The significance of scientific developments in Early Modern Europe

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Last updated: April 12, 2019

Many scientific developments took place in early modern Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries. This period brought with it huge developments in areas such as astronomy, mathematics and physics and is commonly referred to as the scientific revolution. It was believed that “astrological anatomies and zodiacs were keys to character and guides to the future and that extra-terrestrial forces intervened in the affairs of the world, particularly human and animal health and the state of crops and weather”. This breakthrough in science can be attributed to two of the most successful scientists of the time namely Copernicus and Isaac Newton.Many discoveries occurred between the years after the publication of Copernicus’ ‘On Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres’ in 1543 and in later years the publication of Newton’s ‘Principia’ in 1687. The next fifteen decades seen major breakthroughs in the world of science, testing of course earlier interpretations and beliefs and as a result, the scientific revolution is commonly viewed as a foundation of modern science. The new method included three generally accepted procedures, those of a logical approach, a mathematical approach and an experimental approach.

It is important to note that the Scientific Revolution was not marked by any one change or new idea. Many Scientists contributed to the major changes. Some of the huge changes that occurred at the time include the theory that the earth was the centre of the universe and not the sun. The poet Pope saw this Scientific revolution as a “sudden burst of genius that altered everything” whereas Newton describes its development as “steady advances that built on earlier ones”1 One thing to be sure of is that this radical new way of thinking was one of the main motives that transformed the medieval times into the modern world. Men of Science” or “Natural Philosophers” as they were called2 began to see old principles and theories in a fresh and innovative new light.

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The first paragraph of this essay is devoted to a look at Nicolas Copernicus and the significance of his scientific contributions in early modern Europe. The second paragraph looks at Galileo. Thirdly we look at the major breakthroughs in chemistry and the many scientific developments in relation to the human body. Nicolas Copernicus is said to be the founder of modern astronomy3.Copernicus’ primary interest was in astronomy and he devoted his life to observation and discovery. He carried out his investigations and observations alone with little or no help or consultation.

He identified many flaws within the Ptolemaic system. He founded that the earth rotated on its own axis once a day and that the earth travelled around the sun annually. Copernicus concluded that the sun lay at the centre of the universe and not the earth, “in the middle of all sits the sun enthroned”4, therefore trusted in the heliocentric theory.Unfortunately Copernicus’s observations consisted of ‘bare eyeball’ observations as the telescope had not yet been invented leaving him lacking in experimental evidence to back up his theory.

Copernicus’s major work ‘on the revolutions of the celestial spheres’ which he produced in 1543 is said to be one of the contributing factors to the scientific revolution and this piece of work was to have a huge effect on later scientists such as Galileo and Kepler. Galileo is another great anti-Aristotelian scientist in early modern Europe. 5 He had his own specific scientific view on nature just like Johann Kepler.Galileo was the first person to state that the laws of nature were mathematical, “the language of God is mathematics”. Galileo had a new way of thinking that differed considerably to his predecessors’.

He contradicted Aristotle, making mathematics the basic intellectual tool of science and not logical methods. In the earlier stages of the scientific revolution many advanced ways of thinking about the heavens, scientific measurement and systematic observations played the most significant role but the invention of the telescope led to the development of new technologies and breakthroughs.Inspired by the Dutch inventor of the “spy glass”6 Galileo constructed the very first telescope.

This new instrument allowed him to progress and develop Copernicus’s theory of heliocentrism. It allowed him to study the stars beyond the boundaries of the naked eye and so he was able to discover Jupiter and the ‘Milky Way’. His observations led him to the conclusion that the sun does rotate. Galileo made his greatest contribution in the 1632 when he produced ‘Dialogue concerning the two chief world systems’.

This piece of work upheld the Copernican system and is said to be one of the major turning points in scientific thought.Galileo also demonstrated his famous laws of motion by dropping balls of varying weight off the leaning tower of Pisa, he found that the earth was in perpetual rotation and that the balls of varying weights will pick up speed at the same rate as they fall, that their speed is not determined by their mass. In the field of chemistry new discoveries and breakthroughs were also very prominent with Robert Boyle being largely regarded today as the first modern chemist7. Boyle was an alchemist and believed in the transmutation of metals and conducted experiments in the hope of achieving this.But this scientific practice has been around for approximately 2500 years8.

Robert Boyle’s list of extraordinary achievements reflects his radical way of thinking that was a key role in the scientific revolution. For example he enunciated Boyles Law, stating that the product of the volume and pressure of a fixed quantity of an ideal gas is constant given temperature. He carried out extensive experimentation on the role of air in the propagation of sound, the expansive force of freezing water, on specific gravities, refractive powers, crystals, electricity, combustion, respiration and physiology.Robert Boyle contributed greatly to the scientific developments in early modern Europe. In this age of scientific discovery scholars began to question old assumptions about the human body.

The renaissance had generated interest in the human anatomy but most of the knowledge on how the body works was based on the assumptions of the ancient Greek world. It was believed that the body consisted of four main humors- blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Disease occurred when there was an imbalance of these humors.Much of the knowledge of the human body was based on experiments carried out on animals with the body of the ape and the human considered to be the same. These theories and experiments were doubted and inspired Andreas Vesalius to begin his investigation into the human body and how it works. Andreas Vesalius is the author of one of the most influential books on human anatomy and “the first anatomically accurate medical textbook”9 about the workings of the human body published in 1543.Vesalius didn’t accept the theories of blood circulation – that there was two different bloods, one that controlled muscle movement and one that controlled digestion, and finally that two different colours of blood existed..

In order to investigate and find evidence against these other theories he began experiments. He began dissecting and studied cadavers. This physical approach was characterised by “refinement of observation. “10 It was a huge breakthrough in medicine that had never been done before. Vesalius dissected many criminals as the church disagreed with his dissection of the dead.He rejected the assumptions about the structure and function of the heart formed by Galen and Aristotle. Vesalius discovered that the heart had four chambers, two liver lobes and that the blood vessels originated in the heart and not the liver as before stated. He also proved that the lower jaw bone composed of one bone and not two and that the blood did not pass through the septum of the heart.

Vesalius was also the first to assemble the human skeleton. He was also the fist person to describe mechanical ventilation; the method used to assist or replace spontaneous breathing.His dissections and study of the brain produced the best description and most advanced account of the time. Vesalius’s incredible and revolutionary discoveries truly made him the “founder of modern human anatomy”11.

These founding’s by Vesalius are certainly of huge significance in early modern Europe and were some of the main developments of the time. There were however some unanswered questions that William Harvey attempted to investigate. He discovered that the heart gave out more blood than could be accounted for by anything it received.He found it impossible to account for this blood and didn’t know were it went. Harvey was compelled to discover the true function of these values in veins, as the explanation put forward by his teachers was unsatisfactory.

This research led him on to the greater question of the explanation of the motion of blood. In 1616 Harvey announced his discovery of the circulation system, an exceptional and vital achievement and in 1628 he published his work ‘Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus’12- an anatomical exercise on the motion of the heart and blood in animals.Harvey was the first doctor to use quantitative and observation methods simultaneously in his medical investigations. Due to this intensive experimentation he stated that blood was pumped around the body by the heart before returning to the heart and being re-circulated within a closed system. 13. The scientific developments of early modern Europe were an era of revolutionary thought.

The work of these scientists, natural philosophers, men of science took great time, patience and innovative skills. These people contradicted the unquestionable theories of the ancient Greek philosophers and deemed them to be nonsense and impractical.The huge developments of this era are of great significance and have led to the diffusion of learning and education, thus calling the period the century of genius. It is true to say that the scientific developments of earl modern Europe were of significant importance as without these men and their revolutionary new way of thinking the world today would not be as scientifically, technically and medically advanced. People such as Galileo, Copernicus and Vesalius have greatly enhanced the contemporary understanding of the richness and the complexity of the world around them.

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