Tim Lewens

The other glorious revolution

Or so David Wootton seems to suggest, in a giant treatise celebrating the 17th century’s other glorious revolution

There was no science before 1572, the year that Tycho Brahe saw a new star in the night sky above him. To be sure, the Greeks had made efforts to present their knowledge of nature in a systematic fashion, but they lacked the tools — more specifically they lacked the ways of thinking — that have allowed investigators over the past 300 years to question the traditions that have preceded them, to probe the inner workings of nature, and in so doing to build increasingly informative accounts of the world that surrounds us. These ways of thinking were invented over the course of the 17th century: a period whose momentous significance for all that would come after amply justify naming it ‘the scientific revolution’.

These are the claims David Wootton makes in this big, belligerent book. The book is big because, apparently, his publisher asked that it be so. Wootton obliged by delivering a giant plum pudding of a treatise to Allen Lane, with well over 500 pages of main text laden with nuggets of extraordinary erudition, and soaked generously with three different kinds of scholarly notes — one for references, one for 
argumentative asides and another for longer reflections on topics in philosophy and historiography that he somehow wasn’t able to fit into the rest of the book.

It is hardly news that Wootton’s period was exceptionally important for the genesis of what we now think of as science. It was the time of the founding of the Royal Society, and the era of the megafauna of natural knowledge: big beasts like Newton, Galileo, Brahe and Kepler. The Invention of Science is nonetheless belligerent because it is dedicated, in large part, to a repeated series of attacks on many of today’s most influential historians of science, whose work has been a disappointment to him.

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