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The Scientific Revolution and the Scientific Method

Page history last edited by mmmahan@umass.edu 1 month, 2 weeks ago


Topics on the Page


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  • The Scientific Revolution  
  • The Scientific Method 
  • Leading Figures of the Scientific Revolution
    • Francis Bacon
    • Nicolas Copernicus
    • Rene Descartes
    • Galileo Galilei
    • Johannes Kepler
    • Sir Isaac Newton
    • Leonardo da Vinci
    • Francesco di Giorgio
    • Work of Vitruvius
    • Work of Galen
    • Andreas Vesalius 
  • Artisan/Practitioners and the Shift from Intellectual to Practical Science
    • Francesco di Giorgio
    • Vitruvius
    • Andreas Vesalius 


Cross-Link: Arabic and Islamic Mathematicians and Scientists 

 Cross-Link: Women of the Scientific Revolution 

    • Margaret Cavendish
    • Maria Winkelmann
    • Maria Sibylla Merian
    • Gabrielle Emile du Chatelet 


Cross-Link: Historical Biography pages for Women in Science in 19th and 20th Centuries 




Focus Question: What was the Scientific Revolution, the scientific method and the accomplishments of the leading figures of the Scientific Revolution?


 Watch this video for an introduction to the Scientific Revolution!

The Scientific Revolution (1550 to 1700)


external image 500px-Hebrew_timeline.svg.png Timeline of the Scientific Revolution
external image The_Scientific_Method.png
The Scientific Revolution was born in Europe in the 1500s, in context of the Middle Ages.


  • It was a period of general instability, with a population more concerned with survival than intellectual pursuits.
  • The dominant Church established laws and norms which were influenced by religious mysticism and discouraged scientific inquiry, as it was often inconsistent with biblical teaching.

While Europe remained stagnant, the nearby Islamic Empire scientifically flourished.


  • Islamic scientists took great efforts to preserve and translate Ancient Greek texts, which included much work in science and natural philosophy that had effectively been “lost” to Europeans.
  • Latin translations of these Arabic and Greek writings made their way to Europe through contact with the Islamic Empire through the Crusades and trade.

The Protestant Reformation weakened the Catholic Church's power and influence.


  • It encouraged scientific inquiry by changing man's view on the relationship between God and nature, encouraging laity to explore in for themselves.
  • Shortly after Martin Luther, the Renaissance encouraged realism in art, a rebirth of ancient Greek ideals, and thus a study in nature. It encouraged an atmosphere of observation and inquiry.
  • These influences and others encouraged man to observe and develop new ideas in physics, astronomy, biology, human anatomy, chemistry, and other sciences.
  • The scientific method gave man an organized process to ask questions, develop hypotheses, and use experiment to test and develop theories. Scientists of this era debunked many long-held assumptions about the world and developed theories and frameworks which we use and hold as truth in the modern world.


The Artisan/Practitioner movement is arguably the most important movement for the shift from individual philosophers and other scientists working alone to the collective individualism that we see in modern science.


  • From the beginning of science, philosophy and observation dominated new discoveries. They looked at the night sky to observe planetary movement and contemplated unanswered questions like motion and force.
  • Works from Aristotle and other ancient natural philosophers dominated the scientific world through the 15th and 16th centuries. During the Scientific Revolution, there was a shift towards empirical practices of artisan/practitioners. As learned men moved closer to the empirical world, artisan/practitioners also moved closer to the world of learned men.
    • Individual observation and experiment started to replace studying ancient works, observing through others experiences, and the belief that experiments would change natural processes and therefore were useless


Scientists during this period began to believe that your own experiences and experiment were more important than studying from the ancients

    • Galen
      • Physician and surgeon (practitioner) who stated the belief that studying from books should only be done if observation of the same phenomenon isn't available (not everyone can do surgery, some phenomenon is only in certain parts of the world, etc)
    • Paracelsus
      • Extreme view on observation over ancients
      • Stated that his shoelaces knew more than Aristotle


  • The work of artisan/practitioners, like Andreas Vesalius and Galen, shows the growing closeness of the two worlds of learned men and artisan/practitioners. The growing closeness of the two worlds were in part due to the use of science for practical uses. Science began to shift from intellectual purposes to practical purposes during this era. Learned men needed to study the work of artisan/practitioners that would take too long to master by themselves. Artisan/practitioners needed learned men to write down organized and detailed thoughts into books for study.


  • Met in trading zones
    • Arsenals, mines, cities, etc
    • Places where artisan/practitioners and scholars came together to discuss scientific subjects 


  • For further reading see: Pamela Long's Artisan/Practitioners and the Rise of New Sciences, 1400-1600

"The long term effects of both the Scientific Revolution and the modern acceptance and dependence upon science can be felt today in our daily lives. And notwithstanding some major calamity -- science and the scientific spirit will be around for centuries to come." (History Guide Online: The Scientific Revolution 1543-1600).


Galileo's drawings of the phases of the moon, 1616  

Galileo's drawings of the phases of the moon, 1616






"The exciting discoveries of this period--the heliocentric universe, the development of the scientific method, the use of mathematics, advances in medicine and chemistry--need to be part of every student's historical understanding. These discoveries did not just happen; it took struggle against older notions and assumptions for newer ideas to emerge." (Lesson From History, National Center for History in the Schools, 1992, p. 261).

Collection of Primary Sources, works by figures of the Scientific Revolution, from Fordham University.

external image Red_apple.jpg Learning Plans 




Videos explaining the Scientific Revolution



The Scientific Method

The scientific method is a procedure scientists use to study the world around them without bias or cultural influences. The user first identifies a question or a problem, formulates an idea about why this occurs, performs experiments to test the hypothesis, records the data, and analyzes the findings. Prior to the scientific method in Europe, conclusions were drawn based on interpretation, and scientists did not perform experiments to tests their ideas.

With the creation of this systemic method of testing and re-testing a hypotheses, we gain a more accurate understanding of the natural world, and have a framework to continually challenge and improve upon a theory. The method also eliminates cultural bias, an element that was of particular importance in Europe when the Church held the highest power.

Francis Bacon is generally credited with inventing the scientific method, with Descartes, Galileo and Newton refining and using it the way we know it today. However, Aristotle made the first steps toward it by using empirical evidence and logical reasoning.
external image Alhazen%2C_the_Persian.gif
During the height of the Islamic Empire, Islamic scientists used a system very similar to what we call the scientific method today. The Arab scientist and philosopher Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) was influenced by Aristotle, used experimentation, and even insisted on creating replicable data in his experiments. Alhazen's biography is available here

Listen to this rap that summarizes the Scientific Method!


Crash Course History of Science: The Scientific Method



Leading Figures of the Scientific Revolution

"Thinkers such as the Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), the French philosopher René Descartes(1596-1650) and the British mathematician Isaac Newton (1642-1727) overturned the authority of the Middle Ages and the classical world. And by authority I am not referring specifically to that of the Church -- the demise of its authority was already well under way even before the Lutheran Reformation had begun. The authority I am speaking of is intellectual in nature and consisted of the triad of Aristotle (384-322), Ptolemy (c.90-168) and Galen(c.130-201). (History Guide Online: The Scientific Revolution 1543-1600).

Make it more fun with a baseball card activity to help students learn and remember the leading figures of the scientific revolution. After the cards are made maybe there could be a draft of "players" to see what the world (team) would be like without them!
external image Essener_Feder_01.pngBiography of Aristotle

More on Aristotle's contribution in this article on the beginning of science and philosophy in Athens by Michael Fowler of UVA.

For an abbreviated timeline of Scientific Revolution discoveries, click here



Francis Bacon ( Jan. 22,1561- April 9,1626)     

Biography of Bacon

Biography of Bacon in video form


Bacon was a lawyer, philosopher and statesman with a passion for science. He is credited with creating the Scientific Method, which was meant to replace the Aristotelian methods which dominated scientific thought of the time. Bacon aimed to create a methodology which relied on experiment and empirical evidence, and he expounded upon this in his most famous work, //Novum Organum//. He felt that carefully organized experiments and systematic, thorough observations would lead to correct general principles, which in turn would lead to new discoveries.

"The true and lawful goal of the sciences is none other than this: that human life be endowed with new discoveries and power." Novum Organum.

Nicolas Copernicus (February 19, 1473  May 24, 1543)


Biography of Copernicus

Copernicus is considered a founder of modern astronomy. He developed the system stating that the Earth was not the center of the universe, but that the universe was heliocentric and the planets all revolved around the sun in circular orbits around a stationary sun. Before the Copernican system, people believed in the Ptolemaic system which held earth to be at the center of the universe.

The beliefs of the times were human-centric, and Copernicus' theories went against the teachings of the powerful Church. However, Copernicus died before he could be brought to trial for his theory. Galileo and others later embraced the Copernican system and suffered persecution as heretics for it. Though the model is not completely correct, the legacy of Copernicus of one of challenging the status quo and the assumption that man is the literal center of the world.

"[Nicolaus Copernicus is] an upstart astrologer…. This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun tostand still, and not the earth." –Martin Luther (attributed), as quoted in Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers (1983), p. 302

Selection from The Revolution of the Heavenly Bodies (1543).

Video outlining the origins of the geocentric and heliocentric models with diagrams to show the differences.


 Copernican Model



Rene Descartes (March 31, 1596 – February 11, 1650)


Biography of Descartes


Descartes was a philosopher and mathematician who is known as the father of modern philosophy. His interests in mathematics was focused on methods, and he examined how ancient mathematicians like Euclid came about their discoveries. One of his greatest philosophical and scientific works was Discourse on Method, where he expounds on rationalism and its application to science. Intead of asking "what is true," he asks "what can be proven?" By choosing to write Discourse in French rather than Latin, Descartes was directing his work at anyone literate in the spoken language rather than just academics.

Descartes wrote a number of works where he applied his method of rationality and made a number of discoveries in the fields of optics, physiology, physics, and mathematics. He is also considered the father of analytical geometry, which provides the basis for Newton's calculus.




Galileo Galilei (February 15, 1564, January 8, 1642)

Biography of Galileo


Galileo Portrait by Justus Sustermans
Galileo Portrait by Justus Sustermans

"...The book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one wanders about in a dark labyrinth." -Galileo's The Assayer

Galileo was a mathematician, astronomer, physicist and philosopher who was one of the first scientists to clearly state that the laws of nature are mathematical. Einstein referred to him as "the Father of Modern Science." He made great improvements to the telescope and was the first astronomer to use it for observing the sky. 


  • These observations allowed him to observe the moons of Jupiter, which led him to belief that not everything revolved around earth. Observations on the phases of Venus further proved a heliocentric universe rather than earthcentric.
    • He also performed many experiments on the motion of bodies. His findings directly influenced Newton's three laws of motion and debunked the previously held belief that heavier objects fell faster than lighter ones.

Galileo was persecuted by the Catholic Church for his belief in the Copernican heliocentric theory of the universe and the idea that the universe was made up of matter like the earth. These ideas threatened the concept that beyond the earth are the heavens for spiritual purposes, not other worlds.


The Church saw Galileo's discovery as a contradiction to the Church, and he was put on trial for treason.

Opposition to Galileo's support of Copernican heliocentric theory

  • Visit NOVA's site with more information and resources, Galileo's Battle for the Heavens. Includes interactives on his experiments with falling objects, projectiles, inclined planes, and pendulums.
    • "Galileo in a Nutshell"
      • This clip clearly describes the scientific contributions of Galileo, particularly his refutation of Aristotle’s view that science can be explained simply through logic, and his support of Copernicus’ heliocentric model

Click here for Galileo's Dialogue Concerning Two Chief World Systems (1632); translated by Stillman Drake.

Johannes Kepler (December 27, 1571 – November 15, 1630)


Kepler was a mathematician and astronomer. He refined Copernicus' theory and used the scientific method to prove the heliocentric universe idea to be true, and published his three laws of planetary motion, including the discovery that planets moved in elliptical orbits rather than perfect circles.

These laws are still considered true today, 500 years later, and Isaac Newton used them in his analysis of gravity in the groundbreaking Principia Mathematica.

Link to this video as it portrays Kepler's three laws of planetary motion


Sir Isaac Newton (January 4,1643 – March 31,1727)


Newton was an English mathematician, physicist and philosopher. In the first book he wrote, Principia, he discussed his three laws of motion:

  • First Law: Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.
  • Second Law: The relationship between an object's mass m, its acceleration a, and the applied force Fis F = ma. Acceleration and force are vectors (as indicated by their symbols being displayed in slant bold font); in this law the direction of the force vector is the same as the direction of the acceleration vector.
  • Third Law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.



Replica of Newton's second reflecting telescope, 1672
Replica of Newton's second reflecting telescope, 1672

Newton formulated many theories on mechanics, made great discoveries in the field of optics with color and light, and invented calculus. He also developed a theory in chemistry whereby elements were made of a collection of atoms.

Newton invented a scientific method which was truly universal in its scope. Newton presented his methodology as a set of four rules for scientific reasoning.

  • These rules were stated in the Principia and proposed that
    • (1) we are to admit no more causes of natural things such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances,
    • (2) the same natural effects must be assigned to the same causes,
    • (3) qualities of bodies are to be esteemed as universal, and
    • (4) propositions deduced from observation of phenomena should be viewed as accurate until other phenomena contradict them. (Wolfram Research: "Newton, Isaac."



Artisan/Practitioners in the Scientific Revolution


Francesco di Giorgio

  • One of the most prominent and successful architect/engineers of the late 15th century
  •  Two major treatises on architecture, military engineering, and machines
    • Trattato I
      • Detailed treatment that reflects the concerns of a practicing engineer
      • Several sections that focus specifically on machines (military, cranes, lifting devices, mills)
      • Clearly written by a professional scribe but detailed technical descriptions make it certain Francesco was involved (shows learned men influence)
      • Drawings of mills and other machines along with the words
        • Explanations under the drawings explains what type of mill it is and then goes on to describe the wheels and gearing, including what he considered appropriate measurements and other details
        • For waterwheels he specifies what kind of wheel is appropriate for specific situations given the availability of water
      • Reflects the world of practical engineering and presents it to elite patrons
        • Variations of geography, power supply, and potential use the master must decide what kind of mill and with what characteristics to use
    • Trattato II
      • Sets out the topics according to general principles and follows some of the practices of humanist authorship
      • Contains fewer chapters and erudite introductions have been added
        • Also added are numerous citations
      • General accounts of fewer mills rather than detailing many mills
      • More suitable for a readership of patrons and other nonpractitioners
        • Might be more interested in how a mill works in general than in the myriad variations appropriate to different mill uses and different locations
      • Material on machines receives one section only
        • Concerns only lifting machines and mills
        • Only 18 machines are displayed (58 mills alone in Trattato I)
    • Comparison of the two treatises in their treatment of machines shows how Francesco moved from the culture of practice to the culture of learning
      • Differences in the treatise show his efforts to write a more learned treatise (influenced by humanist practices of authorship)
      • Increased interest in and ability to address humanist learned culture
      • Part of a larger development in which practical and technical knowledge were becoming integrated into written and learned traditions
      • Put another way, Francesco first used his art (knowledge of engineering and mills) for the sake of that art in order to elaborate in detail the various kinds of mills that should be used in diverse situations and sites
      • Then deployed his knowledge to provide a general understanding of machines and mills to the unskilled and to contribute to natural knowledge as it pertained to the power and motion of machines



  • Most important text was De architectura (Ten Books on Architecture) by Roman architect/engineer Vitruvius
    • Only fully extant treatise on architecture from the ancient world (written well before the Scientific Revolution, but used extensively during the period)
    • Came to be a text that mediated the worlds of learning and practice
    • Treated the forms of temples and other public and private buildings
    • Topics relevant to constructions and to finishing the work
      • Building materials, flooring, ceilings, painting, colors, plaster
    • Covered matters that are now placed under the rubric of engineering
      • Hydrology, water supply, time-keeping, machines
    • Treated architecture as a discipline
      • Argued that architecture consists of both construction or practice and reasoning (artisan/practitioner and learned men values)
      • Practice (Hands-On)
        • Constant repeated exercise of the hands by which the work is brought to completion in whatever medium is required for the proposed design
      • Reason
        • What can demonstrate and explain to what degree things have been made with skill and reason
      • Argued that architects who possessed manual skills but no education could not achieve authority commensurate with their labors
      • Those who put their trust entirely in reasoning and letters follow a shadow rather than reality
      • Those who master both are fully armed and have arrived more quickly and with authority at their goal
      • Advises that architects should:
        • Be literate
        • Know how to draw
        • Know geometry, history, arithmetic, philosophy, and music
        • Be acquainted with medicine
        • Understand the rulings of legal experts
        • Have a grasp of astronomy
      • Highlights how literary and technical writings are both important 
    • Brought together men of learning and workshop-trained practitioners
      • Difficult Latin text required Latin skills, but its technical detail and obscure references sometimes could be better grasped by someone experienced in analogous practices
        • Learned humanists interested in ancient artifacts/practices and builders/engineers who possessed hands-on knowledge of building construction/machines began to communicate and share their respective areas of expertise as a way of understanding both the ancient text and the buildings of antiquity



Andreas Vesalius

  • University trained physician
  • On the Fabric of the Human Body (Fabrica)
    • Treatise on human anatomy
    • Extremely detailed anatomical descriptions and numerous cross references between images and text
    • Substantial ties that bound this treatise (and the developing world of medical anatomy) to the worlds of painting and sculpture (through detailed illustration)
      • Illustrations by trained painters
      • Images engaged the culture of painting
      • Again, shows growing influence of artisan/practitioners on the world of learned men, and vice versa 
    • Compares the functions of bones to the function of certain elements in constructed things
      • Bone is “the hardest, the driest, the earthiest, and the coldest” of all the constituents of the human body
      • Bones perform the same function as do walls and beams in houses, poles in tents, and keels and ribs in boats
    • Illustrates his belief in the integration of learning and hands-on practice and observation in anatomy in his portrait of himself (his own hands holding the partially dissected arm of a male figure, pen, ink, and paper on the table, the latter containing a sentence that replicates the opening words of his chapter on the muscles of the hand)
  • ·Believed that observation was the best way to learn but books could be useful for those who could not see the real thing
    • Those unable to see the real thing can use books to study each part of the body “its position, shape, size, substance, connection with other parts, use, function and many similar matters”
    • In sum they can learn everything that they could study during a dissection
    • Would never urge students to learn solely from pictures but defends visual representation as way of learning anatomy (should also dissect and learn through observation as that is the best way to learn)
  • Writings pioneered relationships between the use of visual images and their integration with explanatory texts


Leonardo da Vinci



Black Scientists in the 19th and 20th Centuries

This article gives brief descriptions of black scientists. 


LGBTQ+ Scientists Throughout History


This article talks about LGBTQ+ scientists throughout history and their important contributions

external image Test_hq3x.png

TEST Question

1) The Scientific Revolution contributed to Enlightenment thought by introducing people to
A) Believe in the power of human reason
B) Reject belief in the organized church
C) Study the ideas of past civilization
D) Oppose individuality in favor of social order

1) A 
Source: California Standards Test Questions (http://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/sr/documents/rtqgr8history.pdf

Works Cited
"Toward a New Heaven and a New Earth: An Intellectual Revolution in the West." In The Essential World History: Comprehensive Volume, by William J. Duker and Jackson J. Spielvogel, 408-427. Dovetail Publishing Services, 200

Weisstein, Eric W. "Newon, Isaac (1642-1727). Science World. Wolfram Research. http://scienceworld.wolfram.com/biography/Newton.html. Accessed 2/24/13.





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