Major Figures of the Scientific Revolution

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Major Figures of the Scientific Revolution

The Scientific Revolution was an international phenomenon; scholars from all over Europe took part in it. This chapter describes the most important figures of the era.


Nicolaus Copernicus was born in 1473 in Torun, Poland. He learned astronomy from the books he read as a student in Italy. Books of the time agreed that the Earth was at the center of the universe and that the other heavenly bodies, including the sun, traveled around it. In ancient times, both Ptolemy and Aristotle had arrived at this view by observing the heavens. Despite Aristotle’s status as a pagan from the Classical era, the Church fathers had always accepted his view of astronomy because it allowed them to teach that humankind, God’s supreme creation, had its proper place in the center of the universe.

Copernicus, however, came to believe that Aristotle and Ptolemy were wrong. He suggested that the sun, not the Earth, was at the center of the universe, with the planets orbiting it. It seemed to Copernicus that since the Earth and its moon were spherical, the orbits of the planets should be circular; how- ever, he realized that from the point of view of the Earth, the orbits could not be perfect circles. In 1543, Copernicus published his thoughts and discoveries in a book called De Revolutionibus, known in English as On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. He died the same year.


The next great European astronomer was Tycho Brahe. Born in 1546 to a noble family in what was then Danish territory, Brahe was fortunate in having as his patron a king who provided him with a fully fitted observatory. This enabled him to conduct direct experiments in astronomy—the first in Europe for many centuries. While Copernicus’ theories had been more or less guesses, Brahe’s observations told him that while the sun and moon traveled around the Earth, the other planets orbited the sun. Like Copernicus, he could not understand why the planets’ apparently circular orbits were not regular.


Brahe’s assistant, the brilliant Johannes Kepler, took discoveries of the heavens one step further. Born in 1571 in the free city of Weil der Stadt, Kepler used mathematics and direct observation to show that the orbits of the planets were ellipses, not circles. As soon as he replaced the idea of circles with that of ellipses, the orbital paths became regular. Kepler also proved that the planets orbited the sun at different speeds. His greatest work was On the Motion of Mars, published in 1609; it soon appeared on the Holy Office’s Index of Forbidden Books.

Astronomy took a giant leap forward with the discovery of the telescope, first patented in the Netherlands in 1608–1609. Scientists had realized during the 1300s that a glass lens could magnify an object seen through it; they had been using this knowledge ever since to manufacture eyeglasses and magnifying glasses. However, these were only intended to improve people’s vision for everyday purposes such as reading. No one had thought to apply the same idea to achieving a close-up view of such faraway objects as the stars.

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