Histories of the Scientific Revolution

Ask ten historians of science and medicine what they do and you will get ten different answers. For some historians, their field chronicles how geniuses moved mountains of ancient authority in an effort to articulate a new worldview—think Copernicus and his heliocentric theory, or Newton and his universal laws. For others (this historian included), the history of science and medicine is a tale of arcane byways strewn with good ideas that never came to much, and bad ideas that were showered with investments of time and money only to meet the same fate. Some historical accounts focus on the places where scientific thinking evolved: artisans’ shops, alchemical laboratories, and anatomical theatres. Some historians zoom in on the ideas themselves and the often-incremental changes that were necessary before scientific theories developed and gained traction.

These different perspectives make it exciting to be a historian, but it can be bewildering to those wanting to know more about scientific and medical developments. What is true for the history of science and medicine in general seems doubly true for the period known as the Scientific Revolution, the creative, chaotic, and pivotal period in western European science from 1400 to 1700. Even writing that sentence is challenging for me, as I want to immediately begin editing it, qualifying what I said to acknowledge that it was less chaotic than it seems, that it was less “revolutionary” than many historians once made it out to be with plenty of continuity to leaven all that change, and that the seemingly “European” Scientific Revolution was fueled by material and intellectual discoveries all around the world. While most historians are happy to admit something happened to the study of nature between 1400 and 1700, we remain strangely unable to describe exactly what that something was. The maddening maze of qualifications and uncertainties that riddle our thinking and our prose like the trails of bookworms led Steven Shapin to famously proclaim in his 1996 book, The Scientific Revolution, “There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it.”

Here are ten more books about the Scientific Revolution—whatever that is, if indeed there is such a thing. If you read some (or all) of them, they will provide a sense, albeit quirky and partial, of what it meant to be interested in the natural world during the early modern period. There are no introductory texts or vast overviews on it. Instead, there are classic works of intellectual history as well as more recent, challenging interpretations. The subjects range over many scientific and medical disciplines. Whether you prefer an approach to the history of science and medicine that focuses on big ideas, perplexing characters, or hands-on experimentation, there’s something here for you.

Places to Start

Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of the Idea (1936)

In this classic work in the history of ideas, Lovejoy outlined the persistent beliefs in an ordered world system, hierarchically arranged and filled with diversity at every level. These concepts lie at the heart of the early modern worldview, and provided a backdrop for every natural philosopher working at the time as well as their potential audience and clients. Remarkable for its clarity and erudition, The Great Chain of Being is essential for those seeking to understand why the Scientific Revolution was both a period of great continuity as well as great change.

Charles Webster, From Paracelsus to Newton: Magic and the Making of Modern Science (1982)

What, you might ask, is the relationship between a German astrologer-alchemist of the sixteenth century and an English mathematician of the seventeenth century? The answer, it turns out, is magic. Webster, in this compact and elegant book, counters the common misperception that the Scientific Revolution depended upon a sloughing off of magic and other “superstitious” medieval habits of mind. The juxtaposition of these two figures, Paracelsus and Newton, provides telling insights into the unpredictable ways that scientific thought develops.

Lisa Jardine, Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution (2000)

This marvelous book will drop you into the late 17th-century world of scientists, artists, experimenters, engineers, and architects whose hands helped to shape modern science. Largely focused on England and the Netherlands (Jardine’s areas of specialization), Ingenious Pursuits makes dazzling connections between ideas and practices. Modern readers who think of the arts, humanities, and sciences as radically different intellectual enterprises may find that this book changes their mind. Jardine’s eye for fascinating detail and her gifts as a storyteller make for compulsive reading, and the cast of characters is at once familiar and revelatory.

Digging In

Owen Gingerich, The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus (2005)

Most of us have heard of Copernicus, and know that sometime during the Scientific Revolution he turned the heavens inside out, placing the sun in the center and setting the earth into movement around it. It was a counter-intuitive—some would say crazy—claim, and one that made remarkably slow progress when it came to upsetting the prevailing geocentric worldview of the early modern period. Gingerich set out to discover why it took so long for Copernicus’s theory to gain followers by tracking down every annotated copy of the Polish astronomer’s revolutionary work in libraries and bookshops across the world. His findings overturned much of what we thought we knew about the contemporary, lukewarm reception of Copernicus’s ideas. Adventure story and book mystery in equal parts, The Book Nobody Read is the perfect follow up to Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being.

Meredith K. Ray, Daughters of Alchemy: Women and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (2015)

If Paracelsus and Newton captured your attention, you will enjoy delving more deeply into the stories of other people engaged in the study of nature—both male and female. Ray dispels the notion that early modern science was a world without women, guiding us through chemical experiments, books of medical and technical ‘recipes,’ arguments about the role women should occupy in scientific culture, and intellectual networks forged within Italian cities and across Europe. While names like Isabella Cortese and Margherita Sarrocchi are no longer familiar to us, Ray’s book demonstrates that they were well known in their own time and that these women, and their mastery of natural philosophy, commanded respect from contemporaries such as Galileo.

Cynthia Klestinec, Theaters of Anatomy: Students, Teachers, and Traditions of Dissection in Renaissance Venice (2011)

Having spent time in the workshops and academies of late 17th-century London, you’re now equipped to deal with the harsh realities of Venetian medical culture. While most historians of early modern medicine have focused on important anatomic texts such as Andreas Vesalius’s On the Fabric of the Human Body (1543), Klestinec is more interested in how medical practitioners and the general public came together to study the human body in the anatomical theatres that were popping up in European cities. Like Jardine, Klestinec has a marvelous eye for anecdotes and stories found in the archives, which she uses to bring this story of students, teachers, and audiences to vivid life.

New Moves

Sarah Dry, The Newton Papers: The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton’s Manuscripts (2014)

Isaac Newton was a great mathematician, but he was a man of words, too. When Newton died in 1727, leaving no will, millions of those words were left in manuscript. His family looked through the papers and realized that there was an awful lot of religious heresy and alchemy mixed in with the mathematics. Not surprisingly, the family suppressed those manuscripts that painted an unflattering, unscientific, and unorthodox portrait of their heroic relative. Sarah Dry follows the now-scattered papers across the globe, tracking their fate with the persistence of a detective to better understand how and why the Newton manuscripts remained so unknown for so long. Dry’s book is an excellent reminder that the history of something as significant and challenging as the Scientific Revolution will always be, first and last, the tale we are able—and choose—to tell.

David Freedberg, The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends, and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History (2002)

Though Freedberg’s book is more than a decade old, and might not therefore qualify strictly as a “new move” any more, it deserves a place in this category because of the attention it drew to the importance of the visual image in the history of science and medicine. Freedberg did so in the most unexpected of ways, by sharing the results of a good rummage through Queen Elizabeth’s cupboards in Windsor Castle’s library. He was looking for something else, and instead discovered hundreds of early 17th-century natural history illustrations made for the Lincean Academy in Rome, whose most famous member was Galileo. Freedberg’s work put technologies of seeing and modes of representation at the heart of the history of science, taking the field in new and fruitful directions. The Eye of the Lynx is a visual as well as an intellectual treat, and every turn of the page makes it clear how seeing could lead to believing with the new science.

Voices and Lives

Anthony Grafton, Cardano’s Cosmos: The Worlds and Works of a Renaissance Astrologer (2000)

There is something endearing about the Renaissance polymath Girolamo Cardano. Born in 1501, Cardano was a best-selling author, a mathematician, an astrologer, and a physician—and that is by no means an exhaustive list. A firm believer in the venerable great chain of being, Cardano was nevertheless a thoroughly early modern man. Quick to exploit the new medium of print to his own advantage, one cannot help but think Cardano, if alive today, would be heavily invested in dotcom startups. Though Cardano is one of the few early modern figures whose diary is available in paperback, it is more illuminating (not to mention more fun) to get to know this extraordinary figure of the Scientific Revolution through Grafton’s sensitive, witty intellectual biography.

Ulinka Rublack, The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for His Mother (2015)

In 1620, at the height of his scientific career, the Imperial Mathematician Johannes Kepler put his scientific books and instruments in storage, packed up his family and his bags, and returned to his birthplace in Germany. The reason? Kepler dropped everything in order to defend his seventy-year-old mother from accusations of witchcraft. The story of Katharina Kepler, and her son Johannes’s efforts to release her from prison, give poignant immediacy to the tensions between science and magic, religion and reason, continuity and change that lie at the very heart of the Scientific Revolution.

Deborah Harkness is Professor of History at the University of Southern California. Her published works include the prize-winning The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution, and the New York Times bestsellers A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, and The Book of Life.