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Was there a Scientific Revolution?

Early modern Europe witnessed enormous changes in both knowledge of the physical world and attitudes towards that world. The period began with natural philosophers believing that the Earth lay motionless at the center of the cosmos, and seeking to understand natural changes by using causal arguments inherited from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE). Their counterparts in astronomy predicted the motions of the planets using the techniques of Claudius Ptolemy - techniques that are reconstructed in the Universal Laboratory. It ended with Newtonians insisting that natural knowledge must be based on the very different foundations of mathematics and mechanism, and arguing for a Creation full of quantifiable forces acting at a distance. The uncertainty that reigned in the interim forced men and women to make their own choices between radically different accounts of the physical world - choices that the Italian astronomer Giovanni Battista Riccioli here portrayed in terms of a literal weighing-up of rival cosmologies.

Historians have long identified this period as the crucial moment when modern science came into being. It has for that reason been called "the scientific revolution." But whether this is an apt term may reasonably be doubted. Even at the end of the seventeenth century, Europeans recognised no such thing as a "scientist" - men like Newton still thought of themselves as philosophers of nature. And none of the professional and social structures characteristic of modern science was yet in existence.

In the following modules of Unilab, you will have a chance to encounter the many natural philosophical and mathematical practices of the early modern period. You may want to visit an astronomer’s observatory, or explore an alchemist’s "elaboratory." Here you can do both. You will encounter the polished results attained by philosophers of nature from Paracelsus to Robert Boyle - but you will also witness the backgrounds to those results, and trace how they were achieved. In places, you may even find yourself recreating the very skills of early modern practitioners. Some of those skills, you may decide, remained remarkably stable during this era; others changed beyond all recognition. Was there, then, a scientific revolution? In the virtual worlds beyond this page, you are invited to decide this question for yourself.

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