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READ: The Scientific Revolution

The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What is the usual story of the Scientific Revolution?
  2. How does the author challenge the usual story of the Scientific Revolution?
  3. Who participated in the Scientific Revolution?
  4. What were some negative social effects of the Scientific Revolution?
  5. Does the author think the Scientific Revolution caused the Industrial Revolution?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. You just read an article about scale and the Industrial Revolution. In that article, the author questioned whether the Industrial Revolution happened in Britain because of local or global factors. What do you think explains the emergence of the Scientific Revolution in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? Was this the result of local or global processes?
  2. Using the networks frame, explain why the Scientific Revolution happened in Europe and how it might have led to the Industrial Revolution.
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

The Scientific Revolution

Photo of a manuscript written in Arabic that uses different colored circles to show the positioning of Jupiter and Venus in reference to the sun and moon at different points in time.
By Eman M. Elshaikh
The familiar story of the Scientific Revolution runs from Copernicus to Newton, but the full story extends far beyond Europe, beyond men, and beyond the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The universe doesn't revolve around you. And by you, we mean your planet. That's common knowledge now, but we used to think Earth was the center of the universe, and that the universe was made up of simple elements like earth, water, air and fire. Then we had the Scientific Revolution and boom, there are 118 elements, penicillin, a moon landing, and app-based scooters on every street.
Or that's the usual story, anyway. The Scientific Revolution is often portrayed as a frenzy of amazing discoveries by brilliant men in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They are bookended on one end by Copernicus (1473-1543 CE) and Newton (1643-1727 CE) on the other.
And these smart guys did more than think up good ideas—they are said to have revolutionized our thinking and our world. Copernicus, for example, put the sun at the center of the cosmos, and Newton transformed how we think about motion, force and gravity. He was inspired, the story goes, by an apple falling on his head.
But wait a minute. Is that really how it happened? Was the Scientific Revolution a parade of great male, European scientists? Was it as revolutionary as the familiar historical narratives describe? And what effects did it have on the world?

Was it revolutionary?

OK, it was revolutionary. Kind of. There were many continuities with earlier historical periods. We're sometimes told that the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution emerged out of the mucky medieval "Dark Ages," when we've been told ignorance prevailed. But women and men did plenty of intellectual and scientific stuff during the medieval period, laying the groundwork for the Scientific Revolution.
For that matter, humans have always experimented and calculated—the hallmarks of the Scientific Revolution. Archaeologists have even found evidence of astronomical observations from the Neolithic period. So while experimentation and mathematical models took on a new form during the Scientific Revolution, they were not revolutionary practices.
Individual scientific pursuits may have had their own revolutions, but most of the change was slow and fragmented. Throughout these two centuries, people maintained many of the same ideas, and religion continued to influence scientific thinking. But what really made the Scientific Revolution so revolutionary was the scale of it. People had been experimenting and sharing ideas here and there for millennia, and now it was happening at a much larger, unprecedented scale. Technologies like the printing press and long-distance navigational tools helped create massive networks, where ideas could collide and cross-pollinate. There was simply more information, and it was being absorbed and evaluated by an even larger community.
Illuminated manuscript depicting the eight celestial spheres believed to exist by French scholar, Nicole Oresme. Each sphere is drawn in the shape of an arc, with the sun and earth depicted above and below.
A page from Nicole Oresme's 1377 treatise showing the celestial spheres. Nicole Oresme, a medieval French scholar, explored whether the Earth or the Sun moved in his philosophical investigations. Public domain.

Was it European?

So far, we've mentioned only European scholars, and the Scientific Revolution has traditionally been described as a European affair. More recently, however, historians question that narrative by looking for the global story. It turns out gravity, starry skies and insects are observable in all parts of the world.
The first thing to remember is that those so-called "Dark Ages" were pretty bright outside of Europe. (In fact, they weren't that dark inside of Europe either.) A lively intellectual life in both the Islamic world and China suggests, as many scholars note, direct and indirect global links to the Scientific Revolution. Even the Greek sources that inspired modern science and reason had to travel through the Islamic world to get back to Europe. Scholars in cities like Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad took on massive projects to translate ancient sources from Greek and other languages into Arabic.
Painting of seven men sitting on the floor of a library reading and discussing the contents of a book. Each man is wearing a colored robe and traditional headdress.
Scholars at an Abbasid library, called the House of Wisdom, in Baghdad. This was one center of the Translation Movement and intellectual activity more broadly. Illustration by Yahya al-Wasiti, 1237. Public domain.
Many Scientific Revolution achievements also have non-European antecedents (things that came before). Indian ideas about mathematical techniques inspired the modern system of mathematical proofs, some research suggests. Others point to Arab and Persian astronomers' contributions to the Copernican system. These are specific examples of knowledge transfer, but others argue there were broader intellectual shifts that paved the way. A heliocentric (sun-centered) model was in the making for a while. Intellectuals across Asia had been questioning an Earth-centric model for centuries, creating space for Copernicus to elaborate his new system.
Drawing of a model of our solar system. Lines and circles are used to depict the positioning of the planets on an axis around the sun, with each planet equidistant to both the sun and the planet next to it.
A lunar model by the Arab astronomer Ibn al-Shatir, who may have influenced Copernicus’ computations. However, it’s also possible that both men made these calculations independently. Public domain.
But this is a pretty big historical debate. Some scholars still think there was something uniquely European about the Scientific Revolution. Many of these same scholars argue that parallel ideas across cultures don't necessarily mean they reached and influenced European thinkers. Yet, others believe these cross-cultural influences must have existed, given the extensive networks and connections across Afro-Eurasia at the time. Though scholars debate the specifics, there's a general consensus that the European Scientific Revolution relied on earlier knowledge systems both within and outside of Europe.

Whose revolution?

Even though it had a wide geographic spread—in origins and effects—the Scientific Revolution was generally limited to a small class of people. Most were elite and highly educated. And half the population was excluded, as women weren't usually given access to scientific communities. There are a few significant exceptions, like French mathematician and physicist Émilie du Châtelet. She was famous for her French translation of and commentary on Newton's work. Her commentary led to robust debates about the conservation of energy—the idea that energy is neither created nor destroyed—which helped clarify the idea and promote Newton's principles across Europe. But there were other women, usually from the upper to middle classes, who participated as mathematicians, naturalists, astronomers, chemists and scientific illustrators.
Then, as science became a formal institution and a profession, it became even harder for women to participate. This had not been the case before, when things like astronomical observation were mostly done in private homes and were open to women. Experimental science was also considered something of a hobby, like cooking—not as rigorous as the "manly" scholastic task of learning ancient Greek and Latin. But when science became regarded as an important, respected profession, women were excluded with the subtly of a sign on a treehouse reading: "No Girls Allowed." In fact, the Royal Society of London's stated purpose was to advance "Masculine Philosophy."
Women were routinely denied access to spaces like this, as well as universities. This further cemented ideas about what kind of knowledge was legitimate and who could make it. Women were considered too emotional and unscientific in their thinking to produce objective truth. Despite this severely limited access, women continued to make important contributions to science.
Portrait of Emile du Chatelet as she works on some calculations. Three books are laid out in front of her and she is holding a mathematical compass.
Portrait of the French mathematician and physicist Émilie du Châtelet working on some calculations. Painted by Maurice Quentin de La Tour. Public domain.
Ideas from the Scientific Revolution often reinforced gender and racial hierarchies. They perpetuated the metaphor of nature as a feminine force, chaotic and needing to be conquered and controlled. These led to ideas about how to control the body and reproduction. Racial others1 were also grouped into the world of disorderly nature—and ideas about race emerged2. Just as some scientists sought to classify plants and animals, scientists also attempted to classify humans according to skin color, beginning around the time of the Scientific Revolution. This idea was further developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, often to justify imperialism and slavery.
Realistic painting of a caterpillar and two butterflies. The caterpillar is shown crawling on a green leaf and one butterfly appears to be laying eggs.
Illustration by Maria Sibylla Merian, a Swiss naturalist. Despite her detailed and realistic botanical observations, some considered Merian as simply an illustrator and not a scientist, though her male counterparts were given more prestige and recognition for similar work. Public domain.

Did it cause the Industrial Revolution?

The Scientific Revolution led to the creation of new knowledge systems, social hierarchies, and networks of thinkers. It also affected production and distribution. But it's tricky to draw a direct, causal link. People started to think about nature as machinelike and orderly, and they understood it as something that could be dominated and manipulated. But did that directly cause the Industrial Revolution?
On the one hand, the Scientific Revolution was all high theory—not applied to actual devices and machines. The people who invented key industrial technologies weren't slogging through Newton's notoriously difficult texts. Most were not scholars at all, and had been educated only through practical apprenticeships. In fact, in many cases, the inventions came before the theory. For instance, scientists came up with the second law of thermodynamics by studying Watt's engine!
But in general, people were better educated, and scientists and industrialists did collaborate. The steam engine would never have taken off were it not for the partnership between the engineer James Watt and industrialist Matthew Boulton.
Drawing depicting a machine that has been dissected and broken down into individual parts. Each part is drawn in a detailed manner that shows how it may function when put together as a whole.
This apparatus was designed to administer gasses for medical purposes and was another Boulton-Watt collaboration. Public domain.
So, as historians, we can't exactly use a scientist's precision in showing the links between the Scientific Revolution and Industrial Revolution. But that's because production and distribution on the scale of the Industrial Revolution is incredibly complex. The links look less like single threads and more like several overlapping spiderwebs. But without a doubt, the Scientific Revolution made the Industrial Revolution possible. We see how historical events depend on each other and on certain conditions being in place. Medieval European, Muslim, Chinese and Indian scholars created the conditions for the Scientific Revolution by illuminating many ideas. Similarly, the Scientific Revolution lit a path that—centuries later, with the help of a lot of steam and coal power, money, and labor—led to the Industrial Revolution.
Author bio
The author of this article is Eman M. Elshaikh. She is a writer, researcher, and teacher who has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the United States and in the Middle East and written for many different audiences. She teaches writing at the University of Chicago, where she also completed her master’s in social sciences and is currently pursuing her PhD. She was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP World History.

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