The so-called scientific revolution plays a special role in the standard popular accounts of the history of science, according to them in the period between the publication of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus in 1543 and Newton’s Principia in 1687 modern science was created in a unique burst of intellectual activity. Today a large number of historians, including myself, reject this concept seeing instead a gradual development or evolution of modern science beginning in the 11th century with the re-urbanisation of Europe and driven by the social, economic and political developments up to the present. However, this gradual development should not be confused with the march of progress of the Whig historians. A third scheme is proposed by historians who claim that modern science was formed in not one but three scientific revolutions, the first the conventional one from the 17th century, the third beginning with the revolution in physics set in motion by Planck and Einstein with the quantum and relativity theories at the beginning of the 20th century and the second taking place in the 19th century. This view of the development of science is not without its merits and I want here to sketch the outline some of the developments in the 19th century that led to it being viewed as a century of revolution.
Central to the conventional scientific revolution is mathematisation, that is the development of new fields of mathematics that were then applied to the to the quantification of academic fields that had previously been treated qualitatively. Now although the 17th century did indeed see the development of symbolic algebra, analytical geometry, infinitesimal analysis, and the beginnings of probability theory, in fact most of the mathematics that forms the curricula of the worlds schools today, in the main it was only natural philosophy that was mathematised to physics. Astronomy the other main constituent of the scientific revolution was already expressed in the language of mathematics and the other disciplines remained largely descriptive and qualitative.
The 19th century saw a much greater and also deeper development in mathematics. To begin with although the traditional Euclidean geometry had a supposed firm basis in its axiomatic structure the new analytical mathematics completely lacked foundations leaving it open to justifiable attacks such as Bishop Berkeley’s stinging “ghosts of departed quantities” directed at Newton’s fluxions. The 19th century introduced new levels of foundations for analysis with the concept of limits from Karl Weierstrass. Before the 19th century there was only one algebra, arithmetic with letters, and only one geometry, Euclidean, by its end there were multiple algebras, Boole’s logical algebra, Hamilton’s quaternions, Cayley’s matrix algebras and Clifford’s double algebras just to name some of the main ones, and an almost equal numbers of geometries with projective geometry, descriptive geometry and the irritatingly bizarre non-Euclidean geometries. Boole’s logical algebra signals the start of another important 19th century development the mathematical logics of Boole, De Morgan, Venn, Jevons, Peirce, Schröder, MacColl and Frege which laid the foundations of our current computer age. The 17th century has been called the Golden Age of the history of mathematics but in terms of new and important developments it’s placed in the shadows by the 19th century.
The 17th century was the period in which modern physics was born in the work of Stevin, Kepler, Galileo, Beeckman, Descartes, Huygens and Newton, amongst others, but in the 19th century physics underwent a complete reformation. 17th century physics was centred on the concept of force in the discipline of dynamics introduced by Kepler and formalised by Newton, the 19th century saw force replaced by the force field developed out the work of Faraday and Maxwell, whose development of electro-magnetism expanded physics far beyond its 17th century boundaries. One area of physics that had been revolutionised in the 17th century through the work of Kepler, Descartes, Huygens and Newton was optics, which experienced a second revolution in the 19th century in the hands of Young, Fresnel, Airy and others.
Many disciplines such as chemistry, the life sciences and the earth sciences had been the subject of much attention in the 17th century but it was first in the 19th century that they became scientific disciplines in the modern sense. Building on the work of people such as Lavoisier and Dalton chemistry became a real science in the 19th century leading to the discovery of the majority of the elements and the creation of both organic chemistry and science based industrial chemistry. As sciences geology and mineralogy are both products of the 19th century, the development of geology led to the concept of deep time, which greatly influenced the whole concept of history. Modern history and historiography were both born in the 19th century.
Through a combination of new developments in physics and chemistry the science of spectroscopy enabled a revolution in the oldest of the mathematical sciences, astronomy. For more than four thousand years astronomy had consisted of the observation of heavenly bodies and the determination of their movements through the celestial spheres. Spectroscopy combined with another 19th century invention, photography, enabled the astronomers to determine the chemical composition of those same heavenly objects.
Without a doubt the greatest revolution in our knowledge of the external world in the 19th century took place in the life science and can be summarised with one name Charles Darwin. Naturally Darwin’s theory of Evolution is far from being the only major innovation in the life sciences in the 19th century. For example, on the boundary between the new geology and comparative anatomy, palaeontology was born making the century to the age of the dinosaur. To do real justice to the biological revolution of the 19th century would require a post ten times longer than this one so I will just direct the reader to all those wonderful history of biology blogs out in the intertubes.
A last area that deserves mention is one that is today not usually considered to be a science, medicine. Throughout the history of science up to the 19th century medicine had been considered a constituent of what we would consider the realm of science, however as many historians of medicine have pointed out although over the centuries new theories of illness and its treatments had been often developed before the nineteenth century all treatments were equally useless (a slight exaggeration but not by much). In the 19th century this changed substantially as the first real science based medicine came into being.
The 19th century is also notable in the history of science on a general level as the period in which science was professionalized, for the first time scientists were paid to be scientists. As I stated at the beginning the above can only be considered the briefest of sketches of the explosive developments in all areas of science in the 19th century, but next time somebody starts to talk about the scientific revolution I hope I have given you enough grounds to ask, which scientific revolution?