The Scientific Revolution for AP European History

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Updated on Mar 4, 2011

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The Scientific Revolution Review Questions for AP European History


The Scientific Revolution is the term given to a gradual development of a way of investigating and knowing the natural world. Although it has roots that stretch back earlier, the Scientific Revolution is considered by most historians to be a seventeenth-century phenomenon, beginning with Galileo's challenge to the old Aristotelian view of the cosmos and the authority of the Catholic Church in 1610, and culminating in the creation by Isaac Newton of the concept of a "universe" held together by the single force of universal gravitation in 1687.

The Traditional View of the Cosmos

The traditional view of the cosmos in European civilization was one that it had inherited from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. The Aristotelian cosmos was based on observation and common sense. Because the Earth appeared, to all of one's senses, to stand still, Aristotle made the Earth the unmoving center point of the cosmos. The moon, the planets, and the stars were conceived of as "fixed" because they do not move relative to each other, and they were also understood to move in concentric circular orbits around the Earth because that is what they appeared to do.

The Aristotelian cosmos was divided into two realms:

  • the terrestrial realm, which contained the Earth and all matter inside the orbit of the moon
  • the celestial realm, or the realm of the heavens that existed beyond the orbit of the moon

In the Aristotelian cosmos, there were five basic elements, each of which was defined by its qualities:

  • earth, which was heavy and tended to sink towards the center of the cosmos
  • water, which was slightly lighter and accumulated on top of solid earth
  • air, which was lighter still
  • fire, which was the lightest of all and tended to try to rise above all the others
  • the ether, perfect matter that existed only in the celestial realm and which moved in uniform circular motion

The qualities of the five types of matter served as the basis of Aristotelian physics. The motion of terrestrial matter was understood to be the result of its composition. For example, if you threw a rock, its motion described a parabola because the force of the throw gave its motion a horizontal component, while its heaviness gave it a vertical component towards the Earth. If you filled an airtight bag with air and submerged it in water, it would float to the top because the air was lighter than earth or water. The planets and stars of the celestial realm moved at a uniform rate in perfect circles around the Earth because they were composed purely of ether.

To the medieval church scholars who rediscovered and translated the writings of Aristotle, this Earth-centered, or geocentric, model of the cosmos not only made logical sense, it confirmed the Christian theological doctrine that the perfect kingdom of God awaited in the heavens for those humans who could transcend the corruption of the world.

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