It Started With Copernicus: How Turning the World Inside Out Led to the Scientific Revolution

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9780071385077: It Started With Copernicus: How Turning the World Inside Out Led to the Scientific Revolution

A compelling new theory of the psychological roots of the Scientific Revolution

The standard account of the rise of Western science recently has come under fire by historians who claim that there was nothing revolutionary about the Copernican Revolution and that science did not suddenly become modern in its aftermath. How, then, explain the fact that, after 14 centuries of barely noticeable scientific progress, virtually all of the major discoveries that formed the foundation of modern science were made within a few years of 1600? In It Started with Copernicus, social theorist Howard Margolis answers with a controversial new theory of the psychological roots of the Scientific Revolution. Margolis points out that Copernicus's great discovery was not that the Earth revolved around the sun­­since Aristarchus had proposed it 1,800 years earlier­­but that entertaining such a seemingly unlikely idea would solve other problems. Thus, he provided a model for Kepler, Galileo, Steven, Gilbert, and others who would go on to lay the foundations of modern science.

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From the Back Cover:

"Margolis's astonishing account of the mental mechanics and gymnastics of scientific discovery works like caffeine for the imagination. It kept me lying awake at night trying to grasp how Copernicus et al.-luckily for us-managed to believe the impossible." -Dennis Danielson, Editor, The Book of the Cosmos: Imagining the Universe from Heraclitus to Hawking

"This extraordinary book rethinks the Scientific Revolution in a way that gives new life to Thomas Kuhn's notion of 'paradigm shifts.' And it shows just how exciting the practice of science can be." -Ryan D. Tweney, Editor, On Scientific Thinking

In 1543, Copernicus proposed that the Earth was not the center of the universe, but a planet among planets, engaged in a timeless dance around the Sun. Two generations later, this wild idea inspired a brilliant burst of discovery which marked the opening of the Scientific Revolution. Or did it? In recent years, this old standby in the history of Western science has come under fire from historians who see Copernicus as a fundamentally conservative figure who had essentially nothing to do with the Scientific Revolution. In It Started with Copernicus Howard Margolis provides a powerful argument that Copernicus, as the old view supposed, was indeed the key figure of the Scientific Revolution, but in a way very different from what the old view supposed.

Around 1600, Margolis shows something happened to radically, and permanently, change the pace of scientific discovery. But what occasioned this change? All of the evidence for a revolution is there. The discoveries in science near 1600 easily outweighed everything produced in the previous fourteen centuries. The key, Margolis argues, is to notice that all the discoveries came from a handful of men, each of whom turns out to have been an ardent Copernican. Further, while some of the discoveries turned on new information and devices, most required nothing beyond what had been available to Aristotle. Somehow what had always been at hand now became actually usable.

What appeared, Margolis shows, was a radically novel propensity to look for evidence that was not directly in sight, but hidden around some unexplored corner--a propensity linked to the around-the-corner way Copernicus himself had come to his discovery. For what Copernicus discovered had been logically readily at hand for every astronomer since Ptolemy. But for 1400 years, until Copernicus, no one could see it.

"If you read what has been written over the past half century about Copernicus, or what has been written about the Scientific Revolution, you will have some doubt that anything of deep importance started with Copernicus, least of all something properly labeled 'the Scientific Revolution.' But if you look closely at what was going on in science around the year 1600, you will have no trouble seeing the appropriateness of a story of the Old West about a cowboy wandering over the plateau of northern Arizona. Innocently, he rides right up to the rim of the Grand Canyon. The cowboy sits a long time contemplating the vast gorge. Eventually he mutters, 'Something happened here.' And for the Scientific Revolution, you need not look much further to notice a powerful hint that what happened circa 1600 was somehow linked to Copernicus."--from the Introduction

About the Author:

Howard Margolis is a professor in the Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies and the Fishbein Center for History of Science at the University of Chicago. He has held research appointments at the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton), the Russell Sage Foundation, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, publishing extensively on cognition, public policy, history of science, and mathematical models of social choice.

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