The Joyce of Science: New Physics in Finnegans Wake
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The Background: Newtonian Physics  


Diagram, FW 293

"And, heaving alljawbreakical expressions out of Sare Isaac's universal of specious aristmystic unsaid, A is for Anna like L is for liv."

Finnegans Wake (293)

The Two Scientific Revolutions

In the first three decades of the twentieth century physics experienced a series of profound changes which disrupted and then drastically altered its course. Beginning in the late nineteenth century new technological developments gradually enabled physicists to expand the area under their investigation. On the one hand, astronomy and theoretical mathematics brought new speculations on what the universe is; on the other, particle physics managed to ascertain the first features of the subatomic realm. The results of this new inquiry were both grave and far-reaching, as many of the new findings appeared to flatly contradict some of the most fundamental laws of classical physics. Unable to accommodate the new data, classical physics found itself in a profound crisis. The validity of many postulates and basic assumptions of physics had to be questioned, and a need for new theoretical foundations became obvious.

New physics came into being in response to that crisis. With relativity theory and quantum mechanics at its core, new physics denounced the central notions of the Newtonian world vision: solidity of matter and objective character of its existence. Instead, new physics proclaimed reality to be non-material at its most basic level and to be partly shaped by the act of observation. These new assumptions altered not only the course of theoretical physics but they also influenced significantly other areas of knowledge, most notably philosophy. Given the scope and depth of the changes it brought forth, it is not surprising that the crisis in question and its outcome are often labeled as the twentieth-century revolution in physics.

The emergence of new physics was not the first scientific revolution of such magnitude. It was, in fact, a reaction to the basic assumptions of another revolution in physics and astronomy which marked the emergence of modern science in the seventeenth century. The Scientific Revolution, as it is usually called, had its roots in the Renaissance, and by the end of the seventeenth century, with the creation of modern science, it altered and hastened the development of Western culture. Like its twentieth-century counterpart, the Scientific Revolution was also brought about by a crisis caused by the inability of the old theoretical structure to accommodate new experimental and observational data. There are striking similarities between the two revolutions which suggest that science develops by way of sudden upheavals rather than steady augmentation of ideas.

Such a dynamic view of the nature of scientific progress has been described by Thomas S. Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn views scientific development as a series of static, tradition-oriented phases interrupted periodically by tradition-shattering transformations or "paradigm shifts." By "paradigm" Kuhn means a set of "universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners" (viii). A scientific revolution, according to him, is a "transition to a new paradigm" and is "inaugurated by a growing sense . . . that an existing paradigm has ceased to function adequately in the exploration of an aspect of nature to which that paradigm itself had previously led the way" (90-92). This transition, however, is not a cumulative process in which a new paradigm is evolved from the old one by a simple augmentation of ideas. It is rather a process of reconstruction, in which the new paradigm is rebuilt from new fundamentals in such a way that it changes the most elementary theoretical axioms of a given field of science (84-85). A new paradigm, according to Kuhn, can emerge only as the result of an anomaly which disrupts the stability of a given field. The growing awareness in the scientific community of this anomaly often brings a state of progressing crisis (67). Scientists enter into frequent debates over the legitimacy of scientific standards and methods, and often make a recourse to "philosophical analysis as a device for unlocking the riddles of their field" (88).

The central role of a crisis, which lies at the core of Kuhn's theory, was also stressed by Albert Einstein. "Nearly every great advance in science," he pointed out, "arises from a crisis in the old theory, through an endeavor to find a way out of the difficulties created. We must examine old ideas, old theories, although they belong to the past, for this is the only way to understand the importance of the new ones and the extent of their validity" (Einstein and Infeld 75). In the case of new physics, the old ideas and theories are those of classical Newtonian mechanics first introduced by the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution. Their emergence marked not only the birth of modern science but, by extension, is often considered a starting point of modern Western civilization (Butterfield 192).

The Scientific Revolution extends roughly over a period of two centuries: its main phase starts at the time of Copernicus (middle sixteenth century) and ends with Newton (the end of the seventeenth century). The publication of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium by Copernicus in 1543 provides a convenient point of demarcation, not only because of the pivotal role of that work, but also because of two other important books that were published in the same year: the anatomical drawings of Andreas Vesalius and the first translation of the Greek mathematics and physics of Archimedes (Bronowski, Ascent 142). This last publication was part of an ongoing process of rediscovery of ancient culture, initiated some two hundred years earlier. Between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries a large quantity of ancient writings was gradually made available in Europe, first through translations from the Arabs, who in the course of their conquest of the southern border of the Mediterranean had assimilated much of Greek philosophy and science; then more directly, when a large number of Greek works reached Europe after the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453. It was the contact with Greek science which laid the background for the new ideas that were eventually to take the shape of the Scientific Revolution.

The Greek Science

Early Greek physics and astronomy had a distinctly speculative character and did not provide much scientific data for the modern revolution. A notable exception is the conjecture of Aristarchus of Samos (c.310-230 BC) that "the fixed stars and the sun remain motionless, [and] that the earth revolves about the sun in the circumference of a circle" (Jeans, Growth 89). What these early scientific speculations did provide, however, was the possibility of finding general principles to express the relations between apparently disconnected phenomena (Hull 14). By creating first hypotheses based on facts the early Greeks provided man with one of the basic tools for future scientific inquiry.

Another such tool developed by the ancient Greeks and adapted for the Scientific Revolution was mathematics. Of the two main constituents of elementary mathematics, arithmetic (the science of numbers) and geometry (the science of shapes), only the latter reached a significant level of sophistication with the Greeks. Their arithmetic was theoretical rather than practical. It did not stress the methods of calculation but rather some striking properties of numbers which could be discerned and classified. Pythagoras and his followers even attributed a mystical importance to numbers. They devised an elaborate system of correspondences between numbers and geometrical figures which finally led them to believe that numbers are the ultimate material of which the world is made (Jeans Growth 27).[1] Their failure to develop a more practical arithmetic which would have hastened the advancement of astronomy and geometry is often attributed to the clumsiness of the Greek system of numerical notation. A positional system, such as ours, significantly facilitates computations. Deprived of a good notation, the Greek arithmetic remained practically at a standstill (Hull 7). At the same time, however, the other major branch of mathematics, geometry, was developed into a system which was to remain unchallenged for nearly two thousand years.

Some rudimentary geometry existed before Classical Greece, mostly as practical knowledge about land surveying and architecture. It was based on common sense and the observation of how points, lines, figures and solids behave in everyday life (Guillen 106). The knowledge was obtained by generalizing from experience. The Greeks refined geometry by introducing the notion of proof. Instead of accepting a given truth because of its observational evidence, they attempted to support it by the exercise of pure reason. Their purpose was to show that a given proposition can be arrived at by means of logic as a conclusion following from one or more simple propositions, the premises. This conception of the deductive method, attributed to Thales of Miletus, was the first important step toward the highly articulated Greek geometry. Developed further by the Pythagoreans, it became "the archetype of all deductive systems, and therefore the first genuine mathematics" (Hull 25).[2]

In the subsequent years deductive geometry was developed into a logical, coherent system. Hippocrates of Chios (5th century BC) developed the geometry of the circle and introduced letters for points on his diagrams. He wrote a textbook which Euclid, in the fourth century BC, is said to have used as a model for his Elements (Jeans, Growth 37). Euclid's famous work gave a systematic account of the Greek geometry of the time. Following meticulously the principles of deductive reasoning developed by Aristotle, Euclid derived hundreds of theorems in geometry from only ten assumptions. He himself did not introduce much of new material - most of his subject matter was the work of earlier mathematicians. Euclid's contribution consisted in reorganization of the material into one logically coherent system. Although some of his assumptions and procedures have been questioned over the years, Euclid's work remains unique in its impact on science. He set a new standard of precision in demonstration, thus advancing both mathematics and the scientific method in general. His Elements remained the standard textbook in schools and universities until the end of the last century (Hull 70-71).


The unifying work of Euclid gave mathematics a new momentum evident in the achievements of the last phase of Greek science in Alexandria. The Alexandrians, in turn, influenced the Scientific Revolution. Their work was so modern in spirit that in many areas the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scientists simply picked up the investigation at the point where their ancient predecessors left off (Hull 92). Archimedes (3rd century BC), popularly associated with physics and engineering, but also a first class mathematician, advanced geometry through his work on figures enclosed by curved lines and surfaces. He found the volume and surface of a sphere and a cone, as well as the area of an ellipse. His contemporary, Appolonius of Perga, developed the study of conic sections into a coherent, extensive system. As often happens in the history of science, his work seemed purely theoretical at the time, but in the seventeenth century it was applied in astronomy to describe the elliptical motions of the planets (Hull 52). Astronomical observation, often neglected by earlier Greeks, finally achieved its proper status in the work of another Alexandrian, Hipparchus, who catalogued over a thousand stars and discovered precession, the slow change of the direction of the earth's axis in space. Mathematician as well as astronomer, Hipparchus is credited with the invention of trigonometry (Jeans, Growth 92). This branch of mathematics relates angles to distances, thereby providing astronomers with a convenient method of measurement.

The mathematical achievement of the Alexandrians was further advanced by the Arabs. The Mohammedan civilization, which flourished throughout the middle ages along the southern border of Europe and in Spain, not only preserved much of Greek learning, but also fused it with some new ideas which made further progress in science possible. Most notably, the Arabs introduced Europe to the decimal system of notation which they learned from Indian mathematicians (Jeans, Growth 110). By developing Indian arithmetic and algebra they removed the imbalance between geometry and arithmetic which hindered Greek mathematics. While not making any revolutionary contribution to thought, the Arabs provided the Scientific Revolution with the apparatus of workable mathematics--possibly the most important single element in the development of science.

Beside mathematics and the concept of science as a rational, coherent system of knowledge, the ancient Greeks gave the Scientific Revolution a spirit of curiosity and a desire to pursue knowledge for its own sake (Hull 124). Between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, the ancient Greek ideas from the Mohammedan empire in the south slowly began to make themselves felt in Europe. By the second half of the fifteenth century, following the fall of Constantinople and the sudden influx of classical literature to Europe, the spirit of free inquiry and admiration for pre-Christian thought became more prominent. The immediate result of this new outlook was the development of secular learning. After centuries of ecclesiastical control, the pursuit of knowledge had become a public domain. A new type of scholar appeared, a man of broad outlook and disregard for orthodoxy, ready to delve into any activity from mathematics to black magic (Hull 122-123).

This new confidence in the powers of human reason was significantly increased by discoveries in astronomy, made by Copernicus, Tycho Brache and Johannes Kepler. Their work was truly revolutionary, for the new paradigm which eventually emerged drastically changed man's view of his place and role in the universe and suggested new ways of controlling the environment. The new astronomical discoveries directly influenced other sciences, thereby starting an unbroken chain of development of ideas which continued until the end of the nineteenth century.

The Seventeenth Century Scientific Revolution

Nicolaus Copernicus

The first bold step in the Scientific Revolution was taken by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). In De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, published in the year of his death, Copernicus suggested a new explanation of the apparent motions of heavenly bodies. Following the hypothesis of Aristarchus, Copernicus put the sun in the center of the motionless sphere of the fixed stars and had the planets (including the earth) move in concentric circles around it. The moon circled the earth which rotated around its own axis and also slowly changed the direction of its axis (precession). The heliocentric system of Copernicus challenged (and eventually replaced) the Ptolemaic system which had stationary earth as its center and tried to explain the movements of celestial bodies by means of a complicated system of cycles and epicycles (a body moving in a circle whose center moves in another circle). The Ptolemaic system was scientific in that it did account for observational evidence to which it was modified over the years as new discoveries were made. By the time of Copernicus, however, it had shown so many contradictions as to create a crisis in astronomy. Copernicus' preface to De Revolutionibus offers a keen appraisal of the situation: he points out that the old system is burdened by so many inconsistencies in procedures that it is not even capable of providing consistent measurement of the seasonal year. It was that crisis, he explains, that "induced [him] to think of a method of computing the motions of the spheres" (Kuhn, Copernican Revolution 137).


The heliocentric theory gave modern astronomy a new direction but it did not remove the complexity which cumbered the Ptolemaic system. To reconcile the circular and uniform planetary motion with the available observational evidence, Copernicus also had to amend his system with epicycles and eccentricity of the planets' orbits in relation to the sun (Jeans, Growth 128-29). The real significance of the heliocentric system lay in the long-term changes which it effected. "Major upheavals in the fundamental concepts of science," writes Kuhn, "occur by degrees. The work of a single individual may play a preeminent role in such a conceptual revolution, but if it does, it achieves preeminence either because, like De Revolutionibus, it initiates revolution by a small innovation which presents science with new problems, or because, like Newton's Principia, it terminates revolution by integrating concepts deriving from many sources" (Copernican Revolution 182). The Copernican exposition of celestial mechanics may appear less impressive than the Newtonian, but without one the other would not have been possible.

Tycho Brache and Johannes Kepler

The Copernican theory was solidified and advanced in the work of Tycho Brache and Johannes Kepler. Tycho Brache (1546-1601) did not accept the heliocentric model of the universe, but through his work he contributed to its refinement. An excellent observer, he made new instruments which significantly improved the accuracy of angular measurement, and then devoted most of his life to constructing new, precise planetary tables (Hull 132-33). Kepler, who became Tycho's assistant in his youth, completed the task and published the new tables after Tycho's death. In contrast to his teacher's preference for observation, Kepler had a theoretical slant and a strong belief in mathematics. Like many of the ancient Greeks, he assumed that celestial bodies must move according to simple geometrical laws which could be discovered (Jeans, Growth 165). After decades of painstaking and frustrating investigation of the planets' orbits and velocities, he finally succeeded in proving his assumptions. In 1609 he announced that the orbit of Mars is an ellipse with the sun at one focus, and that the planet's velocity changes in such a way that the line joining Mars to the sun covers equal areas of the ellipse in equal times. In the following years, Kepler extended these laws to the other planets and formulated a third law which stated that, for all the planets, the square of the periodic time (i.e. the time taken by the planet to complete its orbit) is proportional to the cube of its mean distance from the sun (Hull 136-37).

Kepler's discovery was as important for the development of science as the work of Copernicus, in spite of its apparently limited, technical character. The achievement of Copernicus was revolutionary in content, but not so in method. All the main propositions of De Revolutionibus were based on ancient authority. Copernicus had the sense to give the heliocentric concept serious consideration and the mathematical skill to develop it in detail, but he never questioned the Greek assumption that celestial geometry must be based on the figures of sphere and circle because of their supposed perfection (Hull 128). He was a typical Renaissance man, freed from the oppressive authority of the church, but unable to sever himself from dependence on the authority of the classics which brought him that freedom. Kepler, on the other hand, represented a truly modern scientific spirit. He was the first to introduce important scientific notions for which there was no ancient authority (Hull 135). With his discoveries, Kepler gave modern science a spirit of independence, a sense of freedom from any preconceived notions, regardless of the authority which might stand behind them. He thus further strengthened the belief in the power of human intellect as a primary means of learning to understand the world.

Galileo and the New Scientific Spirit

This newly asserted freedom soon pervaded all of seventeenth-century science. It played a key role in liberating science from the misconceptions of Aristotelian teaching, which had been adopted as the official scientific doctrine of the medieval church. Because of his authority in other areas of learning, Aristotle's views on physics and astronomy had achieved recognition out of proportion to their merit. Aristotle tried to explain the workings of nature by assigning to each phenomenon a final cause, i.e. a purpose which it was supposed to serve. He believed every body in the universe to have a proper place, determined by its "nature," toward which it always strives. A stone, for example, being of the earth, falls to the ground to serve the purpose ascribed to it in the scheme of things. Beside this "natural motion," Aristotle described "violent motion" which was caused externally, that is, imparted to objects by application of force. He believed that objects move only as long as the force is being applied; in the Mechanics he wrote: "The moving body comes to a standstill when the force which pushes it along can no longer so act as to push it" (Einstein and Infeld 6).

In describing the behavior of objects, Aristotle made a number of mistakes which he could have avoided by a simple act of observation. One of them was his conviction that heavy bodies fall more quickly than the light ones; another, that a projectile moves horizontally until it stops, and then falls vertically (Hull 45). These and other scientifically inaccurate views, constituting part of the official doctrine of the medieval and renaissance church, came under attack from Galileo (1564-1642). He disproved them by experimenting with moving bodies and measuring their velocity, frequency, or duration. These were the first scientific attempts to quantify the physical world and a first indication of the direction the newly developing science was going to take.


Galileo also attacked another important part of the official church doctrine--the geocentric system of Ptolemy. In spite of the publication of the work of Copernicus and its refinement by Kepler, the heliocentric theory was so incompatible with common sense that it received little support. One of those who noticed its merit and defended it with fanaticism was Giordano Bruno, burned by the Inquisition in 1600. Bruno put special emphasis on the distances in the universe. He not only asserted that the universe is infinite but also suggested that there may be other solar systems with other inhabited planets like the earth--a view which directly challenged the notion of the privileged position the human race supposedly enjoyed in all creation (Butterfield 69). But Galileo's attack proved to be even more dangerous to the Ptolemaic system than Bruno's intuitive speculations. Armed with a telescope of his own construction (after the original idea of Hans Lippershey of Middleburg), Galileo made a series of sensational discoveries which gave the Copernican theory further support. He showed that Jupiter had four satellites, thus challenging the notion of all the universe revolving about the earth. He contradicted the Aristotelian belief in the immutability and perfection of the heaven by discovering dark spots on the sun. Finally, he confirmed Bruno's belief in the vastness of the universe by disclosing that the Milky Way is made up of countless, faint stars (Hull 141). Like Bruno, he was persecuted and was forced by the church to publicly recant his heliocentric views.

These clashes between the newly emerging science and church doctrine were outward signs of an underlying conflict between Reason and Authority, which marked the gradual emergence of a new paradigm. Galileo's astronomical discoveries and his pioneering experiments in mechanics were important steps on the way to the final triumph of Reason in the work of Newton. By replacing the notions of Aristotelian mechanics (no force--no motion) with the law of inertia (no force--no change of motion) Galileo removed the need for an agency to move the heavenly bodies (Jeans, Growth 147). Equally important was his insistence on expressing his experimental findings numerically. Galileo believed mathematics to be the language of nature, and he maintained that an accurate description of the world must be based on it. His intuitive assumption proved to be true-- the new, complete account of celestial mechanics had to be preceded by the development of a more precise mathematical apparatus.

NewMathematics : Descartes and Newton

The first important stage in the process of developing new mathematics was the transformation of the old rhetorical algebra, in which reasoning was conducted in ordinary language, into the symbolic algebra we use today. This was the joint work of a number of mathematicians between the fifteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The change involved first the introduction of symbols for commonly used words to facilitate computations, then a break with the linguistic tradition altogether by devising a new, precise syntax which freed algebra from irregularities and multiple meanings of language (Hull 220-21). With this new tool at their disposal, mathematicians soon made significant advancements.


The beginning of modern mathematics is usually associated with Rene Descartes (1596-1650). He is credited with the development of numerous fundamental techniques of mathematics, but his chief merit lies in fusing the newly developed algebra with geometry to create analytical geometry (Hull 222-23). In Euclidean geometry the qualities of length, width and depth are associated with dimensions of the object. Thus a line is said to be one-dimensional (length only), a plane--two-dimensional, and a solid--three-dimensional. Descartes constructed a system of two perpendicular axes by means of which he could exactly map the plane by assigning to each point a pair of numbers called "coordinates." (Adding another axis and a third coordinate extended the system to three dimensions.) The coordinates described precisely the point's position in relation to the axes; if they were related by an equation (e.g. x=y2), then the equation could be represented by a graph. This new, powerful method enabled mathematicians to study geometry by means of symbolic algebra. Its development was an essential step towards the Newtonian explanation of celestial mechanics.

Descartes also served the Scientific Revolution as a philosopher. He was the first to perceive the world in purely mechanical terms. His attitude also carried over from inanimate matter to living things: Descartes viewed bodies of men and animals as machines. He endowed men with a soul, but did not attribute any consciousness to animals, which he treated as automata. The material universe was for him a Great Machine--an intricate mechanism of innumerable cogs moving in strict interdependence, like a giant clock. This mechanical mode of thinking, conceived around 1630, was to remain as a fundamental notion in science for two and a half centuries. It resulted in a strong conviction among scientists that each natural phenomenon may be represented by means of a mechanical model illustrating its workings. By the second half of the seventeenth century, with a steady advance in mathematics and observational astronomy, science was finally ready to attempt an exact mathematical description of the laws governing the movement of the Great Machine envisaged by Descartes. This was achieved by Isaac Newton in Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687.


Newton's object was to correlate the new mechanics, originated by Galileo, with astronomy. He started with the assumption that the force keeping a planet in its orbit is of the same character as the gravity experienced on earth. He gave this idea a more general form by supposing that every particle of matter attracts every other particle with a force proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Then, after meticulously defining the physical terms necessary for his considerations, he used a revolutionary mathematical method to calculate the movements of the moon and the planets and showed his results to match those obtained by observational astronomy.

The Principia took eighteen months to complete. Newton's book is still considered by many to be the single most original and powerful work ever produced by human intellect (Hull 176). Its impact on science was trifold: it gave the three laws of motion and the law of gravity to physics, and differential calculus to mathematics.

Newtonian laws of motion contained the first scientific description of the concept of force. According to those laws, a body continues in a state of rest or of uniform motion unless acted upon by some force. Secondly, the force acting on a body is proportional to the change of momentum it produces, the direction of the force being that in which the change of momentum takes place. Finally, to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton's approach to the concept of force was essentially modern: rather than explaining phenomena, he tried to describe them precisely and show those interrelations between them which could be expressed numerically. The same modern spirit characterized his discussion of gravity. Newton did not explain gravity; he was in fact rather puzzled by the idea of a body acting upon another at a distance. His work consisted in showing that the behavior of planets and that of a falling apple are both manifestations of the same force, whose character and extent can be predicted. According to his Law of Universal Gravitation, any two material particles attract each other with a force proportional to the product of their masses and inversly proportional to the square of the distance between them.

Newton was clearly indebted to a host of earlier scientists. His general mechanical principles were derived from Galileo; his astronomy from Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. Newton's own achievements resemble in quality those of Euclid: he gave new precision to the old ideas and shaped them into a coherent, self-contained system. While Newton was not the only scientist of the time who saw the need for such unification, nor was he alone in supposing that a pull from the sun could explain the circular motion of the planets (Hull 179), he gave the force of gravity a universal character and applied it with precision to the mechanics of the solar system. Newton's success was directly related to his unique mathematical skills. He obtained many of the results because of a new method of calculating which he called "fluxions" (Bronowski, Ascent 184). Known today as differential calculus, the new method enabled him to describe changes proceeding in small, continuous steps--an essential element of non-uniform motion, such as that of the planets.

The Aftermath of the Revolution

The Scientific Method

The publication of Principia marked both the end and the highest achievement of the Scientific Revolution. Newton's triumph counterbalanced man's insecurity and feeling of isolation, his loss of the sense of importance that accompanied earlier discoveries. The detailed working out of celestial mechanics gave man new confidence in his ability to control the environment. It challenged him to action by showing the effectiveness of the new methods in acquiring consistent, verifiable knowledge. Developed gradually during the course of the revolution, the new method was diametrically opposed to that of the ancient Greeks. Their mode of thought predisposed them to imaginative speculation by which they hoped to acquire a balanced and comprehensive view of the whole subject of their enquiry. They were not interested in fragmentary knowledge about discrete parts of the universe; they tried, instead, to grasp the essence of the world instantaneously, by means of their mental faculties. The Scientific Revolution proved the superiority of a different approach: "Its essence is to attack the problem not as a whole but piecemeal, and to start not from preconceived general principles but from firmly established experimental knowledge" (Jeans, Growth 41).

The new scientific method was first developed for the purposes of physics and astronomy, but its impact was soon felt in all of modern science. This expansion was related to the rapid growth of the philosophy of empiricism which provided the theoretical foundations of the method. Its chief exponents were Bacon and Locke. Francis Bacon (1561- 1626) has often been given credit for creating the scientific method because of his insistence that knowledge of the physical world can only come from experience, through systematic observation. He failed, however, to see the importance of other elements necessary for scientific progress: the formation of a guiding hypothesis and the selective use of observational data. Bacon believed that the role of science should be an indiscriminate collection of empirical data which upon sufficient accumulation will automatically reveal scientific truths (Hull 191-93).

New Philosophy of Science

John Locke (1632-1704) displayed a much more profound insight into the nature of the newly emerging science. His Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) is often ranked with De Revolutionibus and Principia as one of the most important books of the Scientific Revolution (Hull 207). Locke proposed a new kind of philosophy whose purpose was no longer a quest for ultimate knowledge about the world but an analysis and correlation of the methods of other sciences. He also showed a need for philosophy to understand the powers and limitations of the human mind as these directly influence the nature of knowledge and its value. Locke saw knowledge as ultimately empirical. He believed that even if there is absolute knowledge hidden in us, as Plato and his followers claim, we cannot approach it. Instead of speculating, then, we should apply ourselves to the pursuit of such shallower knowledge obtainable by the combined use of the senses and the intellect (Hull 197-208).[3]


The new method expounded by Locke suggested new aims for science. Its object was now not to speculate about the final purpose and the essential nature of the world but to concentrate on those of its elements which could be reliably investigated by a balanced use of observation, hypothesis, mathematics and experiment (Hull 194). The immediate result of this new approach was a systematic growth of knowledge about the behavior of the world on its most basic level. This kind of knowledge may be limited and superficial, but it is also more reliable and lends itself easily to practical applications. It is here that the main strength of the new method lay. The fast accumulation of the kind of knowledge which had practical applications, brought a rapid development of technology. Technology provided science with new instruments which in turn led to new theoretical developments. A powerful, dynamic process was thus started, with both science and technology rapidly progressing in a symbiotic relationship (Hull 275). By the end of the nineteenth century, Newtonian mechanics was firmly established as the scientific explanation of the workings of the universe. Countless experiments had proven the universal applicability of Newton's laws and made classical mechanics the basis on which science was founded. The mechanical mode of understanding reality became the official doctrine of science. The world was viewed as "an assemblage of objects located in space and continually changing with the passage of time" (Jeans, New Background 1). Objects constantly exerted forces on one another, influencing their mutual behavior in a consistent, predictable way. There was a widespread belief in the uniformity of nature. According to the principle of uniformity, repeating the same experiment in the same conditions must necessarily bring the same results: "Science admitted no exceptions to this uniformity; the alleged violations of it were adjudged to be miracles, frauds or self-deceptions according to circumstances and the mentality of the judge" (Jeans, New Background 38).

The Cartesian concept of the world as the Great Machine persisted. Lord Kelvin, an outstanding nineteenth-century scientist, "confessed that he could understand nothing of which he could not make a mechanical model" (Jeans, Mysterious Universe 19). The ideal of science was absolute objectivity. With proper regard to the methods, the scientist was believed capable of providing a description of any part of the universe that was independent of him or any subjective condition that might surround him. This conviction was a logical extension of the view that the physical world has an objective existence which is verifiable by the act of cognition but not dependent on it.

To describe the nature of that world at its most basic level, nineteenth-century science adapted the atomic speculations of Leucippus of Miletus and Democritus of Abdera (5th century BC). The Greek atomists imagined atoms as indivisible, uniform and solid particles moving about in space according to constant, mechanical laws (Jeans, Growth 44-45). Although these views could not be verified, their similarity to observable phenomena made them easily acceptable to nineteenth-century physics. Thus, by the end of the century, the picture of the universe offered by science seemed almost complete. There were a few unanswered questions, but they were easily overshadowed by the general atmosphere of scientific optimism. There was little indication that a major change was drawing near, and that within the next thirty years the two-hundred-year-old edifice of modern science would have to be completely rebuilt.


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1 As if to support the Wakean motif of recurrence, the inferences of some modern physicists bring us back to that Pythagorean vision. Sir James Jeans, for example, writes: "A scientific study of the action of the universe has suggested a conclusion which may be summed up, though very crudely and inadequately, because we have no language at our command except that derived from our terrestrial concepts and experiences, in the statement that the universe appears to have been designed by a pure mathematician" (Mysterious Universe 140). Albert Einstein held a similar opinion: "Our experience hitherto justifies us in believing that nature is the realization of the simplest conceivable mathematical ideas. . . . In a certain sense . . . I hold it true that pure thought can grasp reality, as the ancients dreamed" (Ideas and Opinions 274). [Back]

2 Hull defines mathematics as "the study and creation of deductive systems. A deductive system is a body of propositions about certain ideal elements, not necessarily of the kind popularly associated with mathematics. For the purposes of the system nothing is supposed to be known about these elements, except what is laid down about them in an explicitly stated set of axioms. The axioms are accepted without proof; but the only other propositions admitted to the system are those that can be derived from the axioms by strict logic. Whether the axioms are true or not is a question which, so long as we adopt a purely mathematical standpoint, cannot arise" (24). [Back]

3 Locke's scientific agnosticism suggests that the boastful tone of nineteenth-century science was a corruption rather than elaboration of the ideas of the Scientific Revolution. Newton also displays a fine sense of restraint in judging his own achievement. The man whom Einstein called a "brilliant genius, who determined the course of western thought . . . like noone else before or since" (Ideas and Opinions 253), writes thus about himself: "I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy, playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble, or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the green ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me" (Hull 187). [Back]


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Copyright © 1997 Andrzej Duszenko