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How the Modern Physics was invented in the 17th century, part 1: The Needham Question


Note: this is the first of three parts of the essay. The other two parts will be published over the next two days (see links at the bottom of the page).

H. Floris Cohen in his recent book “How Modern Science Came into the World: Four Civilizations, One 17th-Century Breakthrough”, according to a blurb, has solved “one of the most pressing problems in world history" and answered an “enduring historical mystery”.[1]

First, what is this mysterious problem about?

The Needham Question

Science, as the process of gaining knowledge about nature, had no certain date and place of birth. For millennia it was fused with technology, and the two words could be fused into “technowledge”.

However as far as physics is concerned there is consensus that something very important happened in the 17th century that deserves to be called the birth of modern physics. Sure, Archimedes (III BC) was a physicist and was such a good one that Galileo called him “the most divine Archimedes”. But it was Galileo who had invented something profoundly new to prompt Einstein to title him “the father of modern physics”.[2]

A simple way to see the turning point in the history of physics is to compare the pace of its development. The most important Galileo’s predecessors – Aristotle and Archimedes – lived two thousand years earlier, while Galileo was the most important predecessor to his students and to Newton who was born in the year of Galileo’s death. Very important for Galileo was also an astro-physical challenge from Copernicus, the acknowledged initiator of “the Scientific Revolution”.

But what did Galileo invent that was so entirely new? It was hardly his insights into specific phenomena like inertia and free fall. Insightful geniuses are born rarely but uniformly all over the globe. An Islamic scientist Alhazen (aka Ibn al-Haytham, 965-1040) had an insight into inertia six centuries before Galileo, and a Chinese philosopher Mozi (aka Mo Tzu, 470-391 BC) - twenty centuries before. But those insights were not developed and remained hidden in old manuscripts until historians discovered them.

Joseph Needham (1900-95), a British scientist, historian and famous sinologist, raised the so-called Needham Question: “Why did modern science, the mathematization of hypotheses about Nature, with all its implications for advanced technology, take its meteoric rise only in the West at the time of Galileo? … why modern science had not developed in Chinese civilization (or Indian) but only in Europe?” This question was sharpened by his realization that “between the first century B.C. and the fifteenth century A.D., Chinese civilization was much more efficient than occidental in applying human natural knowledge to practical human needs.”[3]

Most important is not why Europe was the first to launch the modern physics - somebody has to be the first - but why for so long nobody joined the modern physics beyond Europe. European culture borrowed important innovations from China, India, and Islamic world like paper, Hindu-Arabic numerals, and algebra. However the greatest Western innovation of the modern physics did not transfer South-East for centuries. So the Needham question is not just an exercise in what-if history, but it’s about favorable cultural infrastructure for science.

The problem of the Scientific Revolution attracted historians since 1930s with various factors and facets explored and emphasized.[4] The quest was started by Marxist scholars in the wake of two revolutions - the social one in Russia and the quantum-relativistic one in physics. Marxists searched for laws of history - including laws of revolution - similar to laws of physics.

Boris Hessen’s paper "The Social and Economic Roots of Newton's Principia" (1931) initiated the so called externalist approach to science by the idea that the early modern physics arose from a social context to meet practical demands of capitalist economy.[5]

In the line of externalism, Robert Merton adopted Max Weber’s explanation of the flourishing capitalism by the role of Protestant ideology and argued that the latter was especially favorable to modern physics with its experimentalism as the key feature.

On the other hand, Alexandre Koyre, who coined the very term “the Scientific Revolution”, claimed that it was brought about by “mathematization of nature” rather than by the experimental method.

And, at last, Edgar Zilsel suggested that the modern physics emerged due to early capitalism that urged contacts between academically trained scholars and superior craftsmen.

The very diversity of explanations means the absence of a proper one. Needham in his posthumous publication confirmed that his question was still unanswered.[6] Indeed, the greatest achievement of the Scientific Revolution - celestial mechanics - had no practical value for the economy. For all the four originators - Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton - both the empirical and mathematical tools were indispensable. Only two of the four were Protestants, and two were Catholics. And in China, without capitalism, there were fruitful contacts between scholars and superior craftsmen.

Now, eighty years and hundreds of books later, H. F. Cohen [1], in his eight-hundred-pages answer presented the Scientific Revolution as six revolutionary transformations, and explained the first and most important one as “an inherent possibility” created by Greeks, that could well be realized by Islamic scientists in 11th century but was actually accomplished by Kepler and Galileo in the emergence of realist-mathematical science, thanks to eight favorable factors. Making a revolution in history of science, H. F. Cohen, in his own words, “almost ludicrously downplayed” the role of Copernicus by regarding him as Ptolemy's last heir rather than the first Scientific Revolutionary.

H. F. Cohen’s explanation doesn’t involve religion at all and so could hardly satisfy those who investigate religious dimensions of the Scientific Revolution and state that theological considerations were of vital importance, as Peter Harrison did in recent book “The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science”.[7]

Neither H. F. Cohen nor P. Harrison quoted Einstein’s words on Galileo as “the father of modern physics”, apparently thinking that an opinion of a physicist of 20th century is irrelevant for the science of 17th century. Indeed “presentism” (thinking about past in terms of modern concepts) is a common danger for historical considerations, but it is not so in the case when we are tracing the origin of MODERN physics.

So we should start with the meaning of the notion “the modern physics”.

H. F. Cohen’s hybrid definition “realist-mathematical” does not distinguish Galileo’s physics from Archimedes’ one, which was both perfectly realist and perfectly mathematical, for the ancient Greek was both great engineer and mathematician.

Referring to Galileo’s science, H. F. Cohen more than once uses an expression 'recognizably modern’ pronounced by a prominent historian S. Drake referring to Galileo’s science, without elucidating what specifically is recognizable. Here a view of a modern physicist is more relevant than a view of any historian. We can rely on the view of the most famous patent examiner and modern physicist, who recognized in Galileo “the father of modern physics”.

Modern physics and fundamental physics

Einstein depicted his notion of modern physics in his letter to M. Solovine (7 May 1952):

Einstein's letter to Solovine

Here fundamentals of theory (Axioms A) are “free inventions of the human spirit not logically derivable” [8] but arising from empiric Experience E by (ascending arrow of) intuition. And then specific exact statements S are deduced from A to be verified in the E (descending arrows).

Here is a great difference between Galileo’s physics and Archimedes’ one, and the principal similarity of Galileo’s and Einstein’s. All the notions involved in Archimedes’ physics are directly evident and evidently logical – weight, density, geometrical form, while in Einstein’s physics the fundamentals do not have to be evident, - their validations are results of the whole scientific enterprise. As Einstein emphasized, “Concepts can never be derived logically from experience and be above criticism. … Unless one sins against logic, one generally gets nowhere”.[9] Here Einstein means “the logic of previous theory”, but when one is taking the first step, or the first liftoff of intuition, there is no other logic.

The very first inevident and illogical fundamental notion invented by Galileo was “vacuum”, or rather “movement in vacuum”, despite the greatest philosophical authority of those days Aristotle had proved – in more than one way – that there could not be such thing as nothing, aka void, emptiness, vacuum.

Einstein’s scheme can be formulated in the following double postulate:

1) There are fundamentals that physical laws could be deduced from; those fundamentals are not evident, they are as invisible as the foundation stones, or, in Latin, fundamentum;

2) The human spirit is able to probe into this fundamental level of the Universe to understand its working, and any human is free to contribute in the process of this probing and understanding.

In Einstein’s view, this human ability to comprehend the world is an “eternal mystery” or “miracle” even if this miracle is well established fact.

This double postulate defines fundamental science. It was such a fundamental worldview that was the real novelty of the Scientific Revolution starting with Copernicus who demonstrated how fruitful could be such an inevident and illogical notion as heliocentricity. Here is the greatest role of Copernicus as a “role model” for Galileo and Kepler.

However Copernicus (as well as Kepler) could be named fundamental astro-mathematician, while Galileo was the first fundamental physicist (and astrophysicist), since he invented a specific way to probe into the inevident fundamental level of the Universe’s working - by joint use of experiment and mathematical language. He demonstrated his way of making fundamental science in the notion “movement in vacuum” that resulted in the law of inertia, the principle of relativity, and, most importantly, the law of free fall. Galileo never experienced vacuum by his senses, but having based on empirical observation, he employed his brave freedom to invent fundamentals in mathematical language, his responsibility to experimental verification, and came to a fundamental notion of an “invisible” vacuum that happened to be so fruitful.

Fundamental physics is just a small part of the modern physics – its forefront, the larger part being the old good “Archimedean” physics, where to directly evident notions added are tested and accustomed fundamental ones. However it was the forefront fundamental physics that played the role of powerful engine to propel the rest of physics by providing it with new basic “words” to describe physical reality.

Of course a prerequisite for doing good science is a personal curiosity. Fundamental science requires an extraordinary curiosity, because it is most profitless, with its only gain being new knowledge about the inner workings of the Universe. Galileo was the first fundamental physicist. But what, besides great curiosity and talents, helped Galileo as well as Copernicus, Kepler and Newton to become originators of the fundamental science? As Einstein reflected on making science, “one cannot build a house or construct a bridge without using a scaffolding which is really not one of its basic parts”.[10] What scaffolding did employ the originators to construct the new science itself? This is the question for the next posting, tomorrow.


I am grateful to Chia-Hsiung Tze for helping me to appreciate the Needham question, to Lanfranco Belloni for help in checking with the original Italian of Galileo, to Robert S. Cohen, who helped me to appreciate Edgar Zilsel, to Sergey Zelensky and the Methodological seminar at the Institute for History of Science and Technology (Moscow) for stimulating discussions, and to John Stachel for helpful critical remarks.


[1] H. Floris Cohen. How Modern Science Came into the World: Four Civilizations, One 17th-Century Breakthrough. Amsterdam University Press, 2011.

[2] A. Einstein. On the Method of Theoretical Physics, 1933.

[3] J. Needham, The Grand Titration: Science and Society in East and West, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969, pp. 16, 190.

[4] H. F. Cohen, The scientific revolution: a historiographical inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

[5] Gessen (Hessen) B. M. Socialno-ekonomicheskie korni mekhaniki N'yutona. M.-L., GTTI, 1933. 77 pp. English translation in: Gideon Freudenthal and Peter McLaughlin, The Social and Economic Roots of the Scientific Revolution, Springer, 2009, pp. 41-101.

[6] Joseph Needham. Foreword. In: Edgar Zilsel. The Social Origins of Modern Science. Ed. Diederick Raven, Wolfgang Krohn, and Robert S. Cohen. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000.

[7] Peter Harrison. The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science. Cambridge University Press, 2008.

[8] Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist. P.A.Schilpp, ed. Evanston, 1949. pp.683-684..

[9] and [10] Einstein’s letter to M. Solovine, 28 May 1953.

See all three parts of this essay:

How the Modern Physics was invented in the 17th century, part 1: The Needham Question

How the Modern Physics was invented in the 17th century, part 2: source of fundamental laws

How the Modern Physics was invented in the 17th century, part 3: Why Galileo didn’t discover universal gravitation?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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