Scientific Breakthroughs

The seventeenth century is generally credited with the birth of what we consider modern science.  It saw significant discoveries and explanations of some natural phenomena, and above all, the beginning of a methodology emphasizing observation and analysis. A very important philosophical development provided a foundation. To Rene Descartes (1596-1650) we owe a radical change in the approach to philosophy, based primary in the power of human reason:


The first was never to accept anything as true when I did not recognize it clearly to be so, that is to say, to carefully avoid precipitation and prejudice… The second was, to divide each of the difficulties which I should examine into as many portions as were possible, and as should be required for its better solution. The third was to conduct my thoughts in order, by beginning with the simplest objects, and those most easy to know…[1]


Early Scientific Circles

The literary circles that had begun with the Florentine Renaissance had continued, but during the seventeenth century topics of interest had shifted to the new philosophic ideas and natural science. William Gilbert (1544-1603) had done some important work on magnetism and Johannes Kepler and others (1571-163) on astronomy, and Galileo was beginning to publish some of his ideas. One of these literary circles turning scientific was hosted in Paris by Marin Mersenne (1588-1648). Mersenne was a mathematician and scientist. In addition to his individual contributions in mathematics and the theory of music and acoustics, he was an avid promoter of scientific activity. He, like Descartes, had been educated at the Jesuit college of La Fleche. He entered the Catholic religious order of the Minims in 1611 and was ordered as a priest in 1613. Mersenne acted as a center of a vast correspondence network of scientists and philosophers, and he hosted weekly intellectual meetings at his cell in the Minim convent in Paris. He published translations of some of Galileo’s work and assisted in the publication of some of Descartes’ works [2]. Descartes occasionally attended some of these meetings. Others participating in Mersenne’s circle were Etienne Pascal, a magistrate with scientific interests, and his adolescent son Blaise. Through Mersenne, Blaise Pascal learned about Torriclli’s studies in the physics of the vacuum. Pascal went on to make significant advances in this field [3], and his work in Mathematics paved the way for the invention of the Calculus by Newton and Leibniz [4].



Francis Bacon (1561-1626) contributed to the formulation of the use of experimentation in science. Bacon’s empiricism was highly influential during the first half of the seventeenth century, particularly in England, although also in the continent. In the continent, however, there was more of a tendency to point out, as Mersenne did, that science could not be built on empiricism alone [5]. A theoretical framework is necessary to be able to understand and explain the result of experiments. Galileo (1564-1642), emphasized  these theoretical formulations: “to arrive at the concept of inertia, even with the imperfections of Galileo’s formulation, was a colossal achievement. As for experiment to verify this concept, Galileo brushed it aside as irrelevant [6].” Galileo did make use of experimentation, but his strength was in theoretical insights. Isaac Newton (1643-1727), working later in the century, achieved a better balance between theory and experimental demonstration. Both Galileo and Newton also made significant contributions in the use of mathematics to express, and sometimes to deduce, scientific theories.  Historian A. Rupert Hall has characterized the importance of the philosophic framework provided by Descartes: 


Descartes’ insistence on reason and clarity did offer a point of stability at a time when all else was in doubt. Experience and experiment might speak with contrary voices, the senses may be bewildered by unassimilable information on the rich variety of nature, but Descartes confidently proclaimed the capacity of human intelligence to discover laws, principles, logical relationships. His was an influence exerted against the ineffable mysteriousness of the universe [7].


Scientific Societies

An Academy of Experiment was founded in Florence in 1657 by disciples of Galileo, for the purpose of applying experimentation to scientific discovery, but it only lasted until 1667.  This society was funded by members of the Medici family, and meetings were usually held at the Pitti Palace.


A number of English scientists held informal meetings at the Gresham College in London and at Oxford during the 1640's and 1650's. Prominent among these were physicists Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, architect Sir Christopher Wren, and clergyman John Wilkins, who had been a master at Oxford and Cambridge. From the beginning, this group emphasized experimentation.  Robert Boyle, in particular, began the practice of reporting his experiments in great detail so that others could replicate them. Under Wilkins' leadership, this group became organized as  The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge in 1660, with Wilkins as Secretary and Hooke as Curator of Experiments. A Royal Charter was awarded to the organization in 1662 by Charles II [8]. The society was organized in commissions who investigated specific topics such mechanics or astronomy.  Research papers were presented and freely discussed at the society sessions. Philosopher John Locke joined the society in 1668, and Newton in 1671. Beginning in 1665, the society published a journal, entitled Philosophic Transactions, which included papers presented at the sessions and related discussions [9].


The French Academy of Sciences was founded in Paris in 1666 by groups inheriting from Mersenne’s circles. This organization did not have the same success as its English counterpart, partly due to excessive interference from the king’s ministers [10].

[1] Frankin L. Ford "The World of the Enlightenment" in Columbia College Contemporary Staff, ed., Chapters in Western Civilization, Vol. 1  (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 540.

[2] Roger Ariew et al, ed.  Descartes' Meditations: Background Source Materials (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 136.

[3] Ibid., 84-87.

[4] Ibid., 93-94.

[5] A. Rupert Hall, From Galileo to Newton (New York: Dover Publications, 1981), 104.

[6] Ibid., 56.

[7] Ibid., 116.

[8] Ibid., 141-144.

[9] Robert Mandrou, From Humanism to Science (Harmonsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1978), 268-271.

[10] Ibid., 271-272.