Such Matters as the Soul

Dmitri Levitin

  • The Invention of Science: a New History of the Scientific Revolution by David Wootton
    Penguin, 784 pp, £12.99, September 2016, ISBN 978 0 14 104083 7

On 11 February, David Reitze, executive director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Ligo) in the US, announced that his team of almost a thousand scientists had detected evidence of gravitational waves emanating from a pair of black holes 1.3 billion light years from Earth. It was empirical confirmation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The observation required astonishing technical precision: the 4 km-long arms of each of the two branches of Ligo, three thousand miles apart in Louisiana and Washington, were altered by just one ten-thousandth of the width of a proton, proportionally equivalent to changing the distance to our nearest star by a hair’s width. The announcement was greeted with a sense of wonder at human ingenuity, even by those who neither understood the physics involved, nor why the result was so important.

How, historically, did we arrive at a situation in which science holds such sway over our imaginations, and such power, financial not least (Ligo’s total cost is around $620 million)? One answer, almost as old as the events that it describes and subscribed to by many historians, runs something like this. Before 1492, literate Europeans derived their knowledge of the universe from authoritative classical texts, on the basis of which they concluded that change was limited to the sublunary world (beyond this were the unchanging heavens), at the centre of which lay an Earth with no antipodes. The institutions in which this knowledge was propagated – primarily the universities – were centres of rigid Latinate pedantry. Then America was discovered and there was a wave of reverence for empirical, non-bookish knowledge, which culminated in the findings of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, all of whom worked outside the official world of learning (the institutions, meanwhile, remained tragically wedded to the old authorities). This Scientific Revolution slowly but surely ushered in an age of rationalism, sweeping away the superstition of the medieval world and the Renaissance humanists’ slavish reverence for ancient, textual authority.

A new version of this story is told in David Wootton’s ambitious, trenchantly polemical new book. But before talking about revolution, we should ask what was being revolutionised; before dismissing something as rigid and ossified, we might ask whether things really were as bad as all that. What did science look like before the Scientific Revolution? And was there something about the Western world that made it uniquely suitable as a crucible for the development of science?

There can be no doubt that the origins of something like science lie in the ancient civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, in particular their development of medical, mathematical and astronomical techniques and observations. The Babylonians’ astronomy and mathematics was sufficiently advanced that, by the first millennium BC, they may have been able to predict eclipses of the moon (which is not to say that their astronomy wasn’t for the most part developed in service of celestial divination). Babylonian astrology/astronomy (the two cannot be separated) was communicated to Hellenistic Greece in the third and second centuries BC, and that inheritance shaped the European astronomical enterprise for the next two thousand years. Even so, there is some foundation for the traditional story – as old as Aristotle – that speculation about nature was revolutionised by a group of Greeks from the sixth century BC onwards. Although modern historians have qualified Aristotle’s claims, it remains the consensus that a small group of thinkers, based around Miletus in Ionia, asked questions about the world in a way that was unknown to, and directly critical of, their predecessors. They were interested in questions about the world’s shape and composition, in particular whether it was made up of one substance or many. Most important, the answers they came up with, though to the modern mind they appear fanciful and unscientific, were naturalistic. Where Homer and Hesiod had accounted for phenomena such as earthquakes or lightning storms in terms of divine intervention, by the sixth century BC Thales could claim that the earth floated on water, and that earthquakes were caused by wave-tremors. What’s more, philosophers of this period knew and criticised one another’s ideas. Thales believed that the originating principle of all things was water, Anaximander that it was a boundless, primordial mass (apeiron), and Anaximenes that it was air. Unlike the composers of myths who preceded them, these philosophers were aware that their explanations were mutually exclusive, and that a process of debate was needed to establish the superiority of one over another.

As far as we can tell, there was no instrumental reason for these intellectual endeavours: they were conducted for their own sake, or because a life of contemplation was considered a life well spent. Whatever the causes of the turn to naturalism, however, we know more about its consequences, which included the advancement of two methodological principles that are still central to modern science. The first was the application of mathematics to the understanding of natural phenomena, which was pioneered by the Pythagoreans and by Plato, and culminated in the astronomical model proposed by Eudoxus of Cnidus (408-355 BC), who suggested that the complex paths of the celestial bodies – including the planets’ apparent retrograde motion at one point in their cycle – could be explained by a complex model of concentric spheres, a model that survived, though much altered, until Kepler. The second key development was empirical research, sometimes undertaken in a very systematic manner. Most important here are the medical writings that we call the Hippocratic Corpus (now known not to have been by Hippocrates himself), most of which date from the late fifth or the fourth century BC. They were focused much more on practical issues than the writings of the philosophers, but shared with them a desire to assert the naturalness of such phenomena as disease – the treatise On the Sacred Disease, for example, disputes divine explanations for epilepsy. Later in the fourth century, Aristotle would combine philosophical and medical approaches, especially in his zoological books, which present the results of an astonishing effort of fact-gathering – more than five hundred different species of animal are discussed, including about 120 kinds of fish and sixty kinds of insect.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[1] There is an excellent overview of such developments in La Technologie gréco-romaine, edited by Philippe Fleury, Catherine Jacquemard and Sophie Madeleine (Caen, 2015).

[2] Wootton has previously dismissed all pre-19th century medicine as pseudo-knowledge because it failed in its central aim of curing people. Steven Shapin reviewed Wootton’s Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates in the LRB of 30 November 2006.