Science in the 17th century: From Europe to St Andrews


Mathematics in Scotland History Topics Index
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On 30 May 2016, M Pilar Gil submitted her thesis Collecting science in St Andrews. A history in context in application for the degree of M.Litt. in Museums and Gallery Studies to the School of Art History of the University of St Andrews. We reproduce below the first chapter of this thesis to which we have made very minor editorial changes:


The Scientific revolution.

During the 17th century, Europe experienced a series of changes in thought, knowledge and beliefs that affected society, influenced politics and produced a cultural transformation. It was a revolution of the mind, a desire to know how nature worked, to understand the natural laws. The advances in knowledge resulted in a powerful wave that, emerging from astronomy and mathematics, swept the habits, the culture, and the social behaviour of an era.

This period in the history of Europe is known as the Scientific Revolution. The expression is controversial, as historians are still debating when the revolution started and finished, who were the main actors, and how it developed [Hatch 2002-03]. Although some historians favour the figure of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) and the heliocentric theory to mark the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, others situate the origin in Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and his description of the scientific method. Some other key figures of this period were Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727).

During centuries, the study of the universe and the understanding of the world was founded on deep thinking, on mulling over different questions trying to unearth the reasons or explanations that gave clues to understanding the phenomena. By the 16th and 17th centuries, the paradigm started to shift as some natural philosophers were rejecting unproven theories and using precise tools to obtain exact measurements to base their discoveries on observation and experimentation [Hakim 2005, 19].

This was the idea that Francis Bacon defended in his work The New Organon (1620). Bacon was a philosopher who did not perform any experiment himself but showed the way and paved the road to knowledge with his vision. René Descartes, a French mathematician and philosopher, expanded the scientific method proposed by Bacon introducing the concept of analysis and describing its method in his book The Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking the Truth in the Sciences (1637). There, Descartes proposes that any problem in science, despite its complexity, can be solved by breaking the problems into parts and solving each part separately, because the parts would help to understand the whole. Reason and mathematical proof would shed light on almost any question.

Economy, politics and religion.

As stated previously, mathematics and astronomy were the branches of science that pushed forward the Scientific Revolution. The main reason for that was the economy. Trade was the principal source of income at the time and patrons were interested in obtaining new tools to ensure safer navigation and in having precise charts of the sky to read the stars. New navigational devices such as mariner's astrolabes, quadrants, compasses and nocturnals were designed and produced [Macpherson 1805]. To make observations and to record the exact position of the stars in the sky, astronomers used new and improved armillary spheres and celestial globes. The use of new tools to obtain exact observations reached its zenith with the invention of the telescope, improved by Galileo who, turning it to the skies, observed and described the Moon, the Sun, Jupiter and the Milky Way (Sidereus nuncius, 1610) and whose optical mechanism was described by Kepler (Dioptrice, 1611).

Another source of patronage during the 17th century were the princely courts. The courts provided support to the sciences, not only securing a livelihood for the natural philosopher, but giving him a forum where his ideas could be heard and discussed. Emperors and courtesans surrounded themselves with mathematicians, natural philosophers and, above all, astrologers that, knowing the position of stars and planets, would predict the outcome of battles, the fate of new-born children or the fortune of marriages. This was the case of the astronomer Tycho Brahe and the mathematician Johannes Kepler, both employed in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who used their knowledge of astrology to obtain the favour of the emperor so that they could pursue their true interest in obtaining precise astronomical observations and understanding the motion of the planets and their orbits. As Johannes Kepler affirmed in his book Tertius Interveniens, written in 1610:

Now, this Astrology is a foolish daughter (as I wrote in my book 'de Stella' Chap. XII ). But dear Lord, what would happen to her mother, the highly reasonable Astronomy, if she did not have this foolish daughter. The world, after all, is much more foolish, indeed is so foolish, that this old sensible mother, Astronomy, is talked into things and lied to as a result of her daughter's foolish pranks ...

The mathematician's pay would be so low, that the mother would starve, if the daughter did not earn anything. If formerly no one had been foolish enough to hope to learn of the future from the sky, then, Mr Astronomer, you would not have become so clever as to think that the course of the heavens should be made known for God's honour and glory. In fact, you would have known nothing of the course of the heavens.

The natural philosophers of the 17th century aspired to grasp the laws of nature with the aim of understanding God's mind. They described their discoveries with a desire to glorify the Creator, placing their findings and deductions within the context of the religious systems and philosophical doctrines of the times. Similarly, philosophers had the need to follow the new system in science, to adapt their discourses to the new discoveries [7]. It was different for the religious establishment; Christian authorities reacted to the new science rejecting its discoveries and accusing some natural philosophers of heresy. For centuries the Catholic Church had worked to 'Christianise' ancient philosophies, for instance to accept the teachings of Aristotle, Ptolemy and Galen, shaping them so that their writings were compatible with the Scriptures and could be read according to the doctrines of the Church. The new system of science and philosophy questioned the authority of these thinkers of the past, debated their ideas, and refused some of their claims [14].

To some branches of the church, this challenge to the traditional science was taken as an attack on Christianity. Some orders applauded the new concepts in natural philosophy, admitted the benefits that experimentation provided, played with telescopes and other new inventions such microscopes and barometers, but worked hard to give an Aristotelian patina to the role of experience in natural philosophy. Many members of the Society of Jesus (usually called the Jesuits) pursued mathematical and scientific research and, although historically their teachings have been considered as obscurantist and conservative, putting a stick in the spokes of the new science, recent evidence based on an examination of the archives of the Order, have shown that several Jesuits made significant contributions to the scientific culture of the 17th century [3].

National differences.

The Scientific Revolution was not a homogenous process that affected the whole of Europe in the same way. Regional and national differences shaped the way that society responded to the transformations imposed by the scientific method [11]. The diverse national contexts render it difficult to talk about a uniform Scientific Revolution but rather of Revolutions taking place in different parts of Europe at the same time.

In the period that followed the Dark Ages into the transition to the Modern, Europe experienced profound changes that shook its core. One of the developments was the Renaissance, characterized by the rediscovery of the works of Antiquity. The revival of this ancient culture led to the appreciation and admiration of the physical world and of the human body, and had a strong influence on the arts and the sciences resulting in remarkable cultural and intellectual progress. Simultaneously, the Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther's divulgation of his ninety-five theses against indulgences, divided Europe into Catholic and Protestant regions, and as a result brought more than a hundred years of turmoil and wars in the different territories. The changing religious beliefs and practices and the different appreciation of the cosmos resulted in new ways of interpreting the universe. An engaging curiosity towards science and technology produced many technological inventions, many of them as ground-breaking as the printing press that had a profound influence in communicating and disseminating ideas and thoughts and to make literature popular and accessible. These scenarios were the perfect breeding ground for the events, theories and ideas that are known as the Scientific Revolution [2].

The Scientific Revolution in England.

In England, the scientific revolution reached its zenith during the second part of the 17th century. But it was many years before, around the year 1600, that Francis Bacon, the Lord Chancellor to the King James I and known nowadays as the 'Father of modern science', had set the foundation of a pragmatic view of the world and its knowledge, had opened the door to man's ability to control nature, and stated that knowing the laws of nature will bring 'the empire of man over things' (Novum Organum, 1623). Other influential English figures from the beginning of the century were William Gilbert (1544-1603), who introduced the concept of Earth magnetism (De magnete, 1600), and William Harvey, who discovered and described the circulation of the blood (De motu cordis et sanguinis, 1628). All three of them had the privileges and obligations that were afforded by being advisers to the royal family, and in the case of Harvey, for instance, he had rapid access to all the game that James I and his court hunted, so that he could dissect and observe the blood in situ.

By mid-century, England turned to science, after a period of political instability marked by the Civil War, the establishment of the Commonwealth and Cromwell's protectorate. After 1650, and before the return of the king Charles II, the new science was practiced for its economic benefits, to find new resources for commerce and technology, and for its social status as, for the society of the time, turning to intellectual amusements had become fashionable [6].

With the foundation of scientific societies and academies, in England as well as on the Continent, experimental natural philosophers, learned gentlemen and amateur experimentalist had a forum where they could exchange ideas, disclose theories and communicate results. The societies enjoyed state patronage, promoted collaboration between their members and had mottos that reflected the commitment of their members to experimentation -the Royal Society motto was 'Nullius in verba' (take nobody's word for it) and the one of the Accademia del Cimento, in Florence, was 'Provando e riprovando' (Try and Try again) - [14].

Many important men of science were members of the Royal Society and contributed to numerous technological discoveries. This is the case for Robert Boyle (1627-1691), Robert Hooke (1635-1703), Christopher Wren (1632-1723), Edmond Halley (1656-1742) and Isaac Newton. Newton was president of the Royal Society in 1703.

Approaching the end of the century, in the year 1687, Isaac Newton published his opera magna, Philosophiż Naturalis Principia Mathematica, one of the most significant works on the history of science, where he sets the foundation for classical mechanics, describes the Law of the Universal Gravitation and introduces Calculus, a new mathematical system to study motion and change. In this book, Newton unifies mathematics with mechanics, both terrestrial and celestial. The concept of a quantitative universe, imperfect and changing, replaces the idea of a perfect and constant cosmos described by the ancient philosophers. The laws that governed nature here on Earth, were the same that ruled the Universe, absolute space and absolute motion, all was one. Historians see the publication of the Principia as the culmination of the Scientific Revolution [4], [14].

The Scientific Revolution in Scotland.

The effect of the Scientific Revolution in Scotland was more limited in its scope. During the 16th and 17th centuries, many Scottish natural philosophers abandoned their homeland for the Continent and made significant contributions elsewhere. This exodus of learned men left the university in the hands of the clergy and the teaching of science was limited to commentaries on Aristotle. Ecclesiastical authorities, predominately Calvinists, were occupied in the Bishop's war and rebellions, and preoccupied about the possible arrival and extension of the ideas of Descartes. The professors who knew about its writings, particularly those of Kepler and Galileo, introduced some of their concepts and ideas into their teaching but denied heliocentrism as the hypothesis of a moving Earth was in opposition to the Scriptures.

The second half of the 17th century, following the restoration of the monarchy, saw a shift in the rigidness of the Kirk and a profound change in the teaching of natural philosophy in Scottish universities. Teachers and students embraced the ideas of Descartes, accepted Copernicus's heliocentric theories and advocated the need of experimentation and observation.

The main reason for the acceptance of the new theories was the opening of communications by the creation of links between Scottish learned men and English natural philosophers. The presence of Scots in the Royal Society of London and the frequent correspondence of some mathematicians with the mathematical community in England fuelled the transformation of the Scottish universities and transformed the cultural and scientific scene in Scotland.

Role of the Universities.

There is a general consensus between historians that the Scientific Revolution happened only in Europe and not in other parts of the world. The reasons for this are varied and complex. It has been speculated that despite the existence of different vernacular, the use of a common language in Europe, Latin, acted as a lingua franca facilitating the exchange of ideas and the access to written texts. At the same time, the role of the Catholic Church translating and adapting the works of the classical philosophers, mathematicians and astronomers, helped to spread the ideas of Aristotle and Ptolemy and other thinkers of the past. As stated above, the needs for better navigation tools and aids for trade, wars and exploration provided resources to artists, artisans and mathematicians to improve existing instruments and to create new ones. Nonetheless these conditions were also true for other parts of the world. There were vast empires that also had a common language, had a past rich in philosophies and doctrines, and were also in need of improving their instruments and tools for war and commerce. So, what was different in the case of Europe?

The answer may be in the universities, institutions that provided a supportive environment for study and research [8]. The first universities (schools at the time) appeared in Europe in the 11th century and by the 15th century there were more than one hundred. In many cases, the proliferation of universities was due to the secession of groups from the initial university that went on to found another where they were able to spread their own ideas. The first universities prepared their students to be members of the clergy, physicians or for the study of law. [13]. After the medieval period, most universities based their curricula on the texts of ancient writers, mostly Aristotle and the peripatetic philosophy. In a changing world, this interest in classical knowledge prompted some students to reconsider the principles behind the writings, to question their validity and supremacy. In 1661, a young Isaac Newton wrote in his notebook at Cambridge a motto that he probably adapted from Roger Bacon's writings: "Amicus Plato amicus Aristoteles magis amica veritas" (Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but a greater friend is truth). The doctrines of Francis Bacon and Descartes transformed the curricula of the vast majority of universities that, adapting to the times, promoted scientific enquiry and the search for knowledge. Universities in the 17th century facilitated the communication between scholars and presented a safe haven for natural philosophers.

But some academics and scholars dissented from the rigidity of the universities, claiming that the authoritarianism thwarted the progress of knowledge. This was one of the motives behind the foundation and spread of the learned societies, the need of having a new organizational form where one could discuss scientific progress based on civic concerns rather than on religious matters. The bishop Thomas Sprat in his History of the Royal Society of London (1667) mentions that:

The second error, which is hereby endeavour'd to be remedied, is, that the seats of knowledge have been for the most part heretofore, not laboratories, as they ought to be; but only schools, where some have taught, and all the rest subscrib'd. The consequences of this are very mischievous.
The University of St Andrews during the Scientific Revolution.

The Papal Bull of Foundation of the University of St Andrews, issued on August 1413, stated that: "... we are led to hope that this city, which the divine bounty has enriched with so many gifts, may become the fountain of science. ..." [10]. However, despite Benedict XIII's designs, the University did not flourished in the sciences or mathematics until the second half of the 17th century, 250 years after its foundation. During its first two centuries, students in the University received instruction in Arts, mainly in the study of Aristotle [10].

The impact of the Scientific Revolution on the University of St Andrews was similar to its effects in the other Scottish Universities. As stated above, Scotland was a latecomer to the mathematical and scientific advances.

By the end of the 16th century the University of St Andrews consisted on three collegiate societies: St Salvator's and St Leonard's Colleges dedicated to the teaching of philosophy and the arts, and St Mary's College that focused on theology. The professors were regents, teachers in charge of the same group of students during the 4 years of the curriculum. After the reforms of 1579, the University appointed for the first time professors that were specialists on specifics subjects, one of them was a professor of Mathematics, attached to St Salvator's College. But Mathematics was not well thought of in the University and the professors were considered as an unwanted burden. [12]

Mathematical teaching and research at the University began in 1668 with the appointment of James Gregory as the first holder of the Regius Chair of Mathematics in St Andrews. James Gregory was proposed for the chair by his friend Robert Moray, a graduate of St Andrews and member of the Royal Society. Moray together with Archbishop Sharp of St Andrews persuaded Charles II to found the professorship. The chair was not attached to any college, and James Gregory, who had just become a member of the Royal Society, worked in the Upper Hall of the university library [1].

Gregory occupied the Regius chair for six years. During his years in St Andrews Gregory carried out important work in the field of mathematics and astronomy and modernised the teachings of these subjects, introducing the latest developments and theories in these areas. He corresponded with leading natural philosophers in England and the Continent, and was a key figure in introducing the ideas of the Scientific Revolution to the community of the University of St Andrews.

Unfortunately, Gregory's time in St Andrews was cut short. When he was in his apogee, involved in the design and planning of the first observatory in Britain, he left for the University of Edinburgh. The construction of the observatory continued despite his absence but neither the building nor the instruments intended to be housed there were ever fully brought to use and the structure, erected at the south end of St Mary's College, became derelict in the eighteenth century and was demolished by the nineteenth [12].



Original Texts mention in the article:

  1. Bacon, Francis. 1620. Francisci de Verulamio, Summi Angliae Cancellarii, Instauratio magna. 1620. Londini: Apud Ioannem Billium typographum regium.
  2. Decartes, Rene. 1637. Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa raison, et chercher la vérité dans les science. Paris: Chez A.-A. Renouard.
  3. Galilei, Galileo. 1610. Siderevs nvncivs magna, longeqve admirabilia spectacula pandens, suspiciendáque proponens vnicuique, praesertim verò philosophis, atq[ue] astronomis ... Venetiis: Apud Thomam Baglionum.
  4. Kepler, Johannes, 1611. Ioannis Kepleri Dioptrice sev Demonstratio eorum quae visui & visibilibus ... Augustae Vindelicorum: Typu Davidu Franci.
  5. Kepler, Johannes, 1610. Tertius Intervenien. Franckfurt am Mäyn: Verlegung Godtfriedt Tampachs.
  6. Excerpts translated by Ken Negus in 1897, republished in Kenneth G. Negus: Kepler's Astrology.
    http://cura.free.fr/docum/15kep-en.html
  7. Gilbert, William. 1600. Guilielmi Gilberti colcestrensis, medici Londinensis, De Magnete, magneticisque corporibus... Londini: Petrus Shout.
  8. Harvey, William. 1628 Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis... Francofurti: Guilielmi Fitzeri.
  9. Newton, Isaac. Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica... Londini: Jussu Societatis Regia ac typis Josephi Streater.
  10. Cambridge University Library. "Exhibitions: Footprints of the Lion". 2001.
    http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/exhibitions/Footprints_of_the_Lion/learning.html
  11. Sprat, Thomas. 1667. History of the Royal Society of London ... London: J. Martyn.

References (14 books/articles)

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson


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