The Birth of Modern Science

From the lecture series: Great Scientific Ideas That Changed the World

By Steven L. Goldman, PhD, Lehigh University

One enduring mystery of modern science is why it developed where and when it did. Had modern science emerged in late Greco-Roman antiquity, in 11th- or 12th-century Islam, or China after the Tang dynasty, there would be no mystery. But for it to emerge in the Christian culture of 17th-century western Europe was, in retrospect, surprising.

Celestial map from 1670, by the Dutch cartographer Frederik de Wit.
A celestial map from the 17th century used for navigation. (Image: By Frederik de Wit/Public domain)

The scientific revolution didn’t have to emerge in the 17th century, as far as anyone can tell; it was not inevitable and had not been predicted. It was not predictable that it would happen just then or in Western Europe, but modern science did not just drop out of the sky like some deus ex machina in a Greek play.

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Modern science clearly did not just drop down out of the sky like some deus ex machina in a Greek play.

Once it appeared, we can see that it represents the integration and synthesis of a lot of pieces that had been around from the time of ancient Greece and Rome, the medieval period—especially the university context—and all of the dynamism of the Renaissance. The pieces were all there. What happened in the 17th century is that a glue was added to hold those pieces together: The idea of method.

Inventing the Scientific Method

Portrait of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz by Christoph Bernhard Francke (before 1729)
Inventions of early scientist like Gottfried Leibniz enabled the rise of modern science. (Image: By Christoph Bernhard Francke/Public domain)

There is a typical characterization of the rise of modern science that it is the result of the discovery or invention of the scientific method. Once people grasped the scientific method, all of the available tools came together in a way that generated the theories characteristic of the rise of modern science, especially the work of people like Descartes, Galileo, Christiaan Huygens in Holland, and Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. Then we march into the 18th century, the 19th, 20th, and here we are, the heirs of the riches generated by the scientific method.

This is a transcript from the video series Great Scientific Ideas That Changed the World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

Method was a critical factor in pulling together all the pre-existing pieces that contribute to modern science: The Greek ideas of knowledge and nature; the Greek idea of mathematics as the language of nature; the idea of techno-science as it arose in the Greco-Roman period. The medieval university with its revival of Greek and Roman natural philosophy advanced this further with a focus on experimentation and the use of mathematics to describe natural phenomena—with its deep commitment to the idea that nature was a closed system, and that all natural phenomena had natural, rather than supernatural, explanations.

By inheriting Greek mathematics and Islamic algebraic mathematics, 16th-century European mathematicians were able to start from a pretty high level.

The Renaissance—with its recovery of ancient learning, especially the great mathematical texts of classical antiquity—allowed European mathematics to not have to reinvent the number, as it were. By inheriting Greek mathematics and Islamic algebraic mathematics, 16th-century European mathematicians were able to start from a pretty high level. What emerged in the 17th century was an enormous flourishing of mathematics providing tools for people to apply mathematics to natural phenomena.

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Modern Science: How Can We Understand Nature?

The crucial thing to recognize is that there is no such thing as “the” scientific method. Method was central to 17th-century natural philosophy—the intellectual activity that morphed into what we recognize as modern science—but there was no one method that all of the founders of modern science used. What is interesting and important is that a sensitivity to methodological issues was the common denominator of the founders of modern science—a trend consistent with the idea of knowledge as central to the idea of science and now, to the idea of modern science.

What the founders of modern science were concerned about was this idea of the knowledge of nature, a problem that Aristotle recognized and the medieval university recognized in the problem of universals: How can we have a universal, necessary, and certain knowledge of nature if our only access to nature is experience, and experience is particular, concrete, and continually changing? That becomes an explicit and self-conscious issue that the founders of modern science wrestled with even as they insisted that it was possible to know nature, understanding now that it was what was behind experience. This could not have emerged without the recognition that they were building on what their predecessors had done.

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Setting the Stage for Revolution in Modern Science

It was not a fluke that Copernicus, for example, is perceived as one of the leading contributors to the origin of modern science. His idea of a moving earth was important to the mindset of modern science—1543, a 16th-century scientific revolution.

A posthumous portrait of Andreas Vesalius by Pierre Poncet.
Andreas Vesalius transformed the study of human anatomy by publishing the first scientific book of anatomy of the human body. (Image: By Pierre Poncet (1574-1640)/Public domain)

The same year, Andreas Vesalius, at that time in Padua at the University of Padua, transformed the study of human anatomy by publishing the first “scientific” anatomy of the human body with beautiful illustrations, systematically disassembling the human form from the skin down to the skeleton and revealing the entire structure of the human body.

Vesalius, who soon left the University of Padua because of the fame that he accrued, initiated a line of inquiry and research at the University of Padua that went on for at least a century or more because William Harvey—the British physician who discovered the full circulation of the blood pumped around by the heart—had studied at the University of Padua. He specifically went to the University of Padua because that was a place famous for “scientific medical research.” Vesalius’s students and then their students made fundamental discoveries. In the period from 1543 on, there was an enormous growth in the body of biological and botanical “information”.

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The founders of modern science inherited a great deal and built on those established cornerstones. To call it a revolution is fundamentally misleading: That makes light of the evolution in which a sensitivity to method and the idea of knowledge played a key role in allowing people to integrate all of these pieces. They were lying around, so to speak, and were pulled together by the people who founded modern science.

Common Questions About Modern Science

Q: What exactly is modern science?

Modern science is a way of examining an event or a particular aspect of creation and making a comprehensive study of the item in question so that it can be predictably categorized and, if it is a process, it can be modeled mathematically. This is called the scientific method, and it should reveal some answers to questions and produce more questions as well.

Q: Who created modern science?

While science is generally thought to have begun with Aristotle and Hippocrates, it is Galileo Galilei who is considered modern science’s father and Sir Isaac Newton who completely revolutionized the methodology.

Q: What led to the creation of modern science?

There were several events during what is known as the Scientific Revolution that created modern science in just under 100 years. Beginning with Copernicus’ heliocentric theory and ending with Newton’s Principia, modern science was born.

Q: Which science is the oldest?

Astronomy is generally thought to be the oldest science as its study formed a method of navigation and scientific inquiry into seasons and cosmic occurrences.

This article was updated on September 28, 2020

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