The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, by David Wootton

Landmark discoveries have relied on some unexpected connections, says Richard Joyner

September 10, 2015
Review: The Invention of Science, by David Wootton

Sexual intercourse, proclaimed Philip Larkin, began in 1963; this magisterial and magnificent book affords similar significance to the night of 11/12 October 1492. That was when Christopher Columbus, or more probably his lookout Rodrigo de Triana, first saw the New World. This discovery would initiate a revolutionary chain of events, David Wootton argues: the invention of science had begun.

For more than 1,000 years it was accepted that Ptolemy’s sphere-based model of the universe was correct. There were spheres of earth, air, water and fire. The sphere of water (the seas) and the sphere of the Earth were more or less concentric, with the Earth at the centre of everything. Gradually, very gradually, discovery of the actual relationship of sea and land made people accept that the waters exist at the surface of the Earth. The Copernican realisation that the Earth and the planets orbit the Sun finished Ptolemy off.

For an even longer period, nearly everyone believed that Aristotle’s deductive approach to arriving at truths about the universe was correct. That fundamental belief too was shortly to give way in the face of widespread acceptance that making observations, doing and interpreting experiments and calculations would lead to more accurate and powerful conclusions. Wootton’s book tells, in gripping and convincing detail, how these big changes happened. From Columbus he traces a story whose major actors include Nicolaus Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Evangelista Torricelli, William Gilbert, René Descartes, Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal. It ends with the scientific method, as we know it today, firmly established, and with the invention in 1712 of the steam engine, “the first, great practical achievement of the new science”, by Thomas Newcomen.

Wootton’s forte is the making of connections; surely a key qualification for a historian of ideas. In the chapter “The mathematisation of science”, he draws out links between double entry bookkeeping, perspective drawing, anatomy and astronomy. Teaching bookkeeping and perspective drawing were apparently good earners for mathematicians such as Galileo. The development of perspective drawing led to a new interest in the accurate representation of human anatomy, particularly in the work of Leonardo da Vinci and Andreas Vesalius. Knowing about perspective led to an understanding of parallax, which in turn was key to understanding the place in the universe of the new star, or nova, first seen by Brahe in 1572. All these advances relied on mathematics, as Wootton shows, and most importantly they gave individual mathematicians the confidence to believe that they could make useful statements about the world. Modern particle physics relies almost wholly on its equations, so this is where the road to the Higgs boson began.

A significant part of the book is devoted to the development of the conceptual tools that are fundamental to modern science. It considers the emergence of such staples of the scientific endeavour as facts, experiments, laws, hypotheses, theories and evidence. There is a good deal of etymology here, which some readers may be tempted to skip – but that would be a mistake. Wootton shows, for example, that the concept of a fact emerged very differently in England and France, largely because these countries have very different legal systems, with different approaches to establishing what is a fact. In England the word “fact” referred to a crime, thus our phrase “accessory after the fact”. It seems very strange that in 1778 Gotthold Lessing could write that in German the word for fact, Tatsache, was “still youthful”. Words for “fact” had been common in French, English and Italian for a century. Wootton also offers much fascinating information on the debunking of nonsense “facts” that enjoyed widespread acceptance, often for centuries. The idea that contact with garlic could render a magnet ineffective, for example, took a curiously long time to die, despite many compelling experimental results to the contrary. Then, as now, not everyone felt the need to look at evidence.

A theme that runs through the whole of The Invention of Science is the importance of the printing press in the communication process. By 1600, books relevant to science were being produced at a staggering rate and were widely circulated. Galileo’s personal library ran to more than 500 volumes, although not all were scientific. The emergence of the first scientific journals, such as the Journal des sçavans (Paris, January 1665) and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (London, March of the same year), was also a milestone.

Although the book has little to say about the development of chemistry, Wootton does identify the characteristics that distinguish it from alchemy (much beloved of Newton and Joseph Priestley) and how alchemy had withered into insignificance by about 1720. Alchemy, especially if it were successful, had to be a secret activity. There would be little point in converting base metal to gold if everyone could do it. Chemists, however, wanted to communicate their discoveries, particularly to other chemists. Science was emerging as a competitive sport, where the winners were and remain those who get there first.

Wootton spends some time considering the early relationships between science and technology, and it comes as no surprise to read that, right from the off, the path from new knowledge to its application could be tortuous. He also tells us that his motivation to write The Invention of Science was the fact that “historians of science were not doing their subject justice”. As he sees it, the problem began with Ludwig Wittgenstein and has been compounded by a generation of postmodern philosophers. Relativism, the argument that there is no such thing as progress, has come to command widespread acceptance, irrespective of whether the progress in question is being sought in political, sociological, scientific or other fields of endeavour. To most scientists this thesis is at best puzzling, and at worst rubbish. More diseases are cured or prevented each year. Our lifetime has seen revolutionary technologies for communication and for processing information. We see every day that progress is palpable, even if it is not linear or problem-free. Wootton will earn the affection of scientists by recognising and accepting this, and he makes a convincing case that we must steer a course between hard relativism and naive realism. He may, however, need to steel himself against the anger of his historian peers.

I initially thought to compliment Wootton by saying that he writes like a scientist, and indeed in many ways he does. His assembly and interpretation of evidence is painstaking and convincing, at least to the non-specialist. He recognises that at some points his proposals are speculative, but he always gives a clear sense of how his arguments lead from A to B to C. Yet he also does so much more. Because he is not shackled by the conventions of scientific writing, he can afford to be entertaining, and he is: The Invention of Science is full of countless interesting asides. I was fascinated to discover that it was Gertrude Stein, speaking of Oakland, California where she grew up in the 1880s, who said that “there is no there, there”, and to learn that there were more than 6,000 water wheels in England at the time of the Domesday Book. Philip Larkin, incidentally, might have been interested to know that in 1612 or thereabouts, Gabriele Falloppio claimed to have discovered the clitoris. This is a multifaceted book to savour, to enjoy and to remember.

Richard Joyner is emeritus professor of chemistry, Nottingham Trent University.


The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution
By David Wootton
Allen Lane, 784pp, £30.00
ISBN 9781846142109 and 9780141916774 (e-book)
Published 17 September 2015


The author

Author David Wootton“My home is in a village in Leicestershire, halfway between London, where my wife works, and York, where I work,” says David Wootton, anniversary professor of history at the University of York.

“We have three dogs, two beautiful blonde lurchers, Phoebe and Flora, and the youngest, Poppy, an unbelievably bossy Jack Russell. My wife is a psychotherapist, and used to teach English literature. She is, to quote Treasure Island, ‘as smart as paint’.”

The child of missionaries, Wootton “was born in England but raised until I was eight in Pakistan. My mother had lost her first child in Pakistan, so came back to England to give birth to me. I think if you are raised abroad, or move a lot in childhood (my wife comes from an army family) you find it hard to settle and feel at home. Perhaps that is one reason why I am intellectually nomadic, moving from one subject to another.”

Of his return to England, Wootton recalls: “I came from a world of vultures and water buffalo, a world in which converts to Christianity were murdered by their relatives, and found myself in a prep school in Worthing. I was completely disorientated.

“In Pakistan I’d been able to study the stars through a little telescope; in England there were clouds and streetlights and every season was the rainy season. But I do remember my excitement at seeing a hoopoe in Worthing: an Indian bird in England. Who would have thought it possible!”

Asked to name the adults who played a key role in his interest in the life of the mind, Wootton names “a wonderful history teacher at City of London School, Joe Hunt, who was much loved by generations of students. He thought I had the makings of an historian. Goodness knows why. I wanted to study English or philosophy, and I still work across those disciplines. But it is entirely thanks to him that I ended up in history. I still remember him writing on one of my essays when I was 14: ‘Yes, but this would be true of anyone, at any time, in any place.’ So I can’t imagine why he thought I should be an historian!

“My obvious debt to my parents is that I rejected everything they stood for, which is why I worked for so many years on atheism, and why it is still so important to me to argue that science is a rational way of understanding the world, quite unlike religion.

“But of course one’s relationship to one’s parents is never straightforward. My father was an exceptionally gifted linguist (which I am not); and my new book is in large part about the language of science, so there is something from him in it.”

Wootton took his undergraduate degree at the University of Cambridge. Prior to that, he had spent “six months on a scholarship in France and three months in Italy; by the time I came to Cambridge I was still only 17, but I had read Foucault and Lévi-Strauss, and I found Cambridge history terribly old-fashioned and narrow-minded.

“But I was also a lost boy, rootless and unsure of myself, and I was very lucky that Maurice Cowling, who was in charge of my education, and who was the worst sort of reactionary Conservative (as I saw it then), treated me with great kindness and consideration.”

A student in an era marked by radicalism, Wootton says: “I was a student radical myself. I still find that I have an instinctive tendency to question authority. But I have, perhaps, grown wiser as well as older over the years.”

He has lectured at universities in Canada as well as in the UK. “I loved Canada – I worked in Montreal, Halifax, London, Victoria, so right across the country. And I had many wonderful students everywhere. But I never quite became a Canadian; anglophone Canada is a bit of a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil culture, and that didn’t suit me. But I would still be there but for my daughter, who got herself a scholarship to an English boarding school at 16: she was the one who prompted my return.”

Of his current institution, Wootton observes that “the history department at York is a great place – I’ve been able to work through my ideas with clever students, and our sabbatical system gives research leave in big chunks, which means you can really immerse yourself in a project. I’m not sure there is anywhere else in the country where you could write a book on this scale without external funding (which I didn’t have for this project – the wonderful Leverhulme funded the one before and they are funding the next one, so I’ve no complaints on that score!)”

His provocatively titled 2006 book Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates, received widespread acclaim – as well as some savage criticism from fellow scholars. Does he fear his latest will attract the same?

“I don’t mind disagreement: there would be no interest in any intellectual discussion if there were no disagreement. I welcome disagreement. I hate – everyone hates – being misrepresented. The first book I wrote, when I was starting on my academic career, was much attacked and sometimes praised. One famous scholar, now dead, published a review that was packed with errors and misrepresentations, including supposed quotes from the book that he had made up wholesale, and that cost me a job I really wanted; but now I am settled I don’t have to fear the consequences of hostile reviews, and I am sure this book will get some – and I hope too that I will learn something from my critics; I certainly learned a great deal from people who read the book in draft, who disagreed vigorously with me, and who persuaded me to change my mind on lots of key issues.

“Of course, discovering you are wrong before you go into print is one thing; discovering it afterwards is another. But I remember my doctoral supervisor, Hugh Trevor-Roper, saying that people who published and were wrong advanced the discipline, while people who didn’t publish because they were afraid they might not be right were of no help to anyone. That, of course, was in the days when Oxford and Cambridge were full of academics who never published – the world has changed since then.”

What gives him hope?

“I just want my luck to hold. Up until my early forties I lived on hope, always hoping for something that never seemed to arrive; then I met my wife, and ever since then I have known I’m a lucky man.

“Do I have hope for our culture and society? There’s a short story by Voltaire, Scarmentado, about someone who travels around the world in the worst year of all human history – I think it is 1619. These aren’t the worst of times, but neither are they the best of times; I tend to think things will get worse before they get better.”

In the meantime, there are still further journeys to be made. Wootton has had, he says, “a lifelong fascination with boats and the sea: I have a narrowboat, and I’ve worked on Venetian history, and I’ve just acquired a shed to write in which we call the Boathouse, because it has a beautiful vintage pond yacht hull in it. It’s no coincidence that this book begins with Columbus setting out across an ocean into the unknown.”

Karen Shook

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