As David Wootton, author of the impressive new book The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, would be the first to point out, readers coming to this review of his book are positively surrounded by science. Far beyond the scope of what could be imagined even a generation or two ago, science combines the systems of energy and transportation that allow our worlds to extend far, far beyond our neighborhoods; it broadens and deepens both our work and our play; it opens to us a nearly infinite aesthetic and intellectual world through the mind-boggling complexities of cellphones and tablets and laptop computers.
It's a world, an atmosphere, and it can be easy to forget how incredibly recent it all is. As Wootton points out at the beginning of his book, modern humans only emerged as a species about 200,000 years ago. And he adds, more importantly for his purposes, that anything even resembling a leap in technological or proto-scientific thinking, the so-called Neolithic Revolution that saw the domestication of livestock, the development of agriculture, and the making of metal tools, only happened around 12,000 years ago. For 2000 centuries, the progress of humanity was virtually nonexistent; only once a steady supply of food and a decrease in the time-intensive labor of hunting permitted the leisure to think and tinker did true technological innovation begin.
Those earlier innovations – the wheel, the axle, the harness, the plow, the arch, etc. – form no part of the story Wootton wants to tell. His central subject is not really the invention of a process but rather the invention of a principle.
And according to Wootton, that invention began with an explosion of unimaginable power – a supernova, a star blowing up thousands of years ago in the constellation of Cassiopeia. That light suddenly appeared in the skies of Earth in 1572, where it became a much-discussed “new star,” brighter than anything in the sky besides the sun and the moon.
That new star drew the attention of the astronomer Tycho Brahe, and in a series of deftly-written and genuinely thrilling chapters, Wootton traces the path of the avalanche that started with Brahe analyzing a light in the sky no ancient sky-gazer had ever seen – and beginning to think about it in new ways.
There followed generations of vibrant personalities caught up in the increasingly busy world of that new thinking, and Wootton's skill at capturing these personalities is one of the main strengths of "The Invention of Science." About Francis Bacon, the author of 1620's The New Organon we're told that he was “the first person to try to systematize the idea of a knowledge that would make constant progress.”
About Giordano Bruno, who was burned to death by the Inquisition in 1600 for heresy and who argued that the stars were just the suns of other worlds, Wootton writes, “Bruno is important to our story not because he was brave (though he was), or brilliant (though he was), but because he was, on occasion, right.”
Galileo discovered mountains on the moon in 1609 and soon after saw moons orbiting Jupiter, thereby shattering the traditional Ptolemaic astronomy that put Earth at the center of the universe. Wootton looks at this discovery as a new way of seeing, an essential shift to the concept of observation from nature rather than divination or scripture or cribbing from Aristotle.
"The Invention of Science" is a marvel of expositional clarity when it comes to the key factors that made such a new vision possible: tools like the telescope, the microscope, the barometer, the prism, the compass, the pendulum clock – each created by new technological refinements, each spawning new scientific discoveries that were then disseminated by the most important innovation of them all, the printing press.
These factors came together in precisely the right alignment, driven by precisely the right new concepts, shaping the modern world to the point where, as Wootton somewhat over-optimistically puts it, “the modern scientific way of thinking has become so much part of our culture that it has now become difficult to think our way back into a world where people did not speak of facts, hypotheses and theories, where knowledge was not grounded in evidence, where nature did not have laws.”
As a glance at any day's headlines makes depressingly obvious, we live in a world where facts and evidence and logic still have quite a lot of work to do. In telling such an animated version of the greatest adventure story of human history, Wootton makes that work a little easier.