The Scientific Revolution was a period during Europe’s history where there was significant progress in technology and thinking. As the term “revolution” suggests, there were elements of a major overhaul and introduction of significant changes. In this case, it is the first emergence of modern science which saw several prominent scientists credited for their achievements in science and astronomy, namely Nicholas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton1. The Renaissance brought about a new way of thinking and paved the way for people to begin asking important questions on issues and concepts which were once regarded as solid truth. Just years before, questioning them would have been unthinkable.
For many years, people had relied on the church2 to provide them with answers and the truth, and any disagreement would have been seen as an attempt to undermine the church’s authority3. Now, people aim to seek out tangible proof of how the world works; wanting answers which are in-depth, and proven with mathematics and science. This burst of curiosity and the shift away from passiveness, coupled with the emergence of new technology, acted as a catalyst leading to the Scientific Revolution. Every stage of the Scientific Revolution required the community’s rejection of a time-honoured scientific theory, in favour of another that is not compatible with it4. The modern method we now call “the Scientific Method” was refined in this era, and important discoveries were made which included gravity and the way planets rotated.
There are two categories of causes that were most important in bringing about the Scientific Revolution. They are the changes in thinking and the changes in technology. The changes in thinking came with the Renaissance5. The Renaissance encouraged people to think about things in a way that was more scientific. It encouraged them to look for proof and logical reasoning, rather than relying on the church to decide what was truth.
Changes in technology (emergence of new technologies) provided an enhanced method to measure and observe scientific phenomena. The invention of these equipment, which included thermometers and telescopes, at that time put scientists in an elevated position; one that made making extraordinary discoveries possible6. The equipment were advanced and way ahead of their time. For the first time, scientists could precisely measure the natural phenomena they were observing which allowed for the crucial step of experimentation to occur. With accurate readings and results, scientists could then work on producing theories. These theories were accompanied by mathematical calculations which was the tangible proof sought after by critiques and people in the community. This revolution happened because people changed their way of thinking and because they advanced their technological capabilities.
The scientist who kick-started the scientific revolution was Nicolaus Copernicus. His proposal that the universe was operating on a heliocentric model (sun at centre of solar system) rather than geocentric (earth centred) caused waves of controversy throughout the community. Copernicus himself knew the potential risks and repercussions of publishing such a controversial theory, hence waited till shortly before his death to make them public. Before this, the geocentric model was accepted as the truth and heavily endorsed by the church. The concept of heliocentric model was not completely new7 as previous astronomers and mathematicians had used heliocentric models before to make their mathematical calculations of the planet’s orbits more accurate. It was Copernicus who first proposed that the sun was indeed at the centre of the solar system, and that it was not just a mathematical tool used to enhance calculations. He insisted that the Earth really had a physical motion8
Copernicus asserting the reality of the earth’s motions-both annual and diurnal -sets him apart from his medieval predecessors who refused to ascribe any form of diurnal motion9 to Earth. When news broke of Copernicus’ new theory in his work titled “On the Revolutions of Heavenly Bodies”, people started questioning the truth and it was during this period that scientific thinking first emerged. Copernicus had set the example for people to come forward with alternative scientific thinking and his publications gave people the confidence to question existing theories.
It was important to note that Copernicus’ theories were not perfect nor truly heliocentric. As a matter of fact, even the sun was slightly off the geographic centre of the solar system. Copernicus called this the ‘equant point.’ This was crucial as he had made the mistake of thinking that planets revolved along perfectly spherical orbits. He needed to adjust his original theory so his observations and mathematical calculations could agree10. The heliocentric theory Copernicus presented still needed refinement to accurately represent the universe.
Another prominent scientist whose inventions and work caused the scientific revolution was Tycho Brahe11. He contributed to science with his inventions of new instruments. These instruments were highly accurate in observing the heavens. With the precise data Brahe obtained, he was able to provide explanations on how comets, planets and even a supernova (visible on earth in 1572) moved. Despite these spectacular inventions, Brahe’s observations12 about the stationary nature of the stars caused him to believe the Earth to be motionless and at the centre of the solar system. Despite this wrong theory, his extraordinary inventions advanced technology greatly, which led to the scientific revolution.
Another important figure whose inventions led to the scientific revolution was German astronomer, Johannes Kepler. Kepler agreed with Copernicus’ idea that the solar system was sun centred, but he noted certain flaws. He decided to use the precision of Brahe’s measurements to improve upon the Copernican model. Kepler discovered that planetary orbits were actually elliptical and not perfectly circular13. The sun was one focus of the ellipse and the other was something similar to Copernicus’ equant point. Kepler was further able to derive a mathematical equation that could be used to determine orbital periods and speed. This equation is today known as Kepler’s Third Law.
The next person whose work led to the scientific revolution was Francis Bacon, who promoted and popularized the scientific method14. Being a philosopher, he provided new thinking and philosophies regarding the human condition and the nature of knowledge15. This new perspective of thought was very much needed during a time where new data and observation regarding the model of the universe was emerging. Francis Bacon codified the scientific methodology better than anyone else of his time. He had published several works rejecting Ptolemy’s methodology in favour of empiricism. He believed that the first step was close observation and from that comes knowledge. He then planned out a rigorous method of investigation which became known as the scientific method.
The scientific method provided people with an excellent way of testing the truth of their hypothesis which they formulated following careful observation. It prompted people to collect data and then analyse them to make new discoveries regarding the inner workings of the universe. The scientific method served as a guide for people to know if they were on the right track. This allowed for the build-up of knowledge that were accurately obtained using scientific methods, leading to the scientific revolution.
The next person to cause the scientific revolution was René Descartes. Descartes came up with the concept of Cartesianism16. He formulated a new view that the world is made up of basic units governed by natural and basic laws17. He had tried to partially reconcile the heliocentric universe with the existence of a Christian God by separating the deity from the universe he created18. The Cartesian God had created a mechanically perfect universe, without the need for direct intervention. Again, this was an idea which clashed with the Church, prompting people to question things the church tells them. They started to think for themselves and looked for answers with scientific backing. The ideas formed were tested, with some proven to be true. This led to the scientific revolution which is about the discovery of new things and formation of new ideas.
The next cause of the scientific revolution was the invention of the new and improved telescope by Galileo Galilei19. This invention significantly increased the ability of scientists to study the universe. He could observe and describe the phases of Venus, rings of Saturn and moons of Jupiter. Galileo builds upon Copernicus’ work by observing the heavens with a self-made telescope.
The next person whose works led to the scientific revolution was Isaac Newton. He referenced to Copernicus and Galileo’s works and attempted to build upon it. He used maths to describe the force keeping planets in position which involves revolving around the sun (gravity). His works was the high point of the Scientific Revolution. Newton now had an extensive understanding of the physical Earth20 and this was achieved by him utilizing advances made before him in mathematics, astronomy, and physics.
Newton was the first to conclusively state the laws of motion21. He then linked them with Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. Newton was also the first in establishing the correlation between heavenly bodies and terrestrial physics. Galileo had attempted to suggest this, but was stopped by the Church before any progress could be made. ‘Newtonian Synthesis’ marks the shift from a qualitative cosmos that is finite and closed, to one that is quantitative and infinite22.
Another important cause of the scientific revolution was the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. In 1456 he produced his first book, the Bible- which was an attempt to stop the church viewing the printing press as a threat. The invention of the printing press created books and newsletters to keep people informed of science. With the printing press, scientific knowledge, became much more easily spread. Scientists could now build on other scientists’ works as standardized diagrams and letters could be repeatedly printed.
Before the printing press was invented, any works that needed to be published was done arduously by hand23, making them expensive and rare. It is important to note that even after the printing press was invented, books were still regarded as luxury items meant for the highest ranking members of society. Nonetheless, because books were produced more quickly than before, they became more accessible, even for the common folks. As more books became available, the public’s literacy rate grew.
The rise of the scientific revolution relied greatly on the printing press to spread information to the community. This allowed for clarification of ideas24. Scientists were more likely to publish their works and theories and other scientists were more likely to read them. This widespread sharing of research and work gave other scientists the avenue to excel in their own fields. Because of the increase connectivity between scientists, they can help each other and progress could be achieved more quickly. The printing press was a remarkable invention and was a significant factor that led to the scientific revolution25.
Another cause of the scientific revolution was the difficulty and challenges faced in navigation during long sea voyages. This led to research to overcome the current challenges26. Great advances made by navigators in Portugal fuelled increased demand for better navigation equipment and technology. There was now an interest in learning more about astronomy and mathematics. Increasing technical and theoretical developments in navigation, including astronomy, telescope and shipbuilding27 allowed sea-faring trade to increase distribution from the previously land-based system. From this came increase in trade which allowed the surplus capital made to be invested in researching for more advanced technologies.
Overall, the Scientific Revolution was a period in history where there was a shift in thinking that went against traditional ideas, and a rise in technology. Nicolas Copernicus published his work on heliocentric model which first led people to begin questioning old ideas, marking the start of the scientific revolution. This could be referred to as the first main cause of the Scientific Revolution. Another main cause of the Scientific Revolution was the invention of the printing press. With the invention of the printing press, future scientists could easily refer to the works of older scientists and this helped them greatly in their research as they did not have to start from scratch. This new research and findings by scientists further fuelled the Scientific Revolution. Lastly, the improvement in technology, including the invention of the telescope also caused the Scientific Revolution.