European History Pt. 28 — Newton and Science

Last time we saw how measurements about the movements of planets set in motion a gold age of astronomy and physics.

In 1642, Galileo died and Newton was born. In 1687, Newton published his mathematical principles of natural philosophy. His law of motion stood for roughly 400 years until it was shown not to apply in certain extreme cases. I’m still blown away that such a fundamental discovery was made in 1687. I thought everyone was still running around like a chicken with its head cut off in that time frame, but that’s why you read things, to learn that big discoveries were being made, even when our knowledge of the world was just forming.

This was also the period of institutionalized science. In 1662, the Royal Society in London in London was found and in 1666, France followed with the Royal Academy of Sciences were founded. Scientists were talking to each other and becoming specialized, developing traditions and habits.

Social Sciences

Social science at this time changed dramatically for the simple reason that Europeans were meeting a bunch of different peoples with their own traditions. Europe was systematically intervening in these societies for all sorts of reasons, and in turn, these societies were challenging European society in a variety of ways, by bringing new foods, diseases, and cultures.

This exposure to other cultures brought the skepticism of Bayle and Montaigne and the beginnings of cosmpolitanism: x does it that way and y does it this way. What’s the difference?

Comets are a good example. Pierre Bayle, who lived in the back half of the 1600s, wrote about human credulity and the  lack of any basis for various beliefs about comets.

The skeptical scientific mode was applied to all sorts of things, most notably, to the idea of evidence in courts of law. The process was slow, but it was begun to be realized that convicting someone required evidence.

In what I think was the most fascinating part of this section was a look at history. Apparently, at this time, history was held in disrepute. People thought history was not useful, or unnecessary, or downright made up, but a branch of people began to take the spirit of evidence and apply it to history. This might be thought of as the era of META HISTORY or the era of HISTORICAL TOOLS. Books on translating ancient documents were written, some people went hunting for manuscripts in ancient abbeys and monasteries. Furthermore, the study of coins, inscriptions, etc.  were invented so that all the trappings of a civilization could be brought into a “historical record,” which aimed to be a unified treatment of a way of life.

Notice also that exploring history is very similar to exploring Africa, or the new world. The latter place European culture a point in a rich world of peoples and ideas, and history, slowly but surely, was placing Europe as a temporal point in a rich procession of peoples and ideas throughout the ages.


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