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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

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”