England was from the seventeenth century in the vanguard of the rise of science. William Gilbert’s work on magnetism was followed by William Harvey tracing the circulation of the blood, Halley’s work on comets and Robert Hooke’s polymathic span from microscopy to a nascent theory of gravitation. Above all stood the formidable figure of Newton, neurotic, splenetic and marvellous, a man who demonstrated the composition of light and developed the powerful mathematical tool of the differential calculus, besides formulating the laws of motion which form the basis of all mechanical science and the theory of gravitation, which was the most complete explanation of the physical universe until Einstein.
Newton probably had more influence on the mental 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 Quantum mechanics and Einstein’s physics may have superseded the Newtonian as the most advanced explanation of the physical world, but Newton still rules as the practical means of understanding the world above the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. More generally, Newton provided 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 early scientific pioneers may be added the likes of Joseph Priestly (the practical discoverer of oxygen), John Dalton who proposed the first modern atomic theory), 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, the American James Watson).
Then there is Charles Darwin, the man with a strong claim to be then individual who has most shaped the way we view the world, 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 affected the way men look at the world.
Of all the important scientific fields established since 1600, I can think of only two in which an Englishman did not play a substantial role in their discovery and early development. . Those exceptions are Pasteur’s proof of germ theory and Mendel’s discovery of genes. The list below gives an idea of the scope of English scientific discoveries.
Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Gravitation, laws of motion, theory of light.
Robert Hooke (1625-1703). Wrote Micrographia, the first book describing observations made through a microscope. Was the first person to use the word “cell” to identify microscopic structures. Formulated Hooke’s Law — a law of elasticity for solid bodies.
Henry Cavendish (1731-1810). Discovered the composition of water and measured the gravitational attraction between two bodies.
Joseph Priestly, (1733-1804). Discovered Oxygen.
Humphrey Davy (1778-1829). Discovered the elements potassium, sodium, strontium, calcium, magnesium and barium nitrous oxide.
Michael Faraday (1791-1867). Widely regarded as the greatest ever experimental scientist. Conceived the idea of lines of force in magnetism, discovered electromagnetic induction, developed the laws of electrolysis.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Created modern evolutionary theory.
John Prescott Joule (1818-1889). Calculated the mechanical equivalent of heat.
John Dalton, (1766-1844). Created modern atomic theory.
Sir J J Thomson (1856-1940). Discovered the electron and made the first attempt to represent atoms in terms of positive and negative energy.
Sir James Chadwick 1891-1974. Discovered the neutron.
Francis Crick (1916- ). Joint discoverer of the structure of DNA.