Scientific Inquiry

21 Vesalius.jpg

The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment increased scientific inquiry and the accessibility of scientific knowledge. Organizations such as the Royal Society in London encouraged the sharing of information among researchers and consolidated information in works such as the “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.” Technologies such as Boyle’s air pump, Hooke’s microscope, and Galileo’s telescope allowed new advances and made scientists believe that ordinary people could know about the laws of nature. Intellectually, a sense of optimism arose about what scientists could know about the world. The publication of works such as Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica exemplifies the newfound value of understanding the world and the increased scientific literacy that resulted from sharing these new ideas in print.

For 1,000 years, European views of the body were based on the work of Galen and Hippocrates. This view of the body centered around four humors (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile) that reached equilibrium in every person. Patients were healed by apothecaries or barber-surgeons, and the most common healing technique was bloodletting. Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica is based on Vesalius’ extensive experience dissecting corpses and studying the medical advances of the Renaissance. The book corrects many of Galen’s errors and was distributed and illustrated thanks in large part to the printing press. Vesalius continued to maintain some of Galen’s errors, but his work exemplifies the medical advances made during the Early Modern period and is the beginning of an age during which the human body became much less of a mystery to the scientific community.

22 New Atlantis.jpg

Francis Bacon was a prominent courtier during the reign of James I of England and a foundational figure in the scientific revolution. He believed that scientists needed a new approach to gaining knowledge and understanding nature. Bacon disliked deductive reasoning and believed in the need for gathering facts and then coming to a conclusion - moving from particular information to generalizable hypotheses. This approach is known as inductive reasoning. Bacon’s life embodied the rise of constitutional monarchy and the epitome of Renaissance art and culture. In his book The New Atlantis, Bacon described an ideal society in which scientists collaborated and used their wisdom to improve the world. This idea became the foundation of the Royal Society of Britain.

23 Descartes.jpg

Descartes was a rationalist and a proponent of deductive reasoning. He focused on trying to derive universal laws, exemplified by his statement, “I think, therefore I am.” Discourse on Method explains Descartes’ views on deductive reasoning and his belief that the true scientist was trying to develop laws about nature. He saw matter as either “thinking” or “extended,” with thinking matter being matter of the mind and extended matter being everything else. Descartes’ views about deductive reasoning directly oppose Bacon’s views about inductive reasoning; both men exemplify the transformed worldview that occurred as a result of the Scientific Revolution.

24 Galileo.jpg

To read selections from Dialogue Containing the Two World Systems, please visit

Galileo Galilei is known for taking advantage of the newly developed telescope to look at the stars. He discovered the mountains on the moon, that planets are different than stars, the four moons of Jupiter, and sunspots. Dialogue Containing the Two World Systems was published in 1632 in Italy, geographically near the heart of the Catholic Church. Galileo’s proximity to Rome meant that he was a target of persecution from the Pope. His explanations of the universe conflicted with traditional religious interpretations of the world, which threatened the Church’s authority and caused friction between Galileo and the Pope. Galileo was far ahead of his time in terms of his use of technology and his detailed observations of the sky. Therefore, his work is very reliable although not up to today’s scientific standards. Galileo knew that his work would be controversial, so it is possible that he wrote in a manner that was somewhat purposefully inflammatory, because his audience would have been the well-educated members of European society and members of the clergy. Galileo’s goal was to share his research and, to some extent, to prove to the Catholic Church that he was not going to give up on his work because of censorship. Dialogue Containing the Two World Systems compared Ptolemaic (earth-centered) and Copernican (sun-centered) views of the universe. The Pope was enraged at the publication of this work, and Galileo was sentenced to house arrest. However, he still managed to publish his Discourse on Two New Sciences, widely regarded as the foundation of modern physics.


25 Principia.jpg

Isaac Newton is considered the preeminent figure of science of his time period. He developed the universal law of gravity and had a mechanistic worldview. Mechanists believed that the world operated something like a clock and that nature adhered to mathematical principles. Newton focused on empiricism and believed in the “disenchantment of the world,” that is, that divine figures were not responsible for everyday occurrences, although he still saw the glory of God in the beauty of nature. Principia is a compilation of many of Newton’s major ideas, including his laws of motion, his laws of universal gravity, and his beliefs about mechanism. Isaac Newton represents the self-consciousness of the figures of the Scientific Revolution; the people involved in new scientific developments were keenly aware that they were making new, important discoveries that co-existed with superstitious views in a world still largely dominated by religion.


This is an image from Vesalius' De Humani Corporis Fabrica, one of the foundational texts of the Scientific Revolution.