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The Second Scientific Revolution

Click here to download the slides for this week's lecture

Does it make sense to talk about 'the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century'? Some historians have answered 'no' on the grounds that there was no such thing as 'science' in the seventeenth century--there may have been 'natural philosophy', 'natural history' and 'the mechanical arts', and all of these activities bore some resemblance to present-day science, but there was no single category that corresponded to the modern notion of 'science.' Another reason to reject the idea of 'the' scientific revolution is that it was not unique--there were other periods in the history of science that were just as transformative as the seventeenth century, such as the four decades on either side of 1800.

Both of these objections to the idea of the scientific revolution can be found in an article published in 1993 and written by Andrew Cunningham and Perry Williams (CW). The aim of this seminar is to understand and assess the arguments in this article.


What are the events in the period 1760-1848 that lead CW to locate the origins of modern science in that period?

CW say that historians have given up on the scientific revolution because they have new 'beliefs about the nature of science' and new 'historiographical principles.' What are these beliefs and principles? Why might they discredit the idea of the scientific revolution?

Essential reading

Cunningham, Andrew, and Perry Williams. ‘De-Centring the “Big Picture”: “The Origins of Modern Science” and the Modern Origins of Science’. The British Journal for the History of Science 26, no. 4 (1993): 407–32.

Further reading


Cohen, I. Bernard. Revolution in Science (Harvard, 1985), chapter 6 - scattered remarks on the idea of the second scientific revolution.

David Wootton. The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution (London, 2015) -- the first 107 pages of this book are available to read on Google Play - pages 35-52 argue that the terms 'science', 'progress', 'modern', and 'revolution' were not anachronistic in the seventeenth century.

Kuhn, Thomas. ‘Mathematical Versus Experimental Traditions in the Development of Physical Science’. Journal of Interdisciplinary History 7, no. 1 (1976): 1–31, esp. 27-31 - argues that the decades around 1800 were crucial for the convergence of mathematical and experimental approaches to nature

Frängsmyr, Tore, J. L Heilbron, and Robin E Rider, eds. The Quantifying Spirit in the 18th Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990 - an updated version of Kuhn's thesis - see especially the introductory essay

'History of science', in the Oxford Companion to Modern Science - see especially the section on 'periodization'


Hankins, Thomas. Science and the Enlightenment (Cambridge, 1985), chapter 4 - a short, useful summary of the chemical revolution

'Chemistry' and 'Lavoisier' in Oxford Companion to Modern Science

Earth sciences

Rudwick, Martin. Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Rudwick, Martin. The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Palaeontology. Macdonald and Co, 1972, chapter 3.


Morton, A. History of Botanical Science (London, 1981), chapter 8.

Physical sciences

Fox, Robert. ‘The Rise and Fall of Laplacian Physics’. Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 4 (1974): 89–136 - classic paper on an important programme in the physical sciences (especially physics and astronomy) that flourished in France around 1800

Wilson, Curtis. 'Astronomy and Cosmology', in CHS4.

Heilbron, John. Elements of Early Modern Physics, 65-89 - excellent survey of the quantification of physics in the second half of the eighteenth century