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Newton's Light

The epitaph czar of Westminster Abbey must have demurred, for the great man's grave does not bear these intended words. But Alexander Pope did write a memorable (and technically even heroic) couplet for the tombstone of his most illustrious contemporary. Biblical parodies, perhaps, could not pass muster in Britain's holiest of holies, both sacred and secular,* for Pope's epitome of a life well lived recalled the first overt order of the ultimate boss:

Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night:
God said, let Newton be! and all was light.

Pope surely wins first prize for succinctness and rhyme, but we may cite any number of statements from the wisest of his contemporaries to the best of later scholars, all affirming that something truly
special roiled the world of seventeenth-century thinkers, changing the very definitions of knowledge and causality, and achieving a beginning of control over nature (or at least predictability of her ways) that previous centuries had not attained or, for themost part, even sought. Although hard to define, and even denied by some, this transforming period has been awarded the two ultimate verbal accolades by a generally timid profession of academic historians: the definite article for uniqueness, and uppercase designation for importance. Historians generally refer to this watershed of the seventeenth century as the Scientific Revolution.

To cite a key contemporary, a poet rather than a scientist, at least by current disciplinary allocations that would not then have been granted or conceptualized in the same way, John Dryden wrote in 1668:

Is it not evident, in these last hundred years (when the Study of Philosophy has been the business of all the Virtuosi in Christendome) that almost a new Nature has been revealed to us? That more errors of the School [that is, of the medieval scholastic thinkers and followers of Thomas Aquinas, generally called Schoolmen] have been detected, more useful Experiments in Philosophy have been made, more Noble Secrets in Opticks, Medicine, Anatomy, Astronomy, discovered than in all those credulous and doting Ages from Aristotle to us? So
true it is that nothing spreads more fast than Science, when rightly and generally cultivated.

To cite one of the twentieth century's most celebrated philosophers, A. N. Whitehead claimed, in Science and the Modern World, that "a brief, and sufficiently accurate description of the intellectual life of the European races during the succeeding two centuries and a quarter up to our own times is that they have been living upon the accumulated capital of ideas provided for them by the genius of the seventeenth century."

A broader range of views could be cited among historians of science, but few would deny that truly extraordinary changes in concepts of natural order-changes that we continue to recognize today as the familiar bases of modern sensibilities-occurred in seventeenth-century Europe, leading to the enterprise that we call "science," with all attendant benefits, travails, and transformation in our collective lives and societies.

In 1939, Alexander Koyré, the dean of twentieth-century students of the Scientific Revolution, described this seventeenth-century transformation as a "veritable 'mutation' of the human intellect . . . one of the most important,if not the most important, since the invention of the Cosmos by Greek thought." The Scientific evolution, according to the eminent historian Herbert Butterfield (1957), "outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes, mere internal displacements, within the system of medieval Christendom." And, in 1986, historian of science Richard S. Westfall stated: "The Scientific Revolution was the most important 'event' in Western history. . . . For good and for ill, science stands at the center of every dimension of modern life. It has shaped most of the categories in terms of which we think, and in the process has frequently subverted humanistic concepts that
furnished the sinews of our civilization."

In the cartoonish caricature of a "one-line" primer, the Scientific Revolution boasts two philosophical founders of the early seventeenth century-the Englishman Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who touted
observational and experimental methods, and the Frenchman René Descartes (1596-1650), who promulgated the mechanical worldview. Galileo (1564-1642) then becomes the first astoundingly successful practitioner, the man who discovered the moons of Jupiter, rearranged the cosmos with a raft of additional telescopic defenses of Copernicus, and famously proclaimed that the "grand book" of nature-that is, the universe-"is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures." (Galileo's status as martyr to the Roman Inquisition-for he spent the last nine years of his life under the equivalent of "house arrest," following his forced recantation in 1633-also, and justly, enhances his role as a primary hero of rationality.) But the culmination, both in triumphant practice and in fully formulated methodology, resides in a remarkable conjunction of late-seventeenth-century talent, a generation epitomized and honored with the name of its preeminent leader, Isaac Newton (1642-1727), who enjoyed the good fortune of coexistence with so many other brilliant thinkers and doers, most notably Robert Boyle (1627-1691), Edmund Halley (1656-1742), and Robert Hooke (1635-1703).

As with all caricatures based on simplistic historical models of accreting "betterness" (whether by smoothly accumulating improvement or by discontinuous leaps of progress), and on false dichotomies of a bad "before" replaced by a good "after," this description of the Scientific Revolution cannot survive a careful scrutiny of any major aspect of the standard story. To cite just two objections with pedigrees virtually as long as the conventional formulation itself: First, the break between the supposedly benighted Aristotelianism of medieval and Renaissance scholarship, and the experimental and mechanical reforms of the Scientific Revolution, can be recast as far more continuous, with many key insights and discoveries achieved long before the seventeenth century, and abundantly transmitted across the supposed divide. In an early rebuttal that became almost as well known as the basic case for a discontinuous revolution, the French scholar Pierre Duhem, in the opening years of the twentieth century, published three volumes on Leonardo and his precursors. Here Duhem argued that several cornerstones of the Scientific Revolution had been formulated by Aristotelian scholars in fourteenth-century Paris, and had also become sufficiently familiar and accessible that even the formally ill-educated Leonardo, albeit the most brilliant raw intellect of his (or any other) age, sought out and utilized this work, often struggling with Latin texts that he could only read in a halting fashion, as the foundation for his own views of nature. (Duhem developed his thesis under a complex parti pris of personal belief, including strong nationalistic and Catholic elements, but his predisposing biases, although markedly different from the a priori commitments of historians who built the conventional view, cannot be labeled as stronger or more distorting.)

Second, and in an objection close to the heart of my own persona and chosen profession, the conventional view does seem more than a tad parochial in its nearly exclusive focus on the physical sciences, and upon the kinds of relatively simple problems solvable by controlled experiment and subject to reliable mathematical formulation. What can we say about the sciences of natural history, which underwent equally
extensive and strikingly similar changes in the seventeenth century,
but largely without the explicit benefit of such experimental and mathematical reconstitution? Did students of living (and geological) nature merely act as camp followers, passively catching the reflected beams of victorious physics and astronomy? Or did the Scientific Revolution encompass bigger, and perhaps more elusive, themes only partially and imperfectly rendered by the admitted triumphs of new discovery and discombobulations of old beliefs so evident in seventeenth-century physics and astronomy? (Because these questions intrigue me, and because my own expertise lies in this area, I shall choose my examples almost entirely from this neglected study of the impact of the Scientific Revolution upon natural history.)

I derived much of the framework, and many of the quotations, for this opening section from the long and excellent treatise of H. Floris Cohen (The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry, University of Chicago Press, 1994), a work not so much about the content of the Scientific Revolution as about the construction of the concept by historians. Cohen locates much of the difficulty in defining this episode, or any other major "event" in the history of ideas for that matter, in the complex and elusive nature of change itself. We encounter enough trouble in trying to define and characterize the transformation of clear material entities-the evolution of the human lineage, for example. How shall we treat major changes in our approach to the very nature of knowledge and causality? Cohen writes: "To strike the proper balance between a perception of historical events as relatively continuous or relatively discontinuous has been the historian's task ever since the craft attained maturity in the course of the nineteenth century." The Scientific Revolution becomes so elusive in the enormity of its undeniable impact that Steven Shapin, something of an enfant terrible among conventional academicians, opened his iconoclastic, but much respected, study (The Scientific Revolution, University of Chicago Press, 1996), with a zinger rich in wisdom within an apparent self-contradiction: "There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it."

We may epitomize the fundamental nature of an episode so fecund in scope and effect, albeit so difficult to characterize, by citing any preferred motto or metaphor in the tradition of "crossing the Rubicon" or "opening Pandora's box." Something tumultuous, permanent, and revolutionary, both for the history of society and the history of ideas, occurred during the course of the seventeenth century. And we may epitomize this extended "event" as the birth pangs and adequate initial development of what we call "modern science," with all its practical consequences for technology, and its intellectual implications for our definition and understanding of "reality" itself. Something happened. Something very big indeed, yet something that we have still not integrated fully and comfortably into the broader fabric of our lives, including the dimensions-humanistic, aesthetic, ethical, and theological-that science cannot resolve, but that science has also (and without contradiction) intimately contacted in every corner of its discourse and being.

Thus, if we wish to understand the continuously troubled relationships between science and these other magisteria of our full being-in this case, and for this book, the interactions between science and the humanities-we would do well to begin at the beginning of modern science, by trying to understand how the
seventeenth-century initiators of the Scientific Revolution understood their task, their challenges, their enemies, and their accomplishments. (I discussed the other great pseudo-conflict, the supposed struggle between science and religion, in a previous book, Rocks of Ages, Ballantine, 1999.) How, in particular, did these
creators of modern science construe the traditional disciplines of humanistic study? How, in even more particular (and to foreshadow a primary theme of this book), did the perception of certain humanistic modes of study as impediments to be swept aside, rather than as allies to be cultivated, set an unfortunate, if understandable (and probably unavoidable), initial context for interaction? Why does this notion of inherent conflict continue to flourish, literally centuries after the growth and success of science destroyed any conceivable rationale for such pugnacity and philistinism? Perhaps a new kid on the block must be scrappy, vigilant, and predisposed to a taxonomy of us against them. But a prosperous and victorious adult should welcome both the moral and the practical obligations of generosity.

My motivation to write this book stems largely from a personal sense of puzzlement. From earliest memories (once I passed through to reality and admitted that I would never occupy center field in Yankee Stadium as a professional address), I wanted to become a scientist "when I grow up"-in particular, once I learned the technical term for folks who study fossils full time, a paleontologist. I could cultivate no immediate family member as mentor or role model, for my closest relatives possessed smarts in abundance, but had not enjoyed access to higher education and professional life. I always loved, for reasons of personal pleasure rather than any "ought" of class or culture, several areas of what traditional taxonomy calls the arts and humanities-from the largely passive delights of reading; to more ambulatory pleasures of a taste for architecture (beats the hell out of birdwatching, if you ask me, for those of a taxonomic bent, as buildings stay put and don't need to be seen at 6:00 a.m. or some other odd time better spent elsewhere); to serious and active participation, still continuing, in choral singing.

I never sensed any conflict among these passions; after all, I seemed reasonably well integrated, at least in my own head and being (my hedgehog side). Indeed, in the naively narcissistic way of childhood, I imagined myself as a perfectly reasonable common denominator of all these activities (my foxy interests). Moreover, lacking direct or familial experience, I didn't even know that science was supposed to conflict with, or even be substantially different from, the arts and humanities.

I did learn the conventional taxonomies later, but they never made any sense to me. I do acknowledge, of course, the historical reasons for conflict-and much of this book, including these opening sections, explores this currently illegitimate basis for suspicion and separation. I also understand that basic pursuits of the sciences and humanities often differ intrinsically and logically, so much so that the techniques of one domain frequently cannot, in principle, answer the questions of the other. In the most obvious example, science tries to ascertain the factual structure of the natural world, whereas criteria for judgment in the arts invoke aesthetic concerns that do not translate into the scientist's language of "true" and "false"-and truth just isn't beauty, however much we may value both, and whatever Mr. Keats found on his Grecian urn. Similarly, and even more broadly-thus providing an even riper bone for false contention when either side misperceives its limits and claims dominion in the other side's magisterium-no factual conclusion of science (a statement about the "is" of nature) can logically determine an ethical truth (a statement about the "ought" of our duties).

Still, all these obvious and well-rehearsed distinctions aside, I have long felt that the similar goals and mental styles overwhelm the legitimate differences in materials for study and modes of validation. The commonalities of creative thinking, and the psychology of mental drive and excitement, seem to transcend the logical differences of subject or approach. (I would not try to distinguish the emotions of exaltation felt in singing a particularly moving passage in Bach's Passion settings from the excitement of solving a tough little puzzle in the systematics of Cerion (the land snail of my personal research), and saying to myself, "Oh, so that's how it goes!" Late in his life, a celebrated senior colleague stated to me, during a chance encounter on the New York subway of all places, that he continued to love and practice research with all his heart because its pleasures could only be likened to "continual orgasm."

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Science Social aspects, Science and state