David Wootton, whose new book The Invention of Science I featured recently on my list of books I have to, and want to, find time to read, was on the BBC’s flagship news magazine, Today, this morning talking about his book (starts at about 49.20 mins). Wootton started off his short slot by denying the ancient Greeks any form of scientific status and joining the, in the mean time fashionable, chorus of those slagging off Aristotle. Another notable member of this particular chorus being Steven Weinberg in his recent To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science. He then went on to claim that the medieval scholars only discussed problems without end but didn’t achieve any resolution or progress; a claim that certainly had Pierre Duhem, Alistair Crombie and David C. Lindberg all rotating violently in their graves. Wootton thinks that science only starts after Columbus discovered America, thereby introducing the concept of discovery into intellectual discourse and according to the flyleaf of his book, the first discovery or change introducing the scientific age was Tycho’s observation of the nova in 1572.
Wootton’s book is a highly explosive grenade lobbed into the middle of the revolution contra gradualism debate at a time when the gradualists are very much in ascendance, within the history of science community. Those on the revolution side will eagerly clutch his good points, and I’m sure they are there in abundance, in order to shore up their sagging positions, whilst the gradualists will be forced to sharpen up their arguments to refute Wootton’s thesis of a reinstated Scientific Revolution.
I for one, a declared gradualist, welcome the conflict as it can only serve to bolster the history of science as a discipline. As I quoted Frank McDonough in a recent edition of Whewell’s Gazette, “The role of the historian is to move the debate forward, no more, no less”. So, let the debate begin.