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«The Popularization of Science in Early 18th Century Britain»


The advent of scientific inventions in the early 18th century provided Britain with relevant answers to the enigma that had engulfed virtually all aspects of life. This change was perceived as one of the key developments that Great Britain had ever had since it alleviated the doubts about numerous subjects. At the centre of these inventions was the British icon Isaac Newton, whose rational thoughts about nature had hitherto been embraced and stayed unchallenged. Newton made significant contributions to the areas of mathematics, philosophy, physics and heretical matters. His discoveries have formed the basis for which scientific and technological developments still strive today. The popularizing of science in early 18th century in Britain was dramatic and involved a series of scientific lectures concentrated around William Whiston and JT Desaguliers. Greater emphasis was on Newton’s experimental philosophy. It would become the basis for the scientific developments witnessed in the contemporary society. Common ideas that were demonstrated were entrenched in such areas as physics, philosophy, mathematics, epistemology and logic. Earlier on some people had perceived Newtonian demonstrations as heretical, but with time the entire society would come to embrace his ideas as they began seeing their results in the economic and social aspects of life. This paper discusses early scientific exploration with regard to Newton’s experimental philosophy, the dramatic publicization of Newtonian physics and the effects of science to the society as well as Newtonian’s heretical attitude. It also describes the adoption of science in early education, the crisis of publicity of Newtonian scientific discoveries with regard to his personality, a positive competition among the scholars that resulted in the popularization of Newtonian principia, and, finally, Whiston’s universal deluge.

Early Scientific Exploration: Newton’s Experimental Philosophy

Until 1712, Newton had renounced the term experimental philosophy whose use was already widespread, especially during the Restoration in England. This was the time when he had just added a passage to the general scholium of the principia, which had provided further details about his anti-hypothetical methodology. He introduced the terminology for polemic reasons as a way of trying to defend his theory of gravity against Cartesians and Leibnizians’ criticisms. His experimental philosophy may have very little to do with the experiment, but it rather tries to look at empirical science more broadly. In his manuscripts, Newton provides insightful tips regarding the use of experimental philosophy, the formulation of his methodology and particularly the use of such terminologies as phenomenon, induce and deduce, among others.

Newton hitherto remains a renowned experimentalist who ever associated with the term ‘experimental philosophy’, which is further closely related to the restoration science and the early royal society. Earlier, when Newton was commencing his journey of scientific studies, the term ‘experimental philosophy’ was popularly incorporated in many scholarly articles. His principia is considered an experimental work, even though the term is largely designated for empirical science, which, according to him, meant deduction as well as induction, which he used in the definition of his new methodology. However, this definition terribly puzzled a number of scholars who could not see any connection between his sentiments and the practicability of scientific practice.

In his natural philosophy, Newton asserted that although he had not established the real cause of gravity, he at least demonstrated that it existed. He did this by enumerating various discovered properties of gravity and indicated that it acted in proportion to the quantity of matter in body and volume, but not to the surface, as mechanical forces would. His methodological definition of experimental philosophy, therefore, has two essential elements, which are the distinction of experimental philosophy from hypothetical one, and the inference of propositions in experimental philosophy from the phenomena made universal by induction.

The rejection of hypotheses by Newton is an element that is habitual in his natural philosophy as opposed to his initial publications. He rejects hypotheses that are imaginary, not experimentally oriented, but allows those that have some experimental support, even if they are insufficient to be considered as demonstrated scientific principles. Newton believed that the latter kind of hypothesis was quite constructive, signified new experiments and at the same time rendered properties and principles that were previously discovered logical. This meant that the way of achieving certainty in science was unclear due to these mingled propositions or principles.

As much as Newton was hailed for his scientific assertions in experimental philosophy, he was highly criticized for failing to provide empirical evidence for his discoveries, whilst he subjected other scholarly discoveries to ridicule due to the lack of practicability. Nonetheless, discrepancy contributed to more experimentally oriented scientific discoveries. At least the underlying concept of science became its practicability, part of it which would substantiate the idea invented beyond a reasonable doubt. It is unclear whether he ever proved his famous law of gravity by experiment, even if this discovery later contributed significantly towards the development of many studies of the earth in relation to the universe. Gravity has widely been the basis of many concepts in physics, mathematics, chemistry, and astrology, among others.

For instance, magnetism has been the core concept in the subject of electoral, mechanical and civil engineering, where it has been used to substantiate and explain numerous natural phenomena, including the characteristics of the solar system. This concept borrows heavily from the law of gravity. Furthermore the knowledge about gravity has widely been embraced in technological and scientific researches, which have brought about much advancement and have transformed the world tremendously in various aspects. 

Publicization of Newtonian Physics and Effects of Science on the Society

After rejecting Cartesianism, William Whiston embarked on the mission of developing a new theory to explicate the Creation. The basis of his principles was the cause of Noachian Flood and the final conflagration. By May 1696, the results of work were published becoming the first full length popularization the principia. It is also known to be the second idea after the lectures of Richard Bentley Boyle, in which Newtonian precepts were introduced to a broader audience.

Newton’s cometography and gravitational physics formed the basis for Whiston’s cosmogony, even though his first work greatly owed to Thomas Burnet and John Woodward. Seeking to vindicate himself in 1698, Whiston recalled the experience of his early infatuation with Burnet’s sacred theory of the earth, which he left behind the moment he encountered Newton’s ideas. After he rejected the Cartesian mechanics, which underpinned Burnet’s theory of earth, Whiston was apparently deprived of mechanisms to explain the earth’s tilting characteristic, which is a phenomenon largely discussed in Burnet’s theory. Reflecting on Newton’s discovery about the certainty of a comet passing near the earth, Whiston began to express wonder if the consequence of this comet would result in alteration of the earth’s axis, similarly to the solstice behavior of the sun every year.

After making various calculations in a bid to add weight to these sentiments after shedding the revolutionary engraving of Newton’s comet’s principia, Whiston further reasoned that the vapors from the tail of the comet could cause the torrents similar to those of the Noachian flood. Whiston received his first inspiration from Newton’s ideas acknowledging that the new theory would not have been possible without them. Besides, Newton’s ideas also played a considerable role in the editing of Whiston’s theory, as mentioned in his memoirs.

In addition to that, Whiston confessed that in May 1695 he discussed his work with Isaac Newton who got an opportunity to familiarize himself with the draft and managed to make necessary corrections. Certainly, the testimonies in question were largely meant for strategic purposes mainly and adding authority to make his work credible by associating it with Newton. In the real sense, the new theory clearly rested on the Newton’s principles of physics, in which many of its core details complied with the ideas of Newton before and even after Whiston’s work was published. The work was expected to be useful for making analysis and summarizing the dynamics of Newton’s new theory and his thoughts.

Similarly, Newton’s providentialist views concerning the role of comets as agents of transformation in the solar system were profoundly shared by Whiston. The same views are hitherto outlined by the historians of science. Extensively, Whiston also made use of the gravitational theory of Newton reinforcing his assertion that the earth lacked diurnal rotation. Even Newton himself had confessed that he did not know of any mechanisms that would have initiated the earth’s diurnal rotation. Later, Newton had also come to believe that the 1680 comet had great possibilities of falling into the sun. This situation could cause the solar orbit to flare up and cause the earth to incinerate.

Moreover, Newton and Whiston shared the beliefs of plurality of worlds, natural theology, pre-millenarian eschatology, and literal biblical hermeneutics, and also shared position of necessitated singular interpretations as a limit to biblical prophecy. Apart from that, Whiston shared more than merely commentary periodicity with Newton. Some ideas and beliefs Newton himself would have never published in his lifetime. Summarily, Whiston put a stamp on Newtonian philosophy, thus fast tracking its popularity during the early 18th century.

Publicizing of Newtonian Heresy and How It Influenced Religious Beliefs

When Whiston realized that some of his friends, including his fellow Newtonian Samuel Clarke, doubted his doctrine of trinity, he became suspicious that Newton himself was responsible for initiating Clarke’s departure from the Athanasian Trinitology. Eventually, Whiston himself was obliged to drift away from Trinitarianism after accomplishing his investigations of church history. Although Whiston was modest about the specific time that he began to notice Newton’s heresy, given his early adoration of Newton, his awareness undoubtedly played a fundamental role in his own departure to the Anglican Church.

Whiston himself reflects on various instances when he and Clarke gained personal access to Newton’s prophetic and theological ideas. Whiston had arrived at the Arian Christology, in which the Father was assumed as the only true God and further alluded to the Son as a subordinate of the Father. These were similar ideas raised by Newton. Whiston is still considered a staunch follower of Newton to whom he unveiled virtually all aspects of his heresy. Apparently, it is most likely that all of those occasions occurred before 1710 or probably before 1709. Consequently, owing to the prevailing circumstances and the nature of inspiration hat provided by Newton, Whiston too became heretic within a range of four to five years after becoming a Lucasian Professor. However, unlike Newton, Whiston enthusiastically made his talent conspicuous as he began to inform some of the prominent clergymen about his alleged discovery of the scam about the Church of England’s primitive truth in favor of corruption, namely Athanasian Trinitarianism.

In spite of the usual cheerful mood that Whiston portrayed, he alsoo acted with a degree of circumspection and forbearance. Later he drafted letters to the Canterbury and York Archbishops in order to importune the counsel to carry his findings forward. Acknowledging human weakness, he prudently subjected the matter to further deliberations until it could be brought before the ignorant. In response to this move, Archbishop Thomas Tenison gave Whiston his advice after thorough review of the matter, so that he could proceed with necessary precautions. However, he avoided commenting on the necessity of his views to be presented to others for necessary considerations.

Ultimately, Whiston was obliged to discard the preferred policy of the Archbishop of confining his heresy to the cognoscente’s ranks despite his friends and fellow clerics offering him cautionary appeals. He decided to take reformation to the wider audience, and sometimes he would introduce the anti-Trinitarian sentiments at St. Clement’s Church, where he gave his public lectures. The persistence and relentlessness on the part of Whitson attracted a lot of debate among both the intelligent and the ignorant. Later he drew followers from both sides of the divide, which joined him in the efforts of publicizing the Newtonian heresy. Within a span of five to seven years, the radicalized heretical group had gained immense strength and clearly became a threat to the Church of England’s doctrines. Apparently, some strong beliefs entrenched in the church’s doctrines began to be relaxed following the consistent drifting of the staunch followers away from the epitome of those doctrines. 

It is clear that the prevalence of scientific reasoning, whose founder was Newton, weakened numerous religious beliefs, as many began to question those doctrines that lacked biblical orientation. Besides, the fact that the clergymen did not have sufficient answers concerning the perplexing discrepancies of certain biblical clauses made it even worse, as heretics would find a basis to justify their ideas.

Adoption of Science in Early Education: Whiston, Newton and the Royal Society

In 1703, Newton was elevated to the status of presidency of the Royal Society of London. This happened when Whiston was still serving as a lecturer at the University of Cambridge. The moment Newton took an oath, his enemy Robert Hook returned to the dust where he had previously been. The 15th of December, 1703 was the very first time that Newton attended a meeting of the society in his new capacity as the president. He then required a new curator of experiments with hope of replacing Hooke who was the London’s instrument maker. Newton explicitly intended to revive the manner in which experiments were conducted in the society. By the end of the decade, Newton disentangled the Royal society from Gresham College where his perennial enemy had been dwelling.

The first decade of the eighteenth century was associated with the establishment of a new home for the Royal Society as well as the instigation of public experimental lecturing in London. This increased the pace of experimental activities in the society, as the former assistant James Hodgson presided over the first experimental lecture course in early 1705. There was a steady progress in these activities, and by 1707, lectures had been extended to Hauksbee’s new premises in Wine Office Court just a few yards from where the Royal Society had relocated. When Whiston finally arrived to London in late 1710, these experimental lectures had in fact translated into a fully fledged institution and many Londoners had sought admission to benefit from the knowledge that was being disseminated by Newton and his colleagues.

Whitson was also incorporated into this upcoming institution following his abundant experiences in delivering lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he had lectured with his colleague Rodger Cotes. Whitson revived his zeal of stabilizing his income as well as re-establishing some of his lost prestige. In 1711, during summer season, Whiston embarked on teaching mathematics at his residence in London, and by March same year, he had began offering his mathematics lectures in the London coffeehouses. Prior to that, he had also assisted in his first experimental lecture course in London, where he delivered lectures alternately with Humpfrey Ditton, while his nephew Francis Hauksbee, Jr. conducted the necessary experiments.

The alliance between Whitson and his colleague was very convenient, since the experiments could be conducted at the instrument making shop of his colleague Hauksbee, as he could manage to secure a strategic premise Crane Court on the most auspicious street. Surprisingly, the duo delivered their course lectures not far from the Royal Society. Because of this proximity, Newton cultivated a habit of passing by Hauksbee’s premise on his way to attend the meeting at the Royal Society until his demise in the year 1727. While Newton managed to oversee the experimental activities of the chattered Royal Society at the end of the court, Whitson presided over similar experiments at a more or less informal society within the vicinity.

The curator of Newton’s experiments was John Theophilus Desaguliers, while Whiston’s lectures were demonstrated by Hauksbees. The Whiston-Hauksbee institute offered admission to anyone as long as they could pay the course fee of about two guineas, which catered for a wide range of experiments all of which required standard pieces. This provision was not adopted by the Royal Society, which was socially restrictive. The common characteristic between the Royal Society and Whiston-Hauksbee institute wass that both of them followed seasonal patterns nad they both went on recess during summer months. Meetings of the Royal Society could be held concurrently with the Whiston-Hauksbee’s experimental lectures. In fact, the time when Whiston and Hauksbee conducted their experimental lectures, the Royal Society conventions were held on a weekly basis with a number of members adjourning afterwards to a coffeehouse.


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