The Scientific Revolution: Copernicus to Newton

    The History of Computing 12/5/2020

12/5/2020

Following the Renaissance, Europe had an explosion of science. The works of the Greeks had been lost during the Dark Ages while civilizations caught up to the technical progress. Or so we were taught in school. Previously, we looked at the contributions during the Golden Age of the Islamic Empires and the Renaissance when that science returned to Europe following the Holy Wars.

The great thinkers from the Renaissance pushed boundaries and opened minds. But the revolution coming after them would change the very way we thought of the world. It was a revolution based in science and empirical thought, lasting from the middle of the 1500s to late in the 1600s. 

There are three main aspects I’d like to focus on in terms of taking all the knowledge of the world from that point and preparing it to give humans enlightenment, what we call the age after the Scientific Revolution. These are new ways of reasoning and thinking, specialization, and rigor. Let’s start with rigor.

My cat jumps on the stove and burns herself. She doesn’t do it again. My dog gets too playful with the cat and gets smacked. Both then avoid doing those things in the future.

Early humans learn that we can forage certain plants and then realize we can take those plants to another place and have them grow. And then we realize they grow best when planted at certain times of the year. And watching the stars can provide guidance on when to do so. This evolved over generations of trial and error. 

Yet we believed those stars revolved around the earth for much of our existence. Even after designing orreries and mapping the heavens, we still hung on to this belief until Copernicus. His 1543 work “On The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” marks the beginning of the Scientific Revolution. Here, he almost heretically claimed that the stars in fact revolved around the sun, as did the Earth. 

This wasn’t exactly new. Aristarchus had theorized this heliocentric model in Ancient Greece. Ptolemy had disagreed in Almagest, where he provided tables to compute location and dates using the stars. Tables that had taken rigor to produce. And that Ptolemaic system came to be taken for granted. It worked fine. 

The difference was, Copernicus had newer technology. He had newer optics, thousands more years of recorded data (some of which was contributed by philosophers during the golden age of Islamic science), the texts of ancient astronomers, and newer ecliptical tables and techniques with which to derive them. 

Copernicus didn’t accept what he was taught but instead looked to prove or disprove it with mathematical rigor. The printing press came along in 1440 and 100 years later, Luther was lambasting the church, Columbus discovered the New World, and the printing press helped disseminate information in a way that was less controllable by governments and religious institutions who at times felt threatened by that information. For example, Outlines of Pyrrhonism from first century Sextus Empiricus was printed in 1562, adding skepticism to the growing European thought. In other words, human computers were becoming more sentient and needed more input. 

We couldn’t trust what the ancients were passing down and the doctrine of the church was outdated. Others began to ask questions. 

Johannes Keppler published Mysterium Cosmographicum in 1596, in defense of Copernicus. He would go on to study math, such as the relationship between math and music, and the relationship between math and the weather. And in 1604 published Astronomiae Pars Optica, where he proposed a new method to measure eclipses of the moon. He would become the imperial mathematician to Emperor Rudolf II, where he could work with other court scholars. He worked on optical theory and wrote Astronomiae Pars Optica, or The Optical Part of Astronomy. He published numerous other works that pushed astronomy, optics, and math forward. His Epitome of Copernican Astronomy would go further than Copernicus, assigning ellipses to the movements of celestial bodies and while it didn’t catch on immediately, his inductive reasoning and the rigor that followed, was enough to have him conversing with Galileo. 

Galileo furthered the work of Copernicus and Kepler. He picked up a telescope in 1609 and in his lifetime saw magnification go from 3 to 30 times. This allowed him to map Jupiter’s moons, proving the orbits of other celestial bodies. He identified sunspots. He observed the strength of motions and developed formulas for inertia and parabolic trajectories. 

We were moving from deductive reasoning, or starting our scientific inquiry with a theory - to inductive reasoning, or creating theories based on observation. Galileos observations expanded our knowledge of Venus, the moon, and the tides. He helped to transform how we thought, despite ending up in an Inquisition over his findings.

The growing quantity and types of systematic experimentation represented a shift in values. Emiricism, observing evidence for yourself, and the review of peers - whether they disagreed or not. These methods were being taught in growing schools but also in salons and coffee houses and, as was done in Athens, in paid lectures.

Sir Francis Bacon argued about only basing scientific knowledge on inductive reasoning. We now call this the Baconian Method, which he wrote about in 1620 when he published his book, New method, or Novum Organum in latin. This was the formalization of eliminative induction. He was building on if not replacing the inductive-deductive method  in Aristotle’s Organon. Bacon was the Attorney General of England and actually wrote Novum while sitting as the Lord Chancellor of England, who presides over the House of Lords and also is the highest judge, or was before Tony Blair. 

Bacon’s method built on ancient works from not only Aristotle but also Al-Biruni, al-Haytham, and many others. And has influenced generations of scientists, like John Locke. 

René Descartes helped lay the further framework for rationalism, coining the term “I think therefore I am.” He became by many accounts the father of modern Western Philosophy and asked what can we be certain of, or what is true? This helped him rethink various works and develop Cartesian geometry. Yup, he was the one who developed standard notation in 1637, a thought process that would go on to impact many other great thinkers for generations - especially with the development of calculus. As with many other great natural scientists or natural philosophers of the age, he also wrote on the theory of music, anatomy, and some of his works could be considered a protopsychology. 

Another method that developed in the era was empiricism, which John Locke proposed in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1689. George Berkeley, Thomas Hobbes, and David Hume would join that movement and develop a new basis for human knowledge in that empirical tradition that the only true knowledge accessible to our minds was that based on experience.

Optics and simple machines had been studied and known of since antiquity. But tools that deepened the understating of sciences began to emerge during this time. We got the steam digester, new forms of telescopes, vacuum pumps, the mercury barometer. And, most importantly for this body of work - we got the mechanical calculator. 

Robert Boyle was influenced by Galileo, Bacon, and others. He gave us Boyle’s Law, explaining how the pressure of gas increases as the volume of a contain holding the gas decreases. He built air pumps. He investigated how freezing water expands, he experimented with crystals. He experimented with magnetism, early forms of electricity. He published the Skeptical Chymist in 1660 and another couple of dozen books. Before him, we had alchemy and after him, we had chemistry.

One of his students was Robert Hooke. Hooke. Hooke defined the law of elasticity, He experimented with everything. He made music tones from brass cogs that had teeth cut in specific proportions. This is storing data on a disk, in a way. Hooke coined the term cell. He studied gravitation in Micrographia, published in 1665. 

And Hooke argued, conversed, and exchanged letters at great length with Sir Isaac Newton, one of the greatest scientific minds of all time. He gave the first theory on the speed of sound, Newtonian mechanics, the binomials series. He also gave us Newton’s Rules for Science which are as follows:

  1. We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.
  2. Therefore to the same natural effects we must, as far as possible, assign the same causes.
  3. The qualities of bodies, which admit neither intension nor remission of degrees, and which are found to belong to all bodies within the reach of our experiments, are to be esteemed the universal qualities of all bodies whatsoever.
  4. In experimental philosophy we are to look upon propositions collected by general induction from phenomena as accurately or very nearly true, notwithstanding any contrary hypotheses that may be imagined, until such time as other phenomena occur, by which they may either be made more accurate, or liable to exceptions

These appeared in Principia, which gave us the laws of motion and a mathematical description of gravity leading to universal gravitation. Newton never did find the secret to the Philosopher’s Stone while working on it, although he did become the Master of the Royal Mint at a pivotal time of recoining, and so who knows. But he developed the first reflecting telescope and made observations about prisms that led to his book Optics in 1704. And ever since he and Leibniz developed calculus, high school and college students alike have despised him. 

Leibniz also did a lot of work on calculus but was a great philosopher as well. His work on logic 

  1. All our ideas are compounded from a very small number of simple ideas, which form the alphabet of human thought.
  2. Complex ideas proceed from these simple ideas by a uniform and symmetrical combination, analogous to arithmetical multiplication.

This would ultimately lead to the algebra of concepts and after a century and a half of great mathematicians and logicians would result in Boolean algebra, the zero and one foundations of computing, once Claude Shannon gave us information theory a century after that. 

Blaise Pascal was another of these philosopher mathematician physicists who also happened to dabble in inventing. I saved him for last because he didn’t just do work on probability theory, do important early work on vacuums, give us Pascal’s Triangle for binomial coefficients, and invent the hydraulic press. Nope. He also developed Pascal’s Calculator, an early mechanical calculator that is the first known to have worked. He didn’t build it to do much, just help with the tax collecting work he was doing for his family. 

The device could easily add and subtract two numbers and then loop through those tasks in order to do rudimentary multiplication and division. He would only build about 50, but the Pascaline as it came to be known was an important step in the history of computing. And that Leibniz guy, he invented the Leibniz wheels to make the multiplication automatic rather than just looping through addition steps. It wouldn’t be until 1851 that the Arithmometer made a real commercial go at mechanical calculators in a larger and more business like way. While Tomas, the inventor of that device is best known for his work on the calculator today, his real legacy is the 1,000 families who get their income from the insurance company he founded, which is still in business as GAN Assurances, and the countless families who have worked there or used their services. 

That brings us to the next point about specializations. Since the Egyptians and Greeks we’ve known that the more specialists we had in fields, the more discoveries they made. Many of these were philosophers or scientists. They studied the stars and optics and motions and mathematics and geometry for thousands of years, and an increasingly large amount of information was available to generations that followed starting with the written words first being committed to clay tablets in Mesopotamia.

The body of knowledge had grown to the point where one could study a branch of science, such as mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology, and chemistry for their entire lives - improving each field in their own way. Every few generations, this transformed societal views about nature. We also increased our study of anatomy, with an increase in or return to the dissection of human corpses, emerging from the time when that was not allowed.

And these specialties began to diverge into their own fields in the next generations. There was certainly still collaboration, and in fact the new discoveries only helped to make science more popular than ever.

Given the increased popularity, there was more work done, more theories to prove or disprove, more scholarly writings, which were then given to more and more people through innovations to the printing press, and a more and more literate people. Seventeenth century scientists and philosophers were able to collaborate with members of the mathematical and astronomical communities to effect advances in all fields.

All of this rapid change in science since the end of the Renaissance created a groundswell of interest in new ways to learn about findings and who was doing what. There was a Republic of Letters, or a community of intellectuals spread across Europe and America. These informal networks sprang up and spread information that might have been considered heretical before transmitted through secret societies of intellectuals and through encrypted letters. And they fostered friendships, like in the early days of computer science. 

There were groups meeting in coffee houses and salons. The Royal Society of London sprang up in 1600. Then the British Royal Society was founded in 1660. They started a publication called Philosophical Transactions in 1665. There are over 8,000 members of the society, which runs to this day with fellows of the society including people like Robert Hooke and fellows would include Newton, Darwin, Faraday, Einstein, Francis Crick, Turing, Tim Berners-Lee, Elon Musk, and Stephen Hawking. And this inspired Colbert to establish the French Academy of Sciences in 1666.

They swapped papers, read one another’s works, and that peer review would evolve into the journals and institutions we have today. There are so many more than the ones mentioned in this episode. Great thinkers like Otto von Guericke, Otto Brunfels, Giordano Bruno, Leonard Fuchs, Tycho Brahe, Samuel Hartlib, William Harvey, Marcello Malpighi, John Napier, Edme Mariotte, Santorio Santorio, Simon Stevin, Franciscus Sylvius, John Baptist van Helmont, Andreas Vesalius, Evangelista Torricelli, Francois Viete, John Wallis, and the list goes on. 

Now that scientific communities were finally beyond where the Greeks had left off like with Plato’s Academy and the letters sent by ancient Greeks. The scientific societies had emerged similarly, centuries later. But the empires had more people and resources and traditions of science to build on. 

This massive jump in learning then prepared us for a period we now call the Enlightenment, which then opened minds and humanity was ready to accept a new level of Science in the Age of Enlightenment. The books, essays, society periodicals, universities, discoveries, and inventions are often lost in the classroom where the focus can be about the wars and revolutions they often inspired. But those who emerged in the Scientific Revolution acted as guides for the Enlightenment philosophers, scientists, engineers, and thinkers that would come next. But we’ll have to pick that back up in the next episode!

(OldComputerPods) ©Sean Haas, 2020