When was modern science invented?

Questions like the above are inherently ambiguous and will not have an answer that satisfies everyone because of the difficulty of defining what we mean by the word ‘science’ even with the added qualifier ‘modern’. The latest issue of New Humanist has an interview with David Wootton, professor of history at the University of York and author of the book The Invention of Science, who takes a stab at it and argues that “it happened between 1572 (when astronomer Tycho Brahe saw a new star in the sky) and 1704 (when Isaac Newton drew conclusions about the nature of light, based on experiments).”

It is not my intent to quibble about dates such as these because there is little point. I did think that in the interview Wootton sets up a straw man when he says that he wants to combat the general line of thinking that says that “there is no such thing as the scientific revolution, that nothing important changed, that the new science of Galileo and Newton was no better than the philosophy of Aristotle”. I have read quite a bit about the history and philosophy of science and I think that that is not an accurate characterization of the literature. Most people accept that there has been progress in science from the time of Aristotle. What some of the historians argue is that it is not fair to judge the work of people in the distant past by the standards of today and conclude that what they were doing was not science. As Larry Laudan says in his book Progress and its Problems: Towards a Theory of Scientific Growthi (p. 131)

To ignore the time-specific parameters of rational choice is to put the historian or philosopher in the outrageous position of indicting as irrational some of the major achievements in the history of ideas. Aristotle was not being irrational when he claimed, in the fourth century B.C., that the science of physics should be subordinate to, and legitimated by, metaphysics – even if that same doctrine, at other times and places, might well be characterized as irrational. Thomas Aquinas or Robert Grosseteste were not merely stupid or prejudiced when they espoused the belief that science must be compatible with religious beliefs.

It is true that the word ‘scientist’ was only coined by academic William Whewell in 1834 in an effort to unify the fields of chemistry, mathematics, and physics that he worried were spreading apart. But its introduction was not universally accepted, especially in the UK where the older labels of ‘natural philosopher’ and ‘man of science’ were preferred. The word gained much wider acceptance when the prestigious science journal Nature announced in 1924 that it would allow contributors to use it. The word quickly caught on, with the Royal Society of London, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Institution, and the Cambridge University Press adopting it.

But Edward Grant in his book Science and Religion 400 BC-AD 1550: From Aristotle to Copernicus (p. 21) argues that the use of the word ‘science’ as a unifying concept appeared much earlier than the word ‘scientist’.

Thus, the medieval Latin term scientia was used for mathematical astronomy geometric optics, music or harmonics, and mechanics, especially statics, which was known as the “science of weights” in the Middle Ages. When these disciplines are discussed, we are justified in translating scientia as science. Contrary to commonly help opinion, the word science was not first used in the nineteenth century but was first employed, in a limited sense and in its Latin form in the late Middle Ages.

It is possible to identify to origins of specific features of scientific practice more narrowly. For example, the testing of hypotheses seems to have begun around the time of Galileo. But trying to pin down when science itself began is probably a pointless exercise.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Truly modern modern science began, of course, only after the invention of the press release.

  2. cartomancer says

    Well, as someone who worked on Medieval intellectual culture for my doctoral studies it seems to me that this argument is overlooking a crucial issue – the extent to which our conceptions of our intellectual past are formed to reflect our own perceived importance in the here and now.

    That word right in the title – “modern” – is not a value-free word. It is heavily associated with centuries of cultural posturing that seeks to define the “modern” as valuable, correct, and just plain superior to anything else. “Modern” is frequently contrasted with “primitive” or “backward”. In the traditional historical periodicity of Europe it is contrasted with “medieval” and “ancient” – a threefold division of history concocted by Petrarch and his successors specifically to diminish and belittle the “medieval” centuries between the fall of Rome and the author’s own day, and vaunt the author’s own age as superior. The idea of a “middle” age was needed to mark out a scheme whereby the proper and true course of culture and learning was in abeyance. An age in which European mankind had somehow gone wrong. Thus we could call the flowering of culture and learning between the 15th and 17th centuries a “Renaissance” – the rebirth of Classical culture, the return of learning to where it should be and the resumption of progress after a thousand years of darkness and ignorance.

    The traditional threefold division is not dispassionate taxonomy. It’s branding. When we look at what medieval scholars tended to do about historical periodicity, we tend to find a twofold division of intellectual time instead. The academics of the Twelfth Century, such as Adelard of Bath and John of Salisbury, tend to talk about the ancients versus the moderns (antiqui and moderni), and in their eyes it was the ancients who held the prestige and the intellectual achievements. Many medieval scholars complained about this – saying that their age’s overweening respect for antique opinions and disdain for modern ones wasn’t helpful, and that modern scholars came up with just as valid ideas all the time.

    To my mind the imposition of schemes of periodicity in the history of ideas – particularly ones with such sharply-drawn and culturally loaded divisions as “modern” and “medieval” does violence to our appreciation of what was really going on. When we abandon attempts to box up history into categories that stroke our own egos and provide us with foci for hero-worship, what we find is that intellectual progress has been gradual, evolutionary and at every stage has depended on what came before to provide its tipping-off point. Particularly when it comes to the institutions and cultural supports for intellectual activity, rather than just the ideas themselves. As you get closer to the present the endeavours of academia begin to look more and more like what we recognise today, but to pick a point, or even a period of a couple of centuries, and say “that’s when anything important began” is the height of silliness.

    The whole reaction against the Whiggish model of history – the notion that progress towards the modern is inevitable and good – is based largely on a recognition that it is writing history primarily to stroke our own egos and vaunt our age as the best one. Petrarch and the Renaissance humanists vaunted Classical culture and disdained Medieval in no small part because they were Italians, faced with the encroaching power of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire threatening their little Italian city-states. They needed a cultural model that vaunted the authentically Italian (hence, Roman) over the Germanic (gothic, Medieval). Their successors, the scientists of what we sometimes call the Enlightenment, liked to see themselves as emancipated free-thinkers and daring individualists, compared to their view of Medieval scholars as cloistered, blinkered, collectivist and hidebound. Americans in particular led the way in forging this myth – they had no Medieval history of their own, so obviously that had to be spun as a benefit, not a lack. We cannot talk about this issue without recognising that we are sat in a centuries-old mire of these kinds of attitudes which historians have manage comparatively little to dispel in the general culture.

    I also take issue with Wootton’s assertion that people like Aristotle and Ibn Al-Haythm had no successors to continue their work because they lived in an age before mass-printing. That’s straight up untrue. There were plenty of late antique Peripatetic philosophers – most prominently Alexander of Aphrodisias – and Aristotelian science became practically the orthodoxy in Thirteenth Century Europe after his libri naturales were translated into Latin. Al-Haythm’s punctiform analysis of light entering the eye (itself building on the work of Al-Kindi, using Euclidean mathematics) was likewise translated at the end of the Twelfth Century and formed the basis of Latin scholarship from Grosseteste and Roger Bacon through Witelo of Silesia, John Pecham and Theodoric of Fribourg (the first person to correctly deduce how rainbows are produced, in 1310). Leonardo Da Vinci and Johannes Kepler read these works, adapting them into the retinal image theory of vision that we know today.

    Yes, it would be silly to deny that printing quickened the dissemination of academic work tremendously. But the centuries before the printing press created institutions for the sharing and dissemination of knowledge that performed much the same function – Universities. Manuscript book production was greatly sped up by the production-line methods of the pecia system used by university stationers in Bologna, Paris, Oxford, Prague and the rest, but more important than that was the establishment of communities of scholars with an institutional memory and the wherewithal to bring researchers together to share their ideas. The high scholastic centuries, the age of Aquinas, Scotus, Ockham and Bonaventure, saw a great quickening in the criticism of previous scholars’ work and the formulation of corrections and expansions to it. Scotus criticized a lot of Aquinas’s positions for instance, and Ockham did the same to Scotus. All of them freely criticized and modified Aristotle and Augustine. But, of course, the great Medieval Universities grew out of the Cathedral Schools of the 11th and 12th centuries, which themselves took cues from the courtly schools and monastic schools of the Carolingian age. Which in turn borrowed the ideals of late antique monasticism from Cassiodorus, who was himself inspired by Roman education and the philosophical schools of Classical Greece. It’s borrowings and building on all the way down.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    When was modern science invented? Well, bugger the “modern”. Somewhat echoing cartomancer, I think that word is too loaded with all sorts of baggage and multiple interpretations to be very useful. So, I’d say when some species (probably not one of our ancestors) first used tools. The biggest leap for our lineage would be the development of language, to more or less the level of complexity it has now.

  4. chigau (違う) says

    I’d say that all the individuals who invented and refined flint-knapping and ceramics were “doing science”.
    Also, “atra”.

  5. Mano Singham says

    cartomancer @#2,

    I think you might like Grant’s book that I referenced in my post, though you might already be familiar with it. He defends the Middle Ages from the charges that they were an intellectual dark period before the dawn of the Enlightenment.

  6. rjw1 says

    cartomancer @2

    Agreed, the much-maligned Middle Ages were a time of considerable intellectual and particularly, technical progress. The popular misunderstanding of the term “Dark Ages” hasn’t improved the perception of the period as well.

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