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Science Before the Scientific Revolution
on January 28, 2008
Everyone knows that the Scientific Revolution involved some great minds, like Edmond Halley and Sir Isaac Newton, and that it happened in the seventeenth century, and that one of its centers was London. But it was not the case that before the revolution people were unscientific and after it they were scientific. What was the infrastructure in place that allowed for the blossoming of scientific thinking that was to come, and has yet to abate? Deborah E. Harkness, a professor of history, has given an account of something we haven't thought much about: Elizabethan science. In _The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution_ (Yale University Press), Harkness has given an extensive history of how sixteenth century London took up scientific enquiry. She admits that other than Francis Bacon there will be few well known "scientists" here. To speak strictly, there wasn't anyone called a scientist until the word was invented in the nineteenth century. And the Elizabethans profiled here didn't come up with many scientific breakthroughs. On the other hand, they were energetic and curious Londoners, "naturalists, medical practitioners, mathematicians, teachers, inventors, and alchemists", who wanted to study the world and benefit people thereby, and Harkness has told a story that deserves telling.
The first case study Harkness undertakes is that of the naturalists centered in Lime Street, a cosmopolitan central London neighborhood, "the English outpost of a Europe-wide network of students of nature." The naturalists here corresponded with each other in a way that (at least sometimes) shows the ideal balance of cooperation and competitiveness that scientists ought to have, and they swapped specimens and did fieldwork. Harkness considers the medical arena chiefly through the conflicts of the different schools and specialists of the time. "London had a practitioner to suit every patient's purse and preferences", she writes, and perhaps because of that, medical professionals were very protective of their particular schools. There was a medical bustle of quacks, midwives, and other healers which spread on the streets and via word of mouth. Basic to science is mathematics; London was embracing mathematics at the time. A famous version of Euclid from 1570, with an introduction by the renowned occultist John Dee, helped emphasized that numbers were not wicked but profitable for citizens and the state. Science was good for business and for the state, and no one knew this better than William Cecil who was the favorite minister of Queen Elizabeth, both of whom sought projects with tangible outcomes, directing funds for the sixteenth century version of "big science" to such endeavors as mining or the refinement of ores. Harkness spends a chapter on the unfortunate merchant Clement Draper, who was in debtors' prison for thirteen years, but continued to experiment and fill notebooks with his observations and those from his fellow inmates, some of whom were as interested in such matters as he.
Harkness winds up this tour of sixteenth century London science with a description of the efforts of lawyer Hugh Plat and contrasting them with those of the far more famous Francis Bacon. One of Harkness's themes is how scientific efforts came from all levels of society, and Plat viewed the collective scientific enterprise in just this way. The son of a brewer, he consulted winemakers, candle-makers, midwives, gardeners, salt-makers, and more on such subjects as food preservation, firefighting, desalinization of water, and so on. Bacon called for a gentleman's ideal of orderly and academic investigation of nature by scholars, but Plat emphasized how commoners could contribute, and even when he interviewed experts like John Dee, he was much more interested in their practical and experimentally derived wisdom than in their theories. Harkness is clearly on Plat's side, and her summary chapter on his work in many fields nicely caps a fascinating and detailed overview of the scientific foundation London made for the upcoming revolution.