fascinating whether or not you have an interest in science. This is the same feeling society had during the scientific revolution. Although science has produced things that are not necessarily good for us like pollution and nuclear weapons, the benefits have saved lives, simplified our lives, and made our world more enjoyable.



‘Works Consulted”

  1. Chambers, Mortimer and Others. The Western Experience: Volume l. 6th ed. McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1987.
  2. Halliday, David and Others. Fundamentals of Physics. 4th ed. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1974.

3, Shapin, Steven. The Scientific Revolution. The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

  1. Westfall, Richard S. Never At Rest, A Biography of Isaac Newton. Cambridge University Press, 1980.
  2. Schwartz, George and Phillip W. Bishop. The Origins of Science. Basic Books, Inc., 1958.