England and the rise of science

England was not merely the progenitor of industrialisation,  she was from the seventeenth century in the vanguard of the rise of science. That century saw Francis Bacon laying the intellectual foundations for scientific enquiry, including a recognition of the importance of mathematics to science,  William Harvey tracing the circulation of the blood and  Charles 11 founding the Royal Society. Above all stood the formidable figure of Newton, neurotic, splenetic and  marvellous.

Newton probably had more influence on the world than any man before him. Even today his importance is vast. Quantum  mechanics and Einstein’s physics may have superseded the Newtonian as the most advanced explanation of the physical world, but Newton still rules as the practical means of understanding the world above the subatomic. What Newton did was provide an intellectual engine which allowed men to make sense of the universe and to see order and predictability where before there had been an order seemingly kept from chaos, and often not that, by the capricious will of a god or gods. The psychological as well as the scientific impact of Newton was great.

To these pioneers may be added, from a good many more,  Joseph Priestly (the practical discoverer of oxygen), JohnDalton who proposed the first modern atomic theory), William Smith (who initiated modern geology, Michael Faraday (who  laid the foundations of the science of electromagnetism), J.J. Thompson (who discovered the first atomic particle, the electron), James Chadwick (the discover of the neutron) and Francis Crick (who jointly discovered the structure of DNA with his pupil, James Watson).

Of great English scientists, I leave till last Charles Darwin. I do that because Darwin has good claims to be the individual who has most effected the way we view the world. This is because natural selection provides a universal means of explication for dynamic systems. We can as readily visualise pebbles on a beach being selected for their  utility in their environment (from qualities such as crystal  structure, size, shape) as we can a horse. As with Newton,  Darwin profoundly effected the way men look at the world.

 Of all the fundamental scientific discoveries made between 1600-1900, I can think of only two in which an Englishman did not play a leading role. Those exceptions are Pasteur’s proof of germ theory and Mendel’s discovery of genes.

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