Major Figures of the Scientific Revolution (page 3)

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


The year of Galileo’s death saw the birth of Isaac Newton in rural Lincolnshire, England. Newton attended Cambridge University and studied the works of Galileo and Kepler. Newton revolutionized scientific thinking in Europe with his discovery of the principle of gravity—the single, constant force in the universe that attracted objects to one another. Newton realized that it was gravity that attracted the planets to the sun and the moons to the planets; gravity was what kept each body in a regular orbit at a constant distance from the larger mass around which it revolved. Newton’s work explained how gravity could be calculated mathematically; he was the first scientist to apply calculus to astronomy.

The importance of Newton’s discovery of the principle of gravity cannot be underestimated. It revolutionized European thinking, proving once and for all that the people could understand the way their own world worked. Before Newton, Europeans had understood the universe as operating by divine whims that they could not hope to understand; after Newton, they understood it as operating by fixed, comprehensible laws. For the first time, an understanding of the world could be based on human reason and experience, not on faith.

Like Galileo and those who had gone before him, Newton believed that his scientific theories were perfectly compatible with Church teaching. In his view, the law of gravity was a divine creation, and he was doing honor to God by revealing his divine plan. Unfortunately, the Church could not accept this view; as it had always done, it reacted to independent intellectual endeavor with suspicion and hostility. In a sense, the Church was right to recognize the threat posed by scientific discovery. Since science proved that the Church had been teaching an inaccurate and false theory of the structure of the universe, all Church teaching was called into question. The Scientific Revolution permanently weakened the place the Church held in popular regard.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment Practice Test

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