I don’t get a lot of time to read for pleasure these days. When I do, it’s usually fiction. But I’ve always had a weakness for stories from the dawn of science, and David Wootton’s The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution certainly fit the bill.
Wootton’s book is a rambling tour of the early history of science, from Brahe’s nova in 1572 to Newton’s Optics in 1704. Tying everything together is one clear, central argument: that the scientific revolution involved, not just a new understanding of the world, but the creation of new conceptual tools. In other words, the invention of science itself.
Wootton argues this, for the most part, by tracing changes in language. Several chapters have a common structure: Wootton identifies a word, like evidence or hypothesis, that has an important role in how we talk about science. He then tracks that word back to its antecedents, showing how early scientists borrowed and coined the words they needed to describe the new type of reasoning they had pioneered.
Some of the most compelling examples come early on. Wootton points out that the word “discover” only became common in European languages after Columbus’s discovery of the new world: first in Portugese, then later in the rest of Europe. Before then, the closest term meant something more like “find out”, and was ambiguous: it could refer to finding something that was already known to others. Thus, early writers had to use wordy circumlocutions like “found out that which was not known before” to refer to genuine discovery.
The book covers the emergence of new social conventions in a similar way. For example, I was surprised to learn that the first recorded priority disputes were in the sixteenth century. Before then, discoveries weren’t even typically named for their discoverers: “the Pythagorean theorem”, oddly enough, is a name that wasn’t used until after the scientific revolution was underway. Beginning with explorers arguing over the discovery of the new world and anatomists negotiating priority for identifying the bones of the ear or the “discovery” of the clitoris, the competitive element of science began to come into its own.
Along the way, Wootton highlights episodes both familiar and obscure. You’ll find Bruno and Torricelli, yes, but also disputes over whether the seas are higher than the land or whether a weapon could cure wounds it caused via the power of magnetism. For anyone as fascinated by the emergence of science as I am, it’s a joyous wealth of detail.
If I had one complaint, it would be that for a lay reader far too much of Wootton’s book is taken up by disputes with other historians. His particular foes are relativists, though he spares some paragraphs to attack realists too. Overall, his dismissals of his opponents are so pat, and his descriptions of their views so self-evidently silly, that I can’t help but suspect that he’s not presenting them fairly. Even if he is, the discussion is rather inside baseball for a non-historian like me.
I read part of Newton’s Principia in college, and I was hoping for a more thorough discussion of Newton’s role. While he does show up, Wootton seems to view Newton as a bit of an enigma: someone who insisted on using the old language of geometric proofs while clearly mastering the new science of evidence and experiment. In this book, Newton is very much a capstone, not a focus.
Overall, The Invention of Science is a great way to learn about the twists and turns of the scientific revolution. If you set aside the inter-historian squabbling (or if you like that sort of thing) you’ll find a book brim full of anecdotes from the dawn of modern thought, and a compelling argument that what we do as scientists is neither an accident of culture nor obvious common-sense, but a hard-won invention whose rewards we are still reaping today.