The Scientific Revolution

Steven Shapin

The University of Chicago Press 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 1997
"There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it." So Shapin begins his study of seventeenth century science in Western Europe. An introduction provides some historiographical background (I was surprised to learn that the phrase "the scientific revolution" probably wasn't coined until 1939); three chapters then approach the subject from different directions.

Part one, "What Was Known?", is a straightforward account of some of the major scientific advances of the period: the Copernican system, clocks and mechanical models, the vacuum, microscopes, and the increasing use of mathematics. Part two, "How Was it Known?", deals with experience, experiment, and their authentication (in the form of facts); here Shapin's central example is Boyle and the Royal Society. Part three, "What Was the Knowledge For?", explores the relationship of science to religion and its increasing entanglement with state power.

Studies of "the scientific revolution" have all too often been polemical, striving to prove some general thesis, epistemological or sociological, about science. While Shapin has no special claim on objectivity, he does avoid ideologically overladen wheelbarrows; if he has a larger goal, it is to correct some of the common myths about the science of the period. The Scientific Revolution is sophisticated but at the same time uncomplicated, broad-ranging but attentive to detail.

The Scientific Revolution has no footnotes or references, but a forty-five page bibliographic essay is ample compensation (it is likely to be of more use to most readers). A small but effective selection of black and white halftones and an attractive dust-jacket provide a fine finish to the volume. The Scientific Revolution could be used as a text for a history and philosophy of science course; it would also be an excellent starting place for complete newcomers to the subject.

February 1997

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%T The Scientific Revolution
%A Shapin, Steven
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 1996
%O hardcover, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0226750205
%P xiv,218pp