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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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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times