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The Scientific Revolution


The Scientific Revolution brought many new ideas and beliefs not only to Europe but the entire world. The most widely influential was an epistemological transformation that we call the "Scientific Revolution." In the popular mind, we associate this revolution with natural science and technological change, but the scientific revolution was, in reality, a series of changes in the structure of European thought itself: systematic doubt, empirical and sensory verification, the abstraction of human knowledge into separate sciences, and the view that the world functions like a machine. These changes greatly changed the human experience of every other aspect of life, from individual life to the life of the group. This modification in worldview can also be charted in painting, sculpture and architecture; you can see that people of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are looking at the world very differently. The Scientific Revolution brought about many changed in both biology and astronomy. The former was concerned with the basics of physiology and anatomy; the latter was concerned with the issue of the solar system. These (and other) developments tended to proceed along independent lines until the great scientific academies of the 18th century both brought them together and helped spread their findings to the rest of society.
Copernicus was a man who played a significant role in this revolution. Before Copernicus was the Ptolemaic system. Ptolemy\'s model of the universe was accepted throughout the middle Ages, though not without revision. His model was a little ragged at the edges and more accurate observations revealed discrepancies, particularly in regard to the movement of the planets. Using tables based on Ptolemy\'s model, medieval astronomers made predictions regarding the position of this or that planet and the planets did not show up on time. Even Ptolemy had known that the simplest model, which had each planet moving in a circular orbit about the Earth. To compensate, he invented the notion of epicycles; that is, a circular orbit whose center in turn moved in a circular orbit. For example, Venus did not move directly around the Earth, but rather moved in its own orbit. The center of this orbit, however, did move around the Earth. Everything moved in perfect circles, of course, because a circle was a perfect shape and Heaven was a place of perfection. However many question arose about this theory. By the later middle Ages, increasingly accurate observations had led to increasing elaborations of Ptolemy\'s systems. Epicycles were added to epicycles until the planets were clanking about in a ludicrous contraption of scores of intersecting circles. Many among the learned were uncomfortably aware that the situation was downright embarrassing. With as many as 200 and more epicycles wheeling about, the whole system was looking less and less divine. The invention of accurate timekeeping devices was, by the 15th century, badly fraying the fabric of the Ptolemaic universe. (Shapin)
The first bold step in the Scientific Revolution was taken by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). In De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, published in the year of his death, Copernicus suggested a new explanation of the apparent motions of heavenly bodies. Following the hypothesis of Aristarchus, Copernicus put the sun in the center of the motionless sphere of the fixed stars and had the planets (including the earth) move in concentric circles around it. The moon circled the earth, which rotated around its own axis and also slowly changed the direction of its axis. The heliocentric system of Copernicus challenged (and eventually replaced) the Ptolemaic system that had stationary earth as its center. The heliocentric theory gave modern astronomy a new direction but it did not remove the complexity that cumbered the Ptolemaic system. To reconcile the circular and uniform planetary motion with the available observational evidence, Copernicus also had to amend his system with epicycles and eccentricity of the planets\' orbits in relation to the sun (Jeans, Growth 128-29). The real significance of the heliocentric system lay in the long-term changes, which it effected. "Major upheavals in the fundamental concepts of science, occur by degrees. The work of a single individual may play a preeminent role in such a conceptual revolution, but if it does, it achieves preeminence either because, like De Revolutionibus, it initiates revolution by a small innovation which presents science with new