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The invention of science: a new history of…

The invention of science: a new history of the scientific revolution (2015)

by David Wootton

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Just started the audio version - names, dates, theories, discoveries, inventions - drinking from a firehouse, wonderful. Looking forward to adding it back into my que and reading the book in the future. ( )
  MichaelC.Oliveira | Apr 25, 2017 |
This is a fairly scholarly work to find on the shelves of a contemporary public library. It discusses philosophies of the history of science and includes extensive footnotes and endnotes which must have been compiled by an army of graduate students. It is far livelier than this suggests, in part due to the quotations from the works of various 16th and 17th century scientists and writers.

The most remarkable theme of this work is how confident many early scientists were that they were doing something new and how determined they were to keep on doing it. The second most remarkable is the obstinate stupidity of most academics currently working in the history of science.

The theories that the mediaeval scholars had about the world which gave way to the understanding of the terraqueous globe were so strange that I could not really understand them at all. It is nice however, to know that "piracy on the high seas" is a phrase from the days in which the oceans were supposed to be higher than the land. ( )
  themulhern | Mar 14, 2017 |
Wootton claims there are two major philosophical camps among those who write about the history of science. He calls them the 'realists' and the 'relativists'. The realists regard science as essentially a formalized application of human common sense. To them, science is a systematic method of asking questions about the natural world, which leads to reasonably accurate answers. As these answers build upon one another, collective human understanding grows. It's almost inevitable. Relativists, on the other hand, see science as an aspect of human culture. Both the questions it asks and the answers it finds are culturally dependent, so it never obtains any objective knowledge and consequently cannot progress in the sense that it gets us closer to a true understanding of what the world actually is or how it works. Instead, it creates stories about the world that work for a particular culture at a particular time. Relativism, he claims, "has been the dominant position in the history of science" for some time (Pg. 117). (This seems odd to me since, of the two extremes, relativism seems the most absurd, but that's what he says. Since he's the expert and I'm not, I'm sadly willing to entertain the idea that he may be right about this.)

Wootton sees some merit in both of these perspectives, and this book is his attempt to reconcile them. His self-appointed task can be summarized in these quotes that appear near the end of the book:

The task, in other words, is to understand how reliable knowledge and scientific progress can and do result from a flawed, profoundly contingent, culturally relative, all-too-human process. (pg. 541)
Hence the need for an historical epistemology which allows us to make sense of the ways in which we interact with the physical world (and each other) in the pursuit of knowledge. The central task of such an epistemology is not to explain why we have been successful in our pursuit of scientific knowledge; there is no good answer to that question. Rather it is to track the evolutionary process by which success has been built upon success; that way we can come to understand that science works, and how it works. (Pg. 543)

And this is what he does in an extensively researched and exhaustively documented account of the development and evolution of science. The way of thinking, which we now call science, truly was new and revolutionary. It emerged primarily in Western Europe between the times of Columbus and Newton. Wootton doesn't claim a single igniting spark, but he gives Columbus's voyage in 1492 credit for providing a powerful challenge to the prevailing belief that the ancients had known everything worth knowing. Although Columbus himself never accepted that the land he found by traveling west from Spain was a previously unknown continent, others soon came to this realization, and it showed that the authority of Ptolemy, Aristotle, and Holy Scripture were not as absolute as people believed. Here was an entirely new world, with strange animals, plants, and people, which the respected and authoritative ancients had known nothing about. Possibly just as significant was that the existence of these two huge continents was not found through philosophical reflection or by divine revelation. This new land was 'discovered' by a bunch of scruffy sailors—commoners!

From here, he explains that these emerging ideas added new words and new (and modern) definitions to old words, such as 'discovery', 'fact', 'experiment', 'objectivity', and 'evidence'. These all have their current meanings because of the scientific way of viewing the world that emerged between the 16th and 18th centuries. (Personally, I think his discussion of the word 'evidence' goes into more detail and greater length than needed to make his point, but for those in academia, it may be helpful).

He also shows how culture influenced the development of scientific thinking. More often than not, the culture of this time hindered rather than helped. Prior to the scientific revolution, philosophical disputes were decided through clever rhetoric, creative verbal arguments, and appeals to tradition and authority. Because of this, early practitioners of science felt it necessary to justify themselves by citing the works of long-dead philosophers like Epicurus, Democritus, and Lucretius. Although none had the authority of Aristotle, they were ancient, which implied a certain respectability. The new scientific way of thinking, on the other hand, "sought to resolve intellectual disputes through experimentation." (pg. 562)

I am more of an interested observer of science than I am a practitioner, but I have to admit that the realist view seems far closer to the truth to me than does the relativist concept. It is undeniable that science is done by scientists, that scientists are people, and that people are shaped by the cultures in which they live. But modern science originally began by challenging the assumptions of the culture in which it first emerged, and it retains that aspect of cultural skepticism to this day. I suspect that many current scientists are motivated, at least in part, by the dream of possibly overturning a prevailing theory or showing that it is somehow flawed or incomplete. In the 17th century, challenging cultural assumptions could bring a long, uncomfortable visit with inquisitors followed by a short, hot time tied to a stake. Today, it can bring a scientist fame and fortune.

Scientific progress isn't inevitable, but it can and does reveal culturally independent facts. Scientists are products of their cultures, but the process of science intentionally strives to put those cultural assumptions aside. It may be the only human activity that does so.
( )
  DLMorrese | Oct 14, 2016 |
I wanted to like and enjoy this book so much but it was so bogged down by too many details and tangents that I could not. At times, too few and far between, Wootton would talk about something really interesting like how scientists came to the ideas they are famous for or how they did not come to them alone. But most of the this book is some kind of tangent. Wootton has so much that he is trying to do that he does none of them. I was mostly bored doing this book. I had to use the graduate student skim to read this book. I hate using the graduate student skim. I guess if too detailed books about any subject are your thing, you should try this. If you are looking for an interesting book about science came to be as we know it today then skip this one.

I give this book a One out of Five stars. I was given a copy of this book by HarperCollins in exchange for an honest review. ( )
  lrainey | May 4, 2016 |
David Wootton is a professor of history at the University of York. In The Invention of Science he proposes a new view of the definition, the significance, and the timing of the “Scientific Revolution.”

Most historians would point to Copernicus as the initiator of the revolution with his publication in 1543 of a heliocentric vision of the universe. But Wootton argues that Copernicus was not really a scientist in that he did not attempt to gather new data - he relied on the observations of the ancients. Nor was he as revolutionary as once thought. He envisioned the earth and the planets as located in solid crystalline spheres that rotated around and within each other. He was concerned with preserving Aristotle’s concept of celestial circular motion. Indeed, one did not contradict Aristotle lightly; from the end of the eleventh century until the middle of the eighteenth Aristotle’s take on natural phenomena was taught in the universities across Europe; his influence was profound.

Adding to the ossification of knowledge was an unquestioning belief in the literal truth of the Bible. Between the teachings of Aristotle and the Bible, most European thinkers concluded “there was no such thing as new knowledge.”

The epistemological issues Wootton discusses are fascinating. He observes, for example, that the notion of “discovery” was a relatively modern concept. When Columbus “discovered” the New World, this was a game-changer; before this, the assumption was that there were no “discoveries” to be made. Pursuant to the texts accepted as authoritative, “the greatest achievements of civilization were believed to lie not in the present or the future but in the past, in ancient Greece and classical Rome.”

Wootton also takes on the theory of scientific “revolutions” formulated and popularized by Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn, writing at the peak of the intellectual infatuation with post-modernism, stated that science has undergone several distinct revolutions in the form of paradigm shifts, in which scientists did not so much discover new data, but rather began to view the same data in a different light. No, says Wootton. Kuhn’s analytical lenses were too narrowly constructed; he lost sight, Wootton argues persuasively, of the wider environment within which those shifts took place.

Wootton suggests that modern science was invented between 1572, when Tycho Brahe discovered a new star [which we now know was a distant super nova], and 1704, when Isaac Newton published his work on prisms. What made the difference, according to Wootton, was the notion of “discovery”; a research program; precise measurements; a community of experts; the willingness to question long-established certainties in light of new evidence; and above all, the triumph of experience over philosophy. Furthermore, the invention of the printing press accelerated the process by transforming access to information and becoming itself an agent of change. To support his thesis, he presents a detailed history of how science worked before, during, and after this period.

“Science” itself was until recently known as “natural philosophy,” and the word “scientist” was not used until the 19th Century! Wootton analyzes language closely, because, as he stresses, “[a]ll history involves translation from the source language.” But understanding the words originally used also can indicate how the words signified for a particular place and time. In fact, one of Wootton’s key premises is that “a revolution in ideas requires a revolution in language.”

Thus, Wootton argues that the scientific revolution was not merely a collection of new discoveries, but rather a cultural transformation. The printing press, in addition to its benefits mentioned above, was instrumental in the intellectual revolution because it fostered the dissemination and criticism (“peer review”) of new ideas. New instruments (telescopes, microscopes, barometers, prisms) allowed the discovery of new facts. Finally, the new science was given a distinctive identity by a new language that stressed facts, theories, hypotheses, and laws.

Evaluation: Wootton has mastered a truly enormous corpus of scholarly work. His bibliography runs to 68 pages. His writing is lucid and interesting, even when he is discussing arcane issues of historiography, and in comparison to most other books on epistemology. This book is well worth the effort.

(JAB) ( )
  nbmars | Jan 24, 2016 |
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'Hanc ego ed caelo ducentem sidera vidi'
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Modern science was invented between 1572, when Tyco Brahe saw a nova, or new star, and 1704, when Newton published his Opticks, which demonstrated that white light is made up of light of all the colours of the rainbow, that you can split it into its component colours with a prism, and that colour inheres in light, not in objects.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 006175952X, Hardcover)

We live in a world made by science. How and when did this happen? This book tells the story of the extraordinary intellectual and cultural revolution that gave birth to modern science, and mounts a major challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy of its history. Before 1492 it was assumed that all significant knowledge was already available; there was no concept of progress; people looked for understanding to the past not the future. This book argues that everything changed with the discovery of America, which demonstrated that new knowledge was possible: indeed it introduced the very concept of "discovery", and opened the way to the invention of science. The first crucial discovery was Tycho Brahe's nova of 1572: proof that there could be change in the heavens. The telescope (1610) rendered the old astronomy obsolete. Torricelli's experiment with the vacuum (1643) led directly to the triumph of the experimental method in the Royal Society of Boyle and Newton. By 1750 Newtonianism was being celebrated throughout Europe. The new science did not consist simply of new discoveries, or new methods. It relied on a new understanding of what knowledge might be, and with this came a new language: discovery, progress, facts, experiments, hypotheses, theories, laws of nature - almost all these terms existed before 1492, but their meanings were radically transformed so they became tools with which to think scientifically. We all now speak this language of science, which was invented during the Scientific Revolution. The new culture had its martyrs (Bruno, Galileo), its heroes (Kepler, Boyle), its propagandists (Voltaire, Diderot), and its patient labourers (Gilbert, Hooke). It led to a new rationalism, killing off alchemy, astrology, and belief in witchcraft. It led to the invention of the steam engine and to the first Industrial Revolution. David Wootton's landmark book changes our understanding of how this great transformation came about, and of what science is.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 02 Jul 2015 05:27:17 -0400)

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