In most histories of Western science, the period 1500-1700 is depicted as the crucible in which modern science was forged: a triumphal parade of great minds – Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Leibniz, Huygens, Newton – transformed our understanding of the earth and heavens and set the pattern for modern science ever since. It was the first of many progressive revolutions in science. For many historians, this Scientific Revolution of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe was the Big Bang event that ignited modernity. Yet from the standpoint of contemporaries, the events retrospectively celebrated as the Scientific Revolution were perceived as a horrific realization that for almost two millennia, the finest minds had been thoroughly mistaken about the geography of the earth, the nature of comets, the anatomy and physiology of the human body, the system of the heavens, and much, much else. For them, their epoch was one of grievous errors revealed as much as one of new knowledge discovered. This acute consciousness of error and fallibility stamped modern epistemology ever since – and triggered an acute fear of being taken in by beguiling counterfeit realities, from Don Quixote’s romantic fantasies to Descartes’ vortices and other “palaces of the imagination.”
The lecture is part of the ICI Lecture Series ERRANS.