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Skip to around 1400, when a series of revolutionary changes began in Europe—some of which are still going on—that transformed Western society and other societies around the world. In 1413, the first Spanish ships began raiding the coast of West Africa, hijacking cargo and capturing slaves from local traders. New tools of navigation (the compass and the sextant) made it possible for adventurous plunderers to go farther and farther from European shores in search of booty.

These breakthroughs were like those in architecture and astronomy by the ancient Mayans and Egyptians. They were based on systematic observation of the natural world, but they were not generated by the social and philosophical enterprise we call science. That required several other revolutions.

Johannes Gutenberg (1397-1468) completed the first edition of the Bible on his newly invented printing press in 1455. (Printing presses had been used earlier in China, Japan, and Korea, but lacked movable type.) By the end of the 15th century, every major city in Europe had a press. Printed books provided a means for the accumulation and distribu?tion of knowledge. Eventually, printing would make organized science possible, but it did not by itself guarantee the objective pursuit of reliable knowledge, any more than the invention of writing had done four millennia before (N. Z. Davis 1981; Eisenstein 1979).

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was born just 15 years after Gutenberg died. No historical figure is more associated with the Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517, and the Reformation added much to the history of modern science. It challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic Church to be the sole interpreter and disseminator of theological doctrine.

The Protestant affirmation of every person’s right to interpret scripture required literacy on the part of everyone, not just the clergy. The printing press made it possible for every family of some means to own and read its own Bible. This promoted widespread literacy, in Europe and later in the United States, and this, in turn, helped make possible the development of science as an organized activity.


The direct philosophical antecedents of modern science came at the end of the 16th century. If I had to pick one single figure on whom to bestow the honor of founding modern science, it would have to be Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). His best-known achievement was his thorough refutation of the Ptolemaic geocentric (Earth-centered) theory of the heavens. But he did more than just insist that scholars observe things rather than rely on metaphysical dogma to explain them. He developed the idea of the experiment by causing things to happen (rolling balls down differently inclined planes, for example, to see how fast they go) and measuring the results.

Galileo became professor of mathematics at the University of Padua in 1592 when he was just 28. He developed a new method for making lenses and used the new technology to study the motions of the planets. He concluded that the sun (as Copernicus claimed), not the Earth (as the ancient scholar Ptolemy had claimed) was at the center of the solar system.

This was one more threat to their authority that Roman church leaders didn’t need at the time. They already had their hands full, what with breakaway factions in the Reformation and other political problems. The church reaffirmed its official support for the Ptolemaic theory, and in 1616 Galileo was ordered not to espouse either his refutation of it or his support for the Copernican heliocentric (sun-centered) theory of the heavens.

Galileo waited 16 years and published the book that established science as an effective method for seeking knowledge. The book’s title was Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican, and it still makes fascinating reading (Galilei 1967 [1632], 1997 [1632]). Between the direct observational evidence that he had gathered with his telescopes and the mathematical analyses that he developed for making sense of his data, Galileo hardly had to espouse anything. The Ptolemaic theory was simply rendered obsolete.

In 1633, Galileo was convicted by the Inquisition for heresy and disobedience. He was ordered to recant his sinful teachings and was confined to house arrest until his death in 1642. He nearly published and perished. For the record, in 1992, Pope John Paul II reversed the Roman Catholic Church’s 1616 ban on teaching the Copernican theory and apologized for its condemnation of Galileo.

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