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The Scientific Revolution

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Since [the Scientific R]evolution overturned the authority in science not only of the middle ages but of the ancient world - since it ended not only in the eclipse of scholastic philosophy but in the destruction of Aristotelian physics - it outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes, mere internal displacements, within the system of medieval Christendom. Since it changed the character of men's habitual mental operations even in the conduct of non-material sciences, while transforming the whole diagram of the physical universe and the very texture of human life itself, it looms so large as the real origin both of the modern world and of the modern mentality that our customary periodisation of European history has become an anachronism and an encumbrance.
—Herbert Butterfield[1]

Most often referred to as occurring in the Western world roughly between the years 1500 and 1700 CE, the historical period called The Scientific Revolution witnessed progressively greater numbers of people asking questions about the workings of the natural world; discussing, debating, and discovering answers to those questions; and experimenting and finding new ways to find answers both to those questions and the new questions that arise as a result. In consequence, a new worldview emerged, which created the modern mind.[2]

Historian of science John Henry introduces the concept of the scientific revolution as follows:

The Scientific Revolution is the name given by historians of science to the period in European history when, arguably, the conceptual, methodological and institutional foundations of modern science were first established. The precise period in question varies from historian to historian, but the main focus is usually held to be the seventeenth century, with varying periods of scene-setting in the sixteenth and consolidation in the eighteenth. Similarly, the precise nature of the Revolution, its origins, causes, battlegrounds and results vary markedly from author to author. Such flexibility of interpretation clearly indicates that the Scientific Revolution is primarily a historian’s conceptual category. But the fact that the notion of the Scientific Revolution is a term of convenience for historians does not mean that it is merely a figment of their imaginations with no basis in historical reality.[3]

The period of the Scientific Revolution is also commonly referred to as 'the early modern period', or as 'early modern science.'

Early revolutionary events

The scene-setting 16th century (1501-1600)

Several events occurred between 1501 and 1600 that one might consider as having jump-started the Scientific Revolution:

  • In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus's On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres revolutionized the worldview of Ptolemy's picture of the cosmos as earth-centered, with the planets and the sun revolving around the earth, showing that a sun-centered system with the planets revolving around the sun provided a simpler and more accurate depiction of astronomical observations.[4] [5]
  • Within two weeks in 1543, Andreas Vesalius's De humani corporis fabrica (The Structure of the Human Body) demonstrated the flaws in the one thousand plus year old depiction of Galen of Pergamum's anatomy and physiology of the human body derived from dissections of animals with a accurate depiction derived from dissections of human cadavers.
  • In 1600, the last year of the sixteenth century, William Gilbert's De Magnete ("On the Magnet") applied experimental observations to discover the properties of magnetism and electricity, decisively refuting speculation-based theories supported by his predecessors.[6]

The revolutionary 17th century (1601-1700)

The consolidating 18th century (1701-1800)


  1. Herbert Butterfield. (1957) The Origins of Modern Science, 1300-1800 (London: Bell, 1949), p. viii. ISBN 978-0684836379
  2. Principe L. (2011) The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press; 2011. | Google book preview
  3. Henry, John. The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (Studies in European History) (Kindle Locations 131-138). Palgrave Macmillan. Kindle Edition.
  4. Copernicus N. Nicolai Copernici Torinensis De revolvtionibvs orbium cœlestium, libri VI. Norimbergæ,: apud Ioh. Petreium; 1543. 6 p.l., 196
  5. Dava Sobel (2011) A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, Oct 4, 2011 - 288 pages. | Google Books Preview
  6. William Gilbert (1544-1603), The Galileo Project