Contents Index

Contexts -- Science

The decades leading up to the publication of Frankenstein were among the most fruitful in the history of science and technology, and Victor Frankenstein in his obsession with his research represents the new scientific spirit that would become professionalized during the nineteenth century.

Scientific progress was relatively slow in Europe until the sixteenth century, when the orthodoxies inherited from the ancients -- especially Aristotle and Galen -- began to give way to innovations. During the Renaissance, the exposure of Europeans to new phenomena (often in the New World) was coupled with an increased willingness to question traditional knowledge, and the result was the development of a scientific epistemology based on empirical observation and the systematic verification of hypotheses based on controlled experiments. The greatest proselytizer for the new method was Sir Francis Bacon, who advocated the new scientific epistemology in a series of works in both English and Latin early in the seventeenth century.

Progress was not immediate, but in the face of ever-increasing amounts of observed scientific data, it was necessary to resort to some system in order to make sense of it all. Beginning in the sixteenth century and continuing into the nineteenth, Europe's scientific horizons were expanded as Europeans explored much of the rest of the globe, often as part of colonial projects. The result was the discovery of countless new species and new perspectives on the heavens, as well as the need to solve the problems introduced by the exploration itself -- medical, technical, and navigational. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the scientific method advocated by Bacon was firmly in place. Coupled with the invention of important new devices -- the compound microscope, for instance, and the telescope -- scientific method allowed investigators to begin to make newly systematic approaches to many long-puzzling matters of natural history and medicine. The founding of learned societies, most notably England's Royal Society, marked the beginning of the institutionalization of scientific investigation.

In the eighteenth century the establishment of official scientific societies and institutions in Great Britain continued, involving governmental funding of various astronomical observatories and missions of exploration in search of botanical and zoological specimens. But the century was most noteworthy for its use of increasingly precise measuring devices: more precise measurements in turn made possible more refined scientific theories. Isaac Newton's enormously influential theories on gravitation, for instance, grew out of discrepancies between the predictions of the old models and more accurate observations of actual orbits. Increased precision in balances allowed chemists to reject phlogiston theory in favor of modern atomic theory, just as improved optics allowed for the discovery of both new celestial bodies and new microorganisms and anatomical structures.

The decades at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth were marked by two central movements: first, the classification, codification, and systematization of the tremendous amounts of data accumulated in the past; and second, the application of much of this newly acquired knowledge for practical purposes in the nascent Industrial Revolution. The monumental scientific projects of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries demonstrate the former trend: the Species plantarum of Linnaeus (1753) described and classified over six thousand species of plants; Albrecht von Haller's nine-volume Elementa physiologiae corporis humani (1757-1766) codified anatomy and physiology; Lavoisier's Traité élémentaire de chimi (1789) established modern chemistry. Perhaps the single most impressive synthesis was Buffon's massive Natural History (1749-1804) in forty-four volumes. In the course of such overviews, many of the long-standing questions of chemistry, electricity, magnetism, evolution, and reproduction were finally settled in the opening decades of the nineteenth century.