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The Scientific Revolution in Perspective (HI296)

Tutor: Dr Michael Bycroft
Office: Room H3.46
Office Hours:
Wednesday 12-1pm, Room H3.47
Lecture Times:
Monday 1-2pm, Room H1.07
Seminar Times:
Wednesdays 10-11am, Room H4.54

Please note that students are not permitted to study both this module and 'Being Human: Human Nature from the Renaissance to Freud (HI281)'.


Assessment and contact hours
Lecture and Seminar Programme
Seminar advice
General bibliography
Sample seminar questions

Robert Hooke, drawing of flea seen through microscope, from Micrographia (1665)

Module description

The early modern period witnessed dramatic changes in the way that Europeans studied the natural world and in the theories they held about it. New ideas emerged about the structure of the cosmos, the nature of light and motion, and the building blocks of matter. New plants and animals flooded into Europe from the East and West Indies and changed the way that naturalists described and classified the living world. New machines, such as air pumps and electrical generators, allowed experimenters to probe more deeply into nature; and new instruments, including telescopes to barometers, allowed them to quantify what they found. In 1450 few natural philosophers used mathematics or experiment to study the causes of natural phenomena. In 1800 most of them did so, and many belonged to institutions that were dedicated to these pursuits.

Historians often refer to these changes as the ‘Scientific Revolution,’ but that phrase has come under attack in recent years. There is broad agreement that the period 1450-1800 was an important one in the development of modern science. But there is much debate about the timing, causes, and consequences of the Revolution, and some historians maintain that it was not Revolutionary at all, that it was too diffuse and drawn-out to justify an analogy to political revolutions.

The aim of this 30 CATS second-year option module is to assess the traditional narrative of the Scientific Revolution by describing the main developments in early modern science and placing them in their intellectual, political and economic context. The lectures do not argue for or against the Scientific Revolution. Instead they deliver a conceptual, historiographical and chronological framework that will help students to decide for themselves.

The module presents science in the round. It considers the two-way interaction between science and the wider world, and it deals not only with the theories of early modern science but also with its methods, materials, literary form and social organisation. The module will deal with the technical content of science in a way that is accessible to students with no background in science but that shows the relevance of this content to a historical understanding of science.

The module is divided into three parts. The first part, ‘Renaissance Origins,’ is an introduction to natural knowledge in Europe c. 1450-1600. Here we delve into attempts by natural philosophers, physicians, artists and artisans to recover ancient knowledge about the natural world while absorbing new knowledge from mines, workshops, painters’ studios, and voyages of discovery. The emphasis is on aspects of natural knowledge that were distinctive of this period, as well as aspects (such as natural magic) that seem to anticipate later developments.

The second part, ‘Seventeenth-century changes’, deals with key episodes in the canonical Scientific Revolution. First we consider a series of theories and methodological principles that gained ground in the first half of the seventeenth century and that seemed to break decisively with the past. These included the ideas that the earth is just another planet, that moving objects tend to keep moving, that the eye is an optical instrument, and that we can understand nature by changing it. We then consider how these ideas were adopted, revised, and institutionalised in the second half of the seventeenth century.

The third part of the course, ‘Enlightenment outcomes,’ asks how natural science fed into larger developments in the European world in the eighteenth century. In what ways, and to what extent, did science enter the burgeoning public sphere? What did Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke and Voltaire borrow from natural science? What about their critics? And what kind of services did science perform for industrial and imperial projects in the eighteenth century? The last two lectures use the notion of the ‘second scientific revolution’ to measure the gap between science in 1450 and in 1800, and between science in 1800 and science today.

Images, from top: Robert Hooke, drawing of flea seen through microscope, from his Micrographia (1665); Albrecht Durer, Young Hare (1502); Pasque flower from Otto Brunfels, Herbarum (1532); sketch of moon seen through microscope, from Galileo, Sidereus Nuncius (1610); famous diamonds, from Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d'Argenville, Oryctologie (1755).
Albrecht Durer, Young Hare (1502)
Pasque flower from Otto Brunfels, Herbarum (1532)
Sketch of moon seen through telescope, from Galileo, Sidereus Nuncius (1610)
Diamond from Argenville