Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences Distinguished Lecture Series - Professor David Wootton


The Invention of Science

Professor David Wootton
Anniversary Professor of History at the University of York

Time and place information
Location   52 Pritchatts Road, Lecture Theatre 1
Date(s) Friday 20 November (5:00pm)


Science and its technological applications are all around us, but there was a world before science – a world in which knowledge of nature made virtually no progress and had no technological applications. While it used to be argued that there was a “scientific revolution” in the seventeenth century, the standard view in the recent literature is that the transformation in knowledge did not occur until the nineteenth century. David Wootton restates the case for a seventeenth-century scientific revolution, and in doing so argues that historians of science need to acknowledge that science makes progress – a view rejected by fashionable social constructivism.

Before 1492 it was presumed that all significant knowledge had already been established by the Greeks and Romans; there was no notion that there was scope for future discoveries. The discovery of America showed that new territories, either geographical or conceptual, lie beyond the known horizon. With this new view, a new vocabulary emerged: discovery, progress, facts, experiments, hypotheses, theories, laws of nature – almost all these terms existed before 1492, but their meanings were radically transformed so they became tools with which to think scientifically. By 1704, when Newton’s Optics was published, the modern scientific enterprise had taken shape, and its first great achievement was the steam engine. Wootton thus offers not just a new account of the scientific revolution, but a new account of what characterises the scientific enterprise.

Professor David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History at the University of York. His previous books include Paolo Sarpi (1983), Bad Medicine (2006) and Galileo (2010). He has given the Raleigh Lecture at the British Academy (2008) and the Carlyle Lectures at Oxford (2014).


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