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The th century Scientific Revolution broke new ground in the understanding of the physical world.; Ancient Greek, Arabic, and medieval European philosophers were handicapped by lack of instruments and were unable to verify their ideas by observation and experimentation. They relied upon authority figures from the Church and from the ancient world. Aristotle, Ptolemy and St. Augustine, among others, were considered to be the sources of truth. Medieval painters and sculptors were not interested in portraying the physical reality of this world. Rather, they were concerned with expressions of religious belief. In a largely illiterate world, pictures told a story where words could not.
The Renaissance involved a different attitude about the world, one which focussed upon the human being rather than the gods, a humanistic natural viewpoint as opposed to a supernatural one. This change in attitude was essential to the scientific revolution.
Also essential was a deepening skepticism about religion and about authority figures of the past. The invention of the printing press, the development of vernacular languages, the continued growth of a literate middle class in urban areas produced larger numbers of people who were not willing to blindly accept the teachings of the Church and its clergy; rather, they read the Bible and came to their own understanding. This increase in independent thinking among the intellectual elite of Europe was expressed in the Renaissance and in the Protestant Reformation. The Church was being challenged as the fountain of wisdom and the center of authority.
An important aspect of the advances made in science in the th century was the invention of instruments of measurement.. As early as , a Dutchman, Zacharias Jannsen produced a compound microscope employing a double convex and a double concave lens. In , Galileo, hearing of a similar Dutch idea useful for seeing objects at a great distance, developed a telescope which he used initially to observe ships approaching port. When he turned the telescope to the heavens, he found great numbers of stars which were not visible to the naked eye. He was able to distinguish the moons of Jupiter and to make other fine discriminations. His latest version magnified the view by , times.
Another important component needed for scientific progress was an improved knowledge of mathematics. The introduction of logarithms, the invention of the slide rule, and the development of a decimal system had been accomplished by the beginning of the th century. Algebra and geometry were among the essential foundations. These tools, mathematics and instruments of measurement and observation, permitted science to develop as a pursuit independent from philosophy.
The continuing and increasing overseas voyages undertaken by Europeans in the th and th centuries created a demand for more accurate map-making. In a long life devoted to cartography, Mercator developed the”Mercator” projection and, in , issued a world atlas. An increasing knowledge of geography widened the horizons of knowledge for Europeans.The need to improve navigation stimulated developments in mathematics and astronomy.
Significant progress was also made in the study of botany. A systematic classification of plants was carried out, and governments and universities sponsored the development of botanical gardens. In about , an obscure plant, the potato, was brought from Peru to Spain. The Spanish aristocrats who performed that service could hardly have been aware of the revolutionary consequences. The potato would, in subsequent generations, become a major source of food for Europeans, and contribute substantially to an unprecedented increase in population.
In astronomy, Copernicus had begun a revolution by stating, as early as , that the sun, not the earth was the center of the universe. Although this theory was largely rejected at the time, and Copernicus had not been able to produce sufficient evidence to decisively refute the Ptolemaic theory, it stimulated doubt and later investigation. When Galileo, a century later, could observe the solar system with his telescope, he provided conclusive evidence in support of the Copernican theory.
The man who has come to symbolize this age of scientific progress was an absent-minded professor by the name of Isaac Newton. Working as a scholar at Cambridge University, he combined experimentation with mathematics, and pulled together the works of several of his scientific predecessors and colleagues, to establish a comprehensive explanation of the physical laws that govern gravitation and astronomy.