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Physics LibreTexts

3.14 The Birth of Modern Science

The 17th Century marked the birth of modern science. It began with Galileo's first use of the telescope and ended with the publication of Newton's masterwork on gravity, "Principia." Galileo established a method for doing experimental science, with careful systematic observations in the lab and through a telescope. Newton set a new standard for theoretical science, where physical insights had a rigorous mathematical underpinning. The result of their efforts was a dramatic expansion of the size of the universe and a sense that laws derived and tested with terrestrial experiments should apply in the larger domain of the universe. These men were "hard acts to follow" but they forged a path that many others would be inspired to follow.


Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition, painting by Cristiano Banti. Click here for original source URL

Galileo and Newton also took science into the public arena. The first science was done by ancient Greek philosophers (and at the University of Cambridge in England, physics is still known as natural philosophy), and they were part of the aristocratic ruling elite of their culture. Their conversations and writings reached few other people. Through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, knowledge was kept in monasteries and in the courts of kings and queens and it was written in Latin, the language of scholars. Most commoners were illiterate and almost none spoke or read Latin. Galileo made an emphatic break with tradition by publishing much of his work in Italian, and he wrote short pamphlets that summarized his findings. He was the first prominent scientist to give public lectures. Perhaps he was motivated in part by the battle he was engaged in with the Catholic Church, but nonetheless the effect was to broaden the base of people who were conversant with the Copernican model and the wonders that could be seen with a telescope. In England, the growing community of scientists realized they needed a mechanism for meeting to share ideas and they needed a way to propagate their results. The Royal Society was founded in 1660 by the group that included Christopher Wren, a close friend of Isaac Newton. The Royal Society held meetings and published papers. The fledgling society got a huge boost when Newton was elected as its president in 1703; he was knighted by Queen Anne two years later.

Galileo and Newton were tributaries feeding a broad river of thought that became knwn as the Age of Enlightenment in Western Europe (also called the Age of Reason). Cultural and intellectual forces began to favor reason, analysis, and individual initiative, rather than the traditional authority of the Church and the State. In 1637, the philosopher Rene Descartes published "Discourse on Method," which laid down rules for rigor in logic and thinking and which was a hugely influential book (it contains the famous phrase "I think, therefore I am"). Other influential philosophers of this time were Francis Bacon, John Locke, Voltaire, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant. The scientists and philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment had an almost utopian view of the future. They believed that science and secular thought would create a harmonious and prosperous world. They attended meetings and wrote each other letters. They gave talks and met in cafes. While the idealistic goals of the Age of Enlighenment were not achieved, science flourished then and it has flourished ever since.