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A true scientific revolution: the triumph of mathematicians over philosophers

The moment it was accepted that Aristotle had not been right about everything was a crucial turning point in the history of science.

The early-modern Scientific Revolution is still in some populist quarters described as a triumph of experimental reason over religious superstition. It is one of the many virtues of David Wootton’s fascinating history that this canard barely merits a mention, let alone a tedious refutation. For, as he shows, many in the vanguard of the emerging order of the 16th and 17th centuries were religious; they took the new science to be a bulwark against atheism; and, as Wootton plausibly argues, Newtonianism would have been inconceivable without the tradition of belief in a creator God.

In Wootton’s telling, the revolution that created the tradition of science we recognise today was instead a victory of a different kind. The core story spans the long century from the astronomer Tycho Brahe’s first identification of a nova (as we would now say, an exploding star) in 1572, to Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity (1687) and Opticks (1704). Wootton describes it, in terrifically rich detail, as a revolt of mathematicians, wielding numbers and experiments, against philosophers, who assumed that Aristotle had been right about everything.

The mathematicians in this story include early scientists such as Galileo (whom we remember mainly for his telescope but who also conducted pedantic experiments on objects floating in water); they also include, more surprisingly, the artists who first codified the rules of perspective in painting. One of the things that Wootton illuminatingly points out is how many disciplinary hats these intellectual heroes wore. Galileo worked on ballistics problems; Brahe and Edmond Halley were cartographers as well as astronomers; Copernicus was “an expert on monetary reform”. And there are intriguing re-emphases. Copernicus was not that revolutionary, since his heliocentric system preserved the idea of fixed heavenly spheres; Brahe’s rival system, though incorrect, was more important since it did away with them.

But was there really a “Scientific Revolution” in the first place? As Wootton concedes, investigations that are recognisably scientific had proceeded here and there since antiquity. Aristotle’s biology, medieval Arab optics and premodern astronomy were all science and so there exists a “continuity view”, according to which nothing totally unprecedented happened in 16th- and 17th-century Europe. Wootton insists that this is wrong: his thesis is that “modern science” began in the 17th century. But this statement is automatically true by virtue of the author’s positing of a thing called “modern” science, as opposed to what preceded it. So the argument is possibly circular, although the circle is not necessarily vicious.

Wootton persuasively defends, for example, what is known as “the Eisenstein thesis”, put forward by Elizabeth Eisenstein in 1979, which is that the invention of the printing press made the Scientific Revolution possible. Printed books enabled the reproduction of complex diagrams, and researchers could now get an overview of all that had hitherto been thought about a particular problem: they fostered, as Wootton puts it, “a sort of intellectual arms race”. Natural philosophers of the 17th century also had a new family of glass instruments, a “new, critical attitude to established authority” and “a new language”.

What was this new language? It was the language we still speak of facts, evidence, experiments, hypotheses and theories. At the core of this book is a linguistic argument: that the emergence of these words in the 16th and 17th centuries proves that significantly new ideas had emerged. Wootton puts forward a very strong version of this thesis. Before Columbus discovered the Americas, he argues, the idea of “discovery” literally did not exist. Until then, he writes, it was assumed that all discovery was in reality rediscovery of lost wisdom from the ancients. This claim depends on denying that the Latin invenire (“to find or invent”) could ever mean “discover”, even though it was the word that Columbus used to report his discovery.

Other concepts, Wootton points out, could and did exist before their words were coined. Scientific experiments were performed (by Ptolemy, Galen, Alhazen, and so on) before the term “experiment” became commonplace; but what was new in the 17th century, he suggests, was a new respect for experimentation as a path to knowledge and a new “experimental network” for knowledge-sharing. On the other hand, as Wootton shows, the idea of “laws of nature” really was new and depended on the idea of a law-making God. Scientific notions of facts and evidence are shown to have emerged from the law courts. Overall, Wootton justifies nicely his argument that we “tend to overestimate the importance of new technology and underestimate the rate of production and the impact of new intellectual tools”.

This book is one of those for which the reviewer’s term “magisterial” inevitably suggests itself. It is a splendid object, with beautiful text design and typesetting and generous illustrations. It is tremendously good in its deep investigations into how the moon was mapped by telescope, early experiments in creating near-vacuums, or the invention of the first steam engines. (“In order to understand steam engines,” Wootton advises, “it may be helpful to think about methods of making coffee.” I can report that it was.)

The book is less persuasive, however, when it veers into literary and philosophical territory. Wootton thinks he knows that William Shakespeare had “no sense of history” and, indeed, that the playwright “imagined ancient Rome as just like contemporary London but with sunshine and togas”. (Reviewing A D Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker in 2008, Wootton protested, “We don’t actually know what Shakespeare thought” – a view that required no revision.)

More threatening to the pleasure of the disinterested reader will be the significant proportion of the book that constitutes an extended and aggressive warming-over of the “science wars” of the 1990s. For The Invention of Science is not only a history of science but a revisionist historiography of science, in which Wootton attacks allegedly homogeneous schools called “the sociologists of science” and “the cultural determinists”, expending thousands of testy words situating himself carefully between two implausible views, the extreme versions of which are held by almost no one. (He also tries to nudge rival historians and philosophers of science – particularly Thomas S Kuhn, the author of the seminal The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – towards one or other less defensible end of the spectrum.)

Despite Wootton’s protestations, very few people are still so “relativist” that they believe that scientific knowledge is nothing but socially constructed and that it is therefore impossible to say that quantum physics is superior to the theory of the four bodily humours. As few, or fewer, people imagine that scientific knowledge is a transparent window on the truth about the ultimate nature of reality. Wootton eventually concludes that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Which is, as he would no doubt happily admit, a view that Aristotle would long ago have endorsed.

The Invention of Science: a New History of the Scientific Revolution by David Wootton is published by Allen Lane (769pp, £30)

Steven Poole’s books include Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower? (Sceptre)

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria and the impossible war

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser