Important Events in Early Modern Science 
& Early Scientific Method


We are to admit no more causes of natural things, than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances (Rule I).

To this purpose the philosophers say, that Nature does nothing in vain, and more is in vain, when less will serve; for Nature is pleased with simplicity, and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes.

Therefore to the same natural effects we must, as far as possible, assign the same causes (Rule II).

As to respiration in a man, and in a beast; the descent of stones in Europe and in America; the light of`our culinary fire and of the sun; the reflection of light in the earth, and in the planets

The qualities of bodies, which admit neither intension nor remission of degrees, and which are found to belong to all bodies within reach of our experiments, are to be esteemed the universal qualities of all bodies whatsoever (Rule III).

For since the qualities of bodies are only known to us by experiments, we are to hold for universal, all such as universally agree with experiments; and such as are not liable to diminution, can never be quite taken away. [. . .]

In experimental philosophy we are to look upon propositions collected by general induction from phenomena as accurately or very nearly true, notwithstanding any contrary hypotheses that may be imagined, till such time as other phenomena occur, by which they may either be made more accurate, or liable to exceptions (Rule IV)

This rule we must follow that the argument of induction may not be evaded by hypotheses.
--Isaac Newton, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy

No one can deny the extraordinary explanatory power that modern science has to investigate, to describe, and to manipulate the physical world. We live in a culture that is infused with the theories, assumptions, and technologies deriving from the scientific enterprise. It is easy to forget that science as we know it had its origins centuries ago and arose in historical stages. The 16th through 18th centuries, in particular, represent a period of growing confidence, standardization, and methodization of modern science. 

Changes in 16th-18th Century Understanding

  1. The shift to observation and description prepared the way for scientific breakthroughs.
  2. The idea of an understandable and orderly creation found in theistic religions had already laid the groundwork for a new stress on regularity and repeatability.
  3. The creation of important scientific instruments--telescope, microscope, thermometer, pendulum-clock, barometer, and the air pump--made observation possible of a number of new phenomena.
  4. The introduction of mathematics, measurement, and the criterion of simplicity gave science powerful tools for description and developing of theories.
  5. The rejection of metaphysical final causes for material cause-effect relations focused science on the physical world.
  6. The ruling metaphor of the world as "mechanism" had significant explanatory power in the 17th and 18th centuries.
  7. A motivation of utility, especially for the betterment of humanity, undergirded much research.
  8. Likewise, the hope that nature could be understood perfectly and completely in a short time motivated early modern scientific research.
  9. Newton provided a new scientific metatheory to replace the discredited Ptolemaic one and to hold together early modern findings.
  10. Significant findings in numerous areas lead to a broader application of science in numerous areas, including ones seemingly non-scientific (such as political, legal, and agricultural theories.)
  11. A new faith and confidence in the power of science arose.
  12. Early modern science was predominately theistic in predisposition, often dominated by Christian believers of both Catholic and Protestant conviction. Broad deism was also in evidence among many; only a few were true atheists.

Key Shifts

  1. Observation & Instrumentation (Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei): Certainly, the three famous 16th century astronomers cannot be said to represent the first to stress observation of the natural world and the importance of instrumentation, but they do exemplify a necessary shift in thinking for early modern science to take off.
  2. Induction (Francis Bacon, 1561-1626): Bacon's stress on the inductive method was one that assumed a move from the concrete particulars to abstract generalizations. Bacon overlooked the need for deductive moves from axioms to theorems, as well as mathematics in general. He particularly stressed the rejection of prejudices and tradition, the distrust of metaphors as opposed to plain speech, the division of the "Book of Nature" from that of scripture and theology, and a belief in science's power to understand and control the natural world.
  3. Method (Rene Descartes, 1598-1650): Descartes is well-known for his stress on systematic doubt, beginning with what cannot be doubted (foundational beliefs) and working deductively from there to a description of reality. He believed in a mind-body dualism. He was also interested in mathematics as a way to describe the physical world--"extension and motion" as he termed it. He pioneered coordinate geometry but did not establish most of his claims about the world with experimentation. His 1637 work The Discourse on Method set the stage for future insistence on a systematic way of approaching scientific problems.
  4. Repeatability (Robert Boyle, 1627-1691): Considered one of the foremost experimenters of his day, Boyle's work was championed by the Royal Society as exemplarily. His 1661 Certain Physiological Essays, in particular, set out important methodology, such as the necessity for the repeatability of experimental findings.
  5. Hypothesis and Predictions (Isaac Newton, 1643 - 1727): Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) combined Keplar's law of planatery motion with Galileo's laws of terrestrial motion to posit a law of universal gravitation, thereby providing an explanatory system for the new, early modern sciences. He also pioneered calculus (along with Leibniz). Newton famously wrote, hypotheses non fingo ( "I feign no hypotheses"), meaning without the data to prove it, a claim is only a hypothesis and nothing more.
  6. Organized, Funded, and Shared Research (Royal Society of London, est. 1660 & Royal Academy of France, est. 1666):Both organizations promoted scholarly exchange of information, formulation of research questions, division of research, and funding for further research.
  7. Control Groups (James Lind, 1716-1794): Lind pioneered the use of control groups in his attempts to treat scruvy, using only one variable's difference in treating sets of sailors for the disease.


Our readings reflect these key new understandings:

Bacon, "The New Science" (MR 39-42)

  1. Why does the mind need the help of instruments?
  2. Why does Bacon prefer induction to syllogisms?
  3. What do the Four Idols (Tribe, Cave, Marketplace, and Theatre) suggest about the Early Modern view of knowledge and scientific study?

Cotes, "The New Physics" (MR 48-51)

  1. According to Cotes, what distinguishes "experimental philosophy"?
  2. What does experiment and observation show about gravity?

Condorcet, "The Utility of Science" (MR 64-69)

  1. How does he describe scientific activity and method?
  2. What changes in technology, mathematics, and science does Condorcet call attention to?
  3. What is his view of tradition and religion?

Priestley, "The Organization of Scientific Research" (MR 69-72)

  1. How does Priestley suggest scientific research should organize itself?
  2. What does he feel is the best way to finance experimentation?
  3. What motives should the scientist have, according to Priestley?

Franklin, "Letter to Joseph Priestley" (MR 73-74)

  1. What are Franklin's hopes for the progress of science?
  2. Have any of them turned out to be true? Why or why not?
  3. Is Franklin justified in his ideals?

Timeline for Key Scientific Discoveries & Inventions

c. 1010 - Avicenna, The Book of Healing and The Canon of Medicine

1242 - Ibn an-Nafis opines that right and left ventricles of heart, as well as the lesser circulation of blood

1249 - Roger Bacon, convex lens spectacles for treating long-sightedness

1403 - Venice implements first quarantine against the Black Death

1451 - Nicholas of Cusa invents concave lens spectacles to treat myopia

1490 - Leonardo da Vinci describes capillary action

1514 - Nicolas Copernicus argues that the earth orbits the sun

1536 - Paracelsus, The Great Surgery Book,
an alchemist by trade, rejects occultism and pioneers the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine

1543 - Andreas Vesalius, De Fabrica Corporis Humani which corrects Greek medical errors and revolutionizes medicine

1543 - Copernicus, De Revolutionibus Orbium Caoelestium (The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres)

1546 - Girolamo Fracastoro proposes that epidemic diseases are caused by transferable seedlike entities

1556 - Georgius Agricola's De re Metallica

1569 - Gerardus Mercater, Mercator projection world map.

1553 - Miguel Serveto, the lesser circulation of blood through the lungs

1556 - Amato Lusitano describes venous valves in the Ázigos vein and their function for the first time

1556 - Agricola, De re metallica -foundational mining text

1559 - Realdo Colombo describes the lesser circulation of blood through the lungs in detail

1572 - Tycho Brahe observes a supernova

1581 - Galileo Galilei notices the timekeeping property of the pendulum

1589 - Galileo Galilei uses balls rolling on inclined planes to show that different weights fall with the same acceleration

1590 - Zacharias Janssen, compound microscope.

1596 - Johannes Kepler, Mysterium cosmographicum.

1603 - Johann Bayer's Uranometria, new breakthroughs in stellar cartography

1609-13 - Galileo Galilei constructs his telescope and discovers Jupiter's four largest moons, as well as sun spots.

1614 - John Napier, first logarithmic table

1609-19 - Kepler, first three laws of planetary motion

1628 - William Harvey, An Anatomical Exercise on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals . Within 60 years, various individuals observe red blood cells, protozoa, spermatozoa, and bacteria.

1632-33 - Galilei upholds Copernicean heliocentric model and is forced by the Roman Inquisition in Rome to recant.

1635 - Founding of Academie Francaise.

1638 - Galileo Galilei publishes Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences

1644 - Evangelista Torricelli, barometer

1655 - Christiaan Huygens, new method of telescope lenses; he discovers one moon of Saturn and the rings of Saturn.

1659 - Robert Boyle develops an air pump for creating vacuums, confirms Galilei's view that bodies fall in a vacuum at the same rate, regardless of weight; discovers that sound does not travel in a vacuum.

1663 - Charter granted for Royal Society of England

1662 - Boyle develops Boyle's Law, relating the pressure and volume of an ideal gas.

1669 - Nicolas Steno puts forward his theory that sedimentary strata had been deposited in former seas, and that fossils were organic in origin

1669 - Hennig Brand discovers phosphorus, the first new element found since ancient times.

1674 - Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek discovers one-celled bacteria in marsh water using his microscope.

1675 - Leibniz develops differential calculus.

1678 - Christiaan Huygens, the polarization of light.

1678 - Edmund Halley publishes a catalog of 341 southern stars, the first systematic southern sky survey

1687 - Newton,
Principia Mathematica

1688 - Newton constructs the first reflecting telescope.

1701 - Edmund Halley suggests using the salinity and evaporation of the Mediterranean to determine the age of the Earth

1701 - Giacomo Pylarini gives the first smallpox inoculations

1704 - Newton publishes Optiks.

1726 - John Flamsteed's Historia Coelestis Britannica provides important designations for star locations.

1730 - James Stirling, The Differential Method providing important advances in infinite series theory and calculus.

1735 - Leonhard Euler solves the Basel problem, relating an infinite series to π

1736 - Leonhard Euler solves the problem of the Seven bridges of Königsberg, in effect creating graph theory

1738 - Daniel Bernoulli examines fluid flow in Hydrodynamica

1743 - Sir Christopher Packe, geological map of south-east England

1746 - Jean-Étienne Guettard, first mineralogical map of France

1747 - James Lind discovers that citrus fruits prevent scurvy

1747 - Pierre Louis Maupertuis applies minimum principles to mechanics 

1760 - John Michell suggests earthquakes are caused by one layer of rocks rubbing against another

1761 - Thomas Bayes proves Bayes' theorem, key element in probability theory

1762 - Joseph Louis Lagrange, the divergence theorem

1763 - Claudius Aymand, first successful appendectomy

1764 - Leonhard Euler examines the partial differential equation for the vibration of a circular drum and finds one of the Bessel function solutions

1771 - Charles Messier, first list of nebulae

1771 - Joseph Priestley, plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen.

1776 - James Keir, crystallisation of molten lava

1776 - John Smeaton, experiments relating power, work, momentum and kinetic energy, and supporting the conservation of energy.

1785 - James Hutton Theory of the Earth - old earth theory put forth

1788 - Joseph Louis Lagrange, Mécanique Analytique (equations of motion)

1789 - Antoine Lavoisier, the law of conservation of mass

1796 - Edward Jenner develops a smallpox vaccination method

1796 - Adrien-Marie Legendre conjectures the prime number theorem

1798 - Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population.

1799 - Carl Friedrich Gauss proves fundamental theorem of algebra (every polynomial equation has a solution among the complex numbers)


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding