Science in the Age of Enlightenment  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The scientific history of the Age of Enlightenment traces developments in science and technology during the Age of Reason, when Enlightenment ideas and ideals were being disseminated across Europe and North America. Generally, the period spans from the final days of the sixteenth and seventeenth-century Scientific revolution until roughly the nineteenth century, after the French Revolution (1789) and the Napoleonic era (1799-1815). The scientific revolution saw the creation of the first scientific societies, the rise of Copernicanism, and the displacement of Aristotelian natural philosophy and Galen’s ancient medical doctrine. By the eighteenth century, scientific authority began to displace religious authority, and the disciplines of alchemy and astrology lost scientific credibility.

While the Enlightenment cannot be pigeonholed into a specific doctrine or set of dogmas, science came to play a leading role in Enlightenment discourse and thought. Many Enlightenment writers and thinkers had a background in the sciences and associated scientific advancement with the overthrow of religion and traditional authority in favour of the development of free speech and thought. Broadly speaking, Enlightenment science greatly valued empiricism and rational thought, and was embedded with the Enlightenment ideal of advancement and progress. As with most Enlightenment views, the benefits of science were not seen universally; Jean-Jacques Rousseau criticized the sciences for distancing man from nature and not operating to make people happier.

Science during the Enlightenment was dominated by scientific societies and academies, which had largely replaced universities as centres of scientific research and development. Societies and academies were also the backbone of the maturation of the scientific profession. Another important development was the popularization of science among an increasingly literate population. Philosophes introduced the public to many scientific theories, most notably through the Encyclopédie and the popularization of Newtonianism by Voltaire as well as by Emilie du Chatelet, the French translator of Newton's Principia. Some historians have marked the eighteenth century as a drab period in the history of science; however, the century saw significant advancements in the practice of medicine, mathematics, and physics; the development of biological taxonomy; a new understanding of magnetism and electricity; and the maturation of chemistry as a discipline, which established the foundations of modern chemistry.

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