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1550-1700 built on previous scientific work, but nevertheless revolutionized perceptions of the scope of science

Reader comment on item: How Fares Western Civ?

Submitted by Malcolm (Israel), Jul 19, 2020 at 08:59

Mr. Pipes has provided, as usual, an analysis well worth reading. But he may not know that everything that he quotes about the current reevaluation of medieval science is not new with Stark but was spelled out in considerable detail in A.C. Crombie, Augustine to Galileo, 2 vols (1952, 2nd ed. 1959), who himself refers to scholarly predecessors. That said, Stark - or at least as presented here - has missed what was revolutionary about the period 1550-1700.

To begin with, the triumph of heliocentrism was due not to Copernicus but to Kepler, Galileo and Newton. The astronomical model of Copernicus used the same mathematical device as Ptolemy, cycles and epicycles, but was actually more complicated than Ptolemy's and thus not more convincing. Kepler revolutionized the whole concept with three very simple mathematical laws that banished forever that kind of jumble of ad hoc mathematical devices.

First law: each planet moves in an ellipse with the sun at one of the two foci of the ellipse (one ellipse per planet instead of a multiplicity of ad hoc circles).

Second law: the radius from a planet to the sun traces out equal areas in equal times.

Third law: a relationship (look it up) between the time any planet takes to revolve and its distance from the sun. Thereby he made both Ptolemy and Copernicus obsolete. Newton took a further step: three laws of motion that govern equally the dynamics of bodies here on earth and, together with his law of gravitation, the dynamics of the solar system. On the way, Newton provided the means not merely to explain the three observational laws of Kepler but to refine them in detail.

The result was to revolutionize perceptions of the degrees of both precision and simplicity with which physical phenomena could be represented in exact mathematical terms. This, in turn, provided a new and far higher standard for the establishment of laws in other realms of physics up to today. (Galileo provided certain links between Kepler and Newton, which I shall not summarize, while Descartes and Leibniz provided indispensable new mathematical tools.) In short, it is absurd to call the scientific revolution of 1550-1700 (which took place also in some other areas, like optics and physiology) a "fraud." Up to 1550, the archetype of the physicist was still Aristotle; from c. 1750 on, it has been Newton. Aristotle is, however, still viewed as an archetype in logic (the "first founder" with Gottlob Frege as the "second"), ethics, political philosophy, rhetoric and literary theory.

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