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Why did modern physics begin in Early Modern Europe?


I. Bartholomew P. Dobson




          For the past half a millennium, scientific advance and development have continued almost uninterrupted in the West. As a consequence, the assumptions of modern science in general are accepted uncritically across the twenty-first century western world. Assumptions that the universe is governed by natural laws, that these laws do not change over time, and mankind not only can, but ought to understand and formulate these laws purely through studying the universe itself are accepted without thinking. However, assumptions they remain; and just as we seem to accept them without thinking even to consider their validity, so it appears that the vast majority of mankind throughout the vast majority of his history did not think even to consider them at all. Indeed, it can be said without much opposition that modern science in general, and modern physics in particular, were born in Early Modern Europe alone.

          So, the question must be asked, “Why?” This question becomes especially poignant when it is considered that other peoples in other lands at other times have been more advanced, and seemed, superficially at least, to have been better placed to give birth to modern physics than late Medieval Europeans. In particular, both the Chinese and Arab empires were more advanced than their European counterparts for most of the Middle Ages – indeed, Medieval Islam brought forth all the aspects of investigation that we might identify as modern science itself. However, this child died in its infancy. Not only was such endeavour equalled and then continually surpassed by Europeans of the Modern era, but it was apparently killed off by the very mother who bore it.

          But before going on to try to understand why modern physics began in the time and place that it did, we must understand exactly what modern physics is. In this essay, “modern physics” is used to mean, “the seeking to formulate natural laws (which are assumed to exist) underlying the physical universe by constructing models to explain them, and using experimentation on the physical world to verify them.” Specifically, it must be distinguished from both natural philosophy and engineering. Firstly, natural philosophy (as pursued by the Ancient Greeks) sought to determine the realities of the natural world by using reasoned argument and logic. Although similar to modern physics – it assumed that the laws underlying universe could be comprehended, and that they ought to be investigated – it was not “modern,” for it denied almost any place for experimentation. Secondly, modern physics not engineering or technology, either. Many peoples throughout history have managed to build great structures and machines, but inquiry into the principles behind why such designs should have worked they way they did seems to have been totally absent. Indeed, the combination of both theory and experiment seems only to have begun (at least in a manner that was to be continued by others) in the inclined-slope experiments of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). This essay will question why such endeavour neither began nor continued within other, apparently better equipped peoples or times, and attempt to answer, albeit in a limited fashion, why it began successfully in Early Modern Europe.




          It is perhaps obvious, but firstly it must be observed that the climate for the rise of modern physics could have been found only within a civilised or urbanised society – i.e. one whose citizens were found together in relatively static settlements. Such a society had many advantages over the classical nomadic one, which moved from place to place to find food. Such a system provided little incentive to grow crops, for land was not considered owned by any individual. In fact, it would have been almost impossible, for the people would not remain in the same place long enough to tend the fields between the sowing of the seeds and the harvest. Without this there was very little opportunity for individuals to produce any surplus, and they chose rather to move elsewhere as soon as food ran out. Consequently, such people would become almost subsistent, and what surplus could be generated subsequently traded in a barter economy. This in turn would ensure that the society remained comparatively poor, with wealth being measured in easily transportable goods such as livestock, rather than material possessions.[1]

          On the other hand, of course, the growing of crops was both possible and vital in the survival of urbanised societies. Where people owned their own land there was greater incentive to grow crops and produce surplus, which could then be traded. Consequently there would be more food available, allowing some of those living in cities to engage in more specialised services required by others in the city. These workmen would then use their profits to purchase food surpluses in order to survive, something made much easier with the introduction of money. The money economy in turn made trade easier, for it did not require the buyer to own any particular goods desired by the seller, thus increasing the wealth of the society.[2]

This is all vital because the rise of modern science would probably never have been possible within a poor society. Wealth, as explained, helps give rise to non-vital professions – and the scientist is certainly one of these. What is more, potential scientists need some incentive to use their time observing or contemplating the universe, something not readily present if one must work the land in order survive! Indeed, scientists generally do not produce any goods that can be traded, so they must be supported by wealthy patrons or institutions. Such potential patrons would be very much fewer in nomadic societies, and such institutions, such as static universities, almost impossible due to the constant travelling of nomadic life. Also, preserving the work of previous scientists is much more difficult in nomadic societies, for records cannot be housed in libraries or other permanent buildings. Besides, unless a society’s members were wealthy, then recording media such as paper would have been unavailable to them.

This conclusion is reinforced historically. Firstly, it helps explain why there is no record of any early physics amongst the nomadic Arabs; yet after they had given up their nomadic lifestyle, and become rich, they produced various models of the solar system and even began (with Ibn al-Haytham) the experimental method. Secondly, it helps understand why the Mongols did no such thing. For, although in the Middle Ages they conquered even more lands than had the Arabs (including territory where there had been previous early scientific thought, such as China, and even the Arab land of Mesopotamia), they remained predominately nomadic.[3] Thirdly, it helps to understand why philosophical speculation began in Ancient Greece, where there was a rich, urbanised and successful trading society around 600 B.C. and onwards; and fourthly, it helps understand the situation in Early Modern Europe.

          Medieval European societies were not generally nomadic, but nor were they particularly wealthy. The Western Roman Empire had fallen, and feudalism was eventually set up across Europe. In this system, common men were required to work the land of their lords, and fight for them in times of war, in return for small plots of land. This was quite inefficient, for there was little incentive for them to harvest much food in the lord’s lands (since it did not belong to them), and yet the time spent there prevented them from making the most from their own lands. As a result, it hindered both the economic development and money economy of Europe, making modern physics less likely to appear.

However, in the mid-fourteenth century, Europe witnessed the first outbreak of the Black Death, reaching England in 1348, and becoming endemic until 1665. Such was its ferocity that between one third and one half of Europe’s population was annihilated.[4] Such a situation created a severe shortage of manpower to both fight wars and work the land. This accelerated the desire of lords to pay the king money, scutage, instead of raising troops, and also to pay their workers, whose services were now very much more in demand. It increased the need to produce food more efficiently, leading to the establishment of enclosures in fields and the common land, and also drove people into towns and cities to seek their fortunes, increasing specialised employment. Thus all these results of the Black Death helped bring about the death of the feudal system, and the dominance of the money economy in Europe. This helped increase trade and ensured that European societies were appreciably wealthier in the Early Modern era than they had been in the Middle Ages, facilitating the rise of early modern science.

          However, this explanation is far from complete. The Ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Romans, Aztecs and others possessed very wealthy, urbanised empires at times, but apparently made no moves towards modern physics at all. Likewise, the Chinese possessed a strong and wealthy empire for centuries with little more success. Obviously, then, wealth is only the beginning of the answer.


Paper, Printing, and the Transmission of Science


          It is very important to recognise that physics is built upon the works of others, for no man can be capable of reproducing all the worthwhile work and insights of those who went before him. Rather, a physicist produces more data, and refines (or otherwise) the models of his predecessors. It is for this reason that it is imperative that scientists both record their works and transmit them. It is quite conceivable that many hundreds of people in every culture around the world have had important insights into the workings of the universe, and perhaps even performed experiments. However, unless these people and their successors had the means to, and saw the value in, preserving records of their work, there could be no advance in their studies. It stands to reason, then, that modern physics would never have been born in cultures without a written language, such as many of the American and African tribes. Early Modern Europe, on the other hand, had growing levels of literacy, writing being no longer the monopoly of clerics (as had generally been the case in the Middle Ages), helped by the universities and monastic schools then present.

          However, just as important to the preservation and transmission of scientific ideas was the availability of a medium on which to write. Perhaps the first of these was stone, as carved in the Egyptian obelisks, although this was obviously quite immobile unsuitable for the transmission of science. Later, the Ancient Babylonians used clay tablets to record astronomical observations, the Romans used wax-coated boards and metals to write, and other Ancient peoples, European and otherwise, used leaves and tree bark. Parchment and vellum, materials manufactured from animal skins, were also in use in the Middle East from at least the second century B.C., and papyrus, and similar predecessors of paper, were invented by the Ancient Egyptians, Aztecs, Maya, Javanese and Chinese. However, true papermaking was begun in China, spreading to Baghdad by 800 A.D., and only reaching Christian Europe by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This lead to a decrease in cost of the once priceless material in Early Modern Europe, enabling it to be used for “less important” purposes, such as the recording of science.[5] Although this fact does not explain why other cultures with other suitable materials did not achieve the birth of modern physics, paper was very important in Europe because “…had the expensive parchment been the only material available, the craft of printing could never have developed.”[6]

          The printing press had a great effect in Europe upon the spread of books in general. Again, this had been invented in China in the eleventh century, spreading to Korea one hundred years later, although its potential seems to have gone unrecognised until its introduction to Europe 1440 by Johann Gutenberg.[7] Indeed, printed books and libraries in general seem to have been held with very little esteem in China, and much intellectual heritage seems to have been lost, except in the case of the government-printed Confucian classics.[8] Similarly, Islamic society made very little use of the printing press, for these countries were very distrustful of the ordinary man, and very unwilling to allow him access to any printed work, not even the Koran. So great was this mistrust that printing was banned by the Muslim nations, including the Ottoman Empire in 1485.[9] This was quite in contrast to the situation in Europe, where the ideas of the common man were valued much more, particularly after the Reformation. The greater reign of the printing press allowed scientists such as Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton to produce numerous copies of their works, which were then studied by other scientists, aiding the transmission of science. In fact, these different attitudes to the printing press provide very important insights into why modern physics began only in Europe.

          Such transmission of science is also greatly aided if there is a common language throughout the society. This was the case in Greece, where the conquest of Alexander the Great took the Greek language across the Middle East, aiding the development of natural philosophy amongst those people long after the Empire’s demise in 323 B.C. Equally, the Chinese shared a common written language, although the effect of this was greatly reduced by the restrictions on travel constantly enforced by the government, which believed that people should remain in their own towns.[10] Again, the Islamic lands were united by the Arabic language, which helped Arabic science in the same way as it had the Greeks. Similarly, the Romans ruled a vast empire, united by the common language, but that society seems to have produced no science of any description to transmit across its lands. However, the use of Latin became important after Rome’s fall, for it was retained in Europe for the writing of intellectual works – such as Newton’s Principia – well into the Modern era. Indeed, such a lingua franca, along with Europe’s increasing wealth (which assisted European travel), was especially useful in the birth of modern physics.

          Added to the transmission of science within a society, though, the transmission of science between different societies was also very important. Perhaps the first significant example of this was the transfer of the accurate Babylonian astronomical observations to Greece. Whereas the Babylonians had apparently constructed no mechanical model to explain these results (even though they made accurate astronomical predictions), the Greeks used these data to produce a mechanical model, which matured in the second century A.D. with the work of Ptolemy. In this system, each planet, the sun and the moon orbited some point close to the earth, on a deferent, tracing out a perfect circle. The deferent traced out a constant angular speed with respect to a further point, the equant, with the planet orbiting upon another circle, the epicycle (figure 1). This was perhaps the first example of a truly scientific theory, for it explained observations with a model that could predict future observations.

Figure 1: The Ptolemaic model for one planet: E is the equant, P is the planet, and C is the centre of its orbit.[11]


The seventh century A.D. saw the rise of the Arab Empire, which conquered many of the lands that Alexander had conquered a millennium earlier. This brought the Arabs into contact with many of the Greek works, which were initially given official legitimacy, and translated with vigour in Baghdad from the eighth century onwards.[12] This initial acceptance of the Greek astronomy aided Arab development due to the subsequent scientific criticism it received, the most useful of which came from the Maragha astronomers. These tried to eliminate the equant, for it was physically impossible for a sphere to rotate about an axis through its centre, and yet trace out a constant angular speed about some other point within itself, and as a result various alternative models were proposed. One of the most successful was that of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, from the thirteenth century, which employed the “Tusi couple” – a small circle rolling at constant speed within a larger circle, twice the diameter of the first.[13]

          Such inter-cultural transmission also aided European scientific development, as well as that of the Arabs and Greeks. Although the Dark Ages saw many Greek works lost to the West due to the predominance of Latin, Plato’s Timaeus was available from the third century. This had an important effect upon later Western scientific thought, particularly from the twelfth century, for it taught that the universe was orderly and governed by natural laws. The twelfth century also saw translations of other Greek and Arabic works begun, first made possible by the capture of Islamic city of Toledo by the Christians in 1085. Within one hundred years, many great scientific works were being studied throughout European universities,[14] and Arabic numerals, introduced by Fibonacci,[15] were being employed (being much more conducive to mathematics – the language of physics – than were their Roman predecessors). Additionally, the continuing translation effort may have directly influenced Copernicus’ heliocentric theory, for he employed the exact same Tusi couple as had the Arabs.[16]

The importance of inter-cultural influences also helps understand why modern physics did not begin in China, which remained closed to foreign sciences (although it had every opportunity to accept them).[17] However, it does not explain why such endeavour did not begin in Rome, which had the same access to the Greek works as had the Arabs, nor does it explain why Arab physics died away.




          One of the most important factors in the development of any discipline is the ability of interested people to discuss and continue that work together. In the case of the sciences, one of earliest of these was the Plato’s Academy, founded in 387 B.C., which provided support for philosophers, enabling them to engage and record their ideas. It was here that Aristotle studied, achieving much in many areas of philosophy, though his most important contribution (to physics, at least) was his assumption that mankind could discover the truth about the physical universe. Such institutions thrived in Greece, advancing natural philosophy and producing many other capable thinkers with important attitudes (if not conclusions), until abolished by Justinian in 529 A.D.[18]

When the Arabs conquered many of the Roman lands, they too established centres of learning, of which the most important was the madrassa, dating from at least the ninth century. These were pious endowments, established by wealthy donors, whose original intentions the madrassa had to continually follow, having been legally approved as being in agreement with Islamic law. However, this meant nothing deemed to be opposed to Islam could be undertaken, which led in the eleventh century to the scientific works of the Ancient Greeks being banned throughout the Islamic world. Indeed, al-Mansur, ruler of North Africa and Spain (1184-99), had all “foreign science” books burned, and all those who studied them killed; although in more normal times they were studied privately, or secretly from professors who had mastered them themselves.[19] The problem with this ban was not the disbelief in Aristotle – for many of his ideas were completely false – but that it hindered the production of alternative naturalistic theories. Additionally, the madrassa system had other problems, particularly since each pupil studied under only one master, with no set curriculum. As Huff states, “The lack of outside supervision…could lead to untoward consequences, above all the widespread prevalence of charlatanism and quackery.”[20]

          However, whereas the individuality of Islamic tuition was problematic, the opposite situation was even more so in China. Chinese education was rigidly controlled by the state, and when the government established schools in every Chinese district in the eleventh century, the curriculum consisted entirely of learning the Confucian classics, which focused on the moral conduct of rulers. Knowledge of these alone was vital to pass the government examinations, which provided ambitious students their only opportunity to reach the upper-classes, and thus were pursued at the expense of all other studies. Additionally, there were no real universities in China, for even the imperial universities had few staff or students, and were not at all autonomous. However, mathematics and astronomy did have state support at times, but only within strict bounds. Indeed, in 1386, sixty-eight metropolitan degree holders were put to death by the emperor for refusing “…to serve the government when summoned.”[21] Such actions could hardly have encouraged university learning.

          However, the situation in Medieval Europe was much different. Due to a legal revolution in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, induced by the rediscovery of Justinian (Roman) Law,[22] the concept of corporation became legally enshrined. This gave institutions, such as universities, legal rights independent of their original founders, giving them both protection and freedom to pursue their own choice of study in a way impossible in China or the Muslim world. Indeed, the afore-mentioned translation feat of foreign scientific works in the twelfth century was carried out in the European Universities. However, this did not prevent Aristotle’s teachings – principally the notion that the earth had no beginning – from being condemned in Paris University in 1277, although unlike the Muslim situation, this was annulled less than fifty years later. In fact, this condemnation may actually have aided science, since it encouraged theologians to imagine non-Aristotelian scenarios, helping lead to the overthrow of some of his false teachings. Finally, unlike in the madrassa, the European university student learnt from an entire faculty, including evaluators from other universities. Thus, provided that the set curriculum included a fair amount of science (which it usually did), students were guaranteed a good education in natural philosophy. In this manner, knowledge of and interest in science was greatly increased in late Medieval Europe in a manner not possible elsewhere, paving the way for the birth of modern physics. However, this fails to explain why science jumped from philosophy to experiment, for university physics remained in the domain of natural philosophy for long into the Modern era.[23]


The Christian World-View


The first Christians seem to have had no interest in philosophy (though in light of their persistent persecution and desire to evangelise, such is hardly surprising). Indeed, the Bible contained strong warnings against it, including: “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.”[24] However, not all aspects of Greek philosophy ran contrary to biblical theology. For example, Plato’s Timaeus taught that the universe was harmonious and governed by natural laws, and although this was not explicitly taught in Scripture, it was entirely consistent with it. For, if an unchanging God both created and continually upholds the universe, one might expect the universe to follow a series of unchanging principles – the most important assumption of modern physics. It may have been for this reason, despite the Bible’s warnings, that Plato’s book was accepted by Augustine, and then throughout Medieval Europe. Such an assumption would have had no foundation if the world was considered controlled by a host of quarrelling, capricious deities (as was imagined by most pagan cultures), and any investigation in physics would thus have been difficult even to contemplate. Of course, one may argue that Christianity had no right to assume an unchanging universe because God could still change it at His whim; though a study of the Bible will show that miracles were considered exceptional.

Indeed, other axioms of modern physics were entirely consistent with biblical teaching. For example, the idea that God was personal and created man in His image reinforced the notion that people could discover truth about His creation – something that would have been absent had the universe been considered controlled by some “force,” such as the Chinese Yin and Yang. Secondly, the scriptural command to subdue the earth[25] was much more conducive to controlled experimentation than was the pantheistic view, where man was seen as only another part of the world, with no right to tamper, and where tampering with the earth was considered tampering with God. Thirdly, consider the following promise of the unchanging Christian God: “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”[26] This promise was quite contrary to the widespread pagan attitude that one had to perform rites to the gods in order for spring to return, or the Aztec belief that a ball game had to be played to ensure the sun arose the next day. Indeed, since the motions of the heavens were considered dependent upon human activity, it is not surprising that almost no planetary models were ever produced, not even by keen astronomers, such as the Maya. This conclusion is reinforced when it is remembered that it was a widespread pagan belief that stars were divine, so to have produced such a model would have been to limit the gods. However, the Bible (and Koran) claimed they were not gods, but creations of the one true God, which may explain why the only cultures (apart from the Greeks) known to have produced astronomical models were the Muslim East and the Christian West.

However, although Timaeus agreed with some biblical principles, it disagreed with many. Plato had argued that every man had reason, which he could use to discover the truth of the universe, and this argument was taken by some Catholic scholars to argue against even the statements of scripture itself.[27] Out of this grew the “two-book” theory, whereby God was said to have written two books: the Bible and the “Book of Nature.” Consequently, if the Bible seemed to contradict the Book of Nature, which could be read using God’s gift of reason, then the Bible could not be taken literally.[28] (Such an anti-scriptural view could be maintained because the Roman Catholics believed the literal meaning of the Bible was less authoritative than either tradition or the teachings of Church Fathers, such as Augustine). This view was very conducive to natural philosophy – Kepler and Galileo both held it – for it promised scientists the ability not just to make good models, but to discover the truth.[29] Actually, this attitude was probably the reason why Aristotle’s work was generally accepted in Europe (for the Bible bowed to the Book of Nature, even as read by pagans), but banned by the Muslims for contradicting the Koran. Indeed, despite the Paris condemnation of 1277, some Aristotelian ideas even became Roman Catholic doctrine, and it is from this view that the infamous Galileo affair is probably best understood. The problem was not that the Book of Nature might have read differently to Scripture, but that it had already been read and found to agree with Aristotle, and Galileo could not prove otherwise.[30]

          Additional evidence that the birth of modern physics was due to the Christian world-view, and not just Greek philosophy, can be seen in the work of John Philoponus, an Alexandrian Christian from the sixth century. Generally acknowledged to have been the first philosopher to combine science with monotheism and Christian theology, his works were a direct attack at many of the false Greek ideas that were only banished in Europe in the Early Modern era. Contrary to Aristotle, he taught that: stars were not divine, but were composed of the same materials as found on earth, and subject to change; the universe had a beginning; space was a vacuum; projectiles were not moved by the air they travelled through, but by an impulse imparted to them when thrown; objects did not move the way they did because of the “natural motion” of their constituents; and heavy and light bodies, if dropped from the same height, would hit the ground at the same time.[31] The fact that Aristotle’s conclusions in all the above issues were (apparently) wrong, and yet Philoponus’ all correct, cannot be because of his method (i.e. logical argument, the same method used by Philoponus), nor his intellect (which is universally admired), but must almost certainly have been due to his pagan presuppositions. Thus Philoponus provides excellent evidence that Christianity itself was one of the main reasons for the birth of modern physics, being much more conducive to science than paganism – even Greek paganism, which was more successful than any other.

          Since the monotheistic assumptions underlying Philoponus’ work were similar to those of Islam, this might also explain why Islamic science was so successful for a time; though it does not explain why it later died. Rather, this is probably best understood by the rise of occasionalsim in the Arab lands. According to this view, nature was not governed by natural laws upheld by God, but everything that happened was a direct result of Allah’s intervening miraculous actions.[32] Such a view made naturalistic explanation of the universe almost impossible, as had the pagan ideas of capricious deities controlling the universe, and was difficult to counter due to the rise in Islamic control and intolerance in the High Middle Ages.

          Thus the subject of religion helps explain why almost no cultures, despite their greatness in other areas, managed to produce modern science, and why it died in Islamic society. However, it doesn’t explain why natural philosophy arose in Greece, or why neither Christian Rome nor Judaism (with had very similar preconceptions) produced modern physics.


The Protestant Reformation


The beginning of the Modern Era witnessed a seismic split in the Christian world: the Protestant Reformation. Begun by Martin Luther in 1517, its aim was to reform the church back to more biblical principles. One of these was the “priesthood of all believers” – the idea that individuals could reach God and understand the Bible themselves, without a “priest” to intercede for them. This was important in the birth of modern science because individuals could now use their reason to find the truth of God’s word, making them better placed to find the truth of the natural world.

          The Reformation had other important implications, too. Although there had been similar attempts at such reform earlier in history, such as those of Wycliffe (in England) and Huss (in Bohemia), these “heretical” movements had eventually been put down by the Roman Catholics. However, such was not the case with Luther’s reform. Indeed, rather than being destroyed, this movement was officially endorsed by national governments, with England, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden and many other countries adopting it as their state religion in the sixteenth century. With papal authority shattered in Reformed Europe, a great step towards intellectual freedom had been achieved. It must be remembered that most cultures, such as the Aztecs, Chinese, Egyptians, etc., deified their rulers, and thus in such societies to break with official teaching or traditional superstition was tantamount to heresy. A similar (but not as extreme) situation existed in Medieval Europe, where the pope was considered Christ’s representative on earth, and so to contradict him meant to contradict God. However, the Reformation destroyed this authority in northern Europe, and in so doing probably weakened it in the minds of those elsewhere. This was also important because, as mentioned above, Aristotelian ideas had been officially accepted by the Roman Catholics, and enshrined in church doctrine. Even the mass, perhaps the most important dogma of Catholicism, was based upon Aristotle’s claimed distinction between accident and substance.[33] So closely was this central doctrine married to Aristotle that had the pope’s authority not been so seriously challenged by the Reformers, it is conceivable that neither would Aristotle’s authority have been banished by the scientists. For the new authority – that of experimental science – to claim the ascendancy, the old authority had to be overthrown.

          Finally, the Reformation reinforced the scientifically advantageous principles of the Christian world-view, principally through its rejection of the supernatural in every-day affairs. For example, the attack against the miraculous appearance of Christ in the Eucharist, the healing properties of holy relics, and the posthumous miracles of saints all strengthened the idea of an unchanging universe, which in turn strengthened the expectation to find natural laws. This conclusion helps explain why neither the non-Christian nor the Eastern Orthodox countries produced modern science; for, although Christian, the latter did not experience a similar Reformation to the Catholic world.


Science as Part of a Wider Movement


          In the course of this essay, many subjects have been covered in an attempt to explain why modern physics began in Early Modern Europe. These included the fall of Toledo in the eleventh century, the legal revolution of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the advent of paper manufacturing in the thirteenth century, the Black Death of the fourteenth century, the invention of the printing-press in the fifteenth century, and the Reformation of the sixteenth century. However, it cannot be forgotten that the birth of modern physics was just one part of a much wider movement. The Renaissance saw huge advances in art and sculpture, producing some of the finest pieces in the world. Likewise, the start of the Modern era saw huge advances in music theory, composition, and the development of the orchestra, unparalleled elsewhere. Again, the same age saw the Europeans begin exploring vast swaths of previously unknown territory, and begin the process of colonisation, leading to huge European empires. Furthermore, massive advances in technology were made, and capitalism and democracy begun. This “wider movement” as a whole eclipsed the achievements of all other societies, and is apparently without equal in all mankind’s history.

So, can it be coincidence that all these diverse achievements occurred almost simultaneously? Or did the advent of one lead to the advent of all the others?  I suspect that until the beginnings of all these activities are studied together, the complete explanation for the birth of modern physics cannot be known.



[1] An example of this can be seen in the Biblical account of the nomad Abram, whose wealth is expressed thus: “and he had sheep, and oxen, and he asses, and menservants, and maidservants, and she asses, and camels.”  (Genesis 12:16b.)

[2] Smith, Adam, 1999 (1776).  The Wealth of Nations, Books I-III, Penguin Books, particularly pp. 126-132.

[3] Davis, R. H. C., 1970 (1957).  A History of Medieval Europe, Longman Group Limited, pp. 404 & 408.

[4] Kenyon, J.P., 1994. Dictionary of British History, Market House Books Ltd., p.41&157.

[5] Hunter, Dard, 1997. Collier’s Encyclopaedia, P. F. Collier & Son Ltd, 19:416-418.

[6] Ibid., p.418.

[7] Prusiner, Stanley B., 1997.  Ibid., p..391-392.

[8] Huff, Toby E., 1999 (1993).  The Rise of Early Modern Science, Cambridge University Press, pp..279 & 319.

[9] Ibid., p.225.

[10] Ibid., p.320.

[11] Taken from Zeilik, Michael, 1998 (1997).  Astronomy: The Evolving Universe, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., p. 35.

[12] O’Leary, D. L., 1949.  How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs, Routledge and Kegan Paul, Limited, p. 19.

[13] Saliba, G., 1994.  A History of Arabic Astronomy, N. Y. University Press, pp. 269-272.

[14] Huff, Toby E., op. cit., p. 187.

[15] Bailie, J., et al., 1990.  Cassell Encyclopaedia Dict., Cassell Publishers Ltd, p.527.

[16] Kennedy, E. S., 1998.  Astronomy and Astrology in the Islamic World, Ashgate Publishing Limited, pp..22-23.

[17] Huff, Toby E., op. cit., p.239.

[18] DeHoan, R., 1997.  Collier’s Encyclopaedia, P. F. Collier & Son Limited, Vol. 1, p.57.

[19] Huff, Toby E., op. cit., p.153.

[20] Ibid., p.77.

[21] Ibid., p.318.

[22] Ibid., p.123.

[23] Ibid., p.357.

[24] Colossians 2:8,

[25] And God blessed them [man and woman], and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.  (Genesis 1:28).

[26] Genesis 8:22.

[27] Huff, Toby E., op. cit., pp. 103-104.

[28] This seems to mirror the view of Augustine, who first accepted Plato’s work, and to whom the phrase, “The Bible is not a textbook on science,” is generally attributed.

[29] This was ironic, since scientists today generally recognise that they are only producing models, and even if they did find the full truth, they wouldn’t know it.

[30] That is, at least as regarded the motion of the earth. See Huff, op. cit., pp. 353-355.

[31] Sambursky, S., 1973.  Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Charles Scribner’s Sons, Vol. VII, pp. 134-138.

[32] Huff, Toby E., op. cit., p.88.

[33] Cf. “Accident” in Catholic Encyclopaedia, www.newadvent.org/cathen/01096c.htm