The Seventeenth Century

Very often historians call the seventeenth century ‘the cradle of modern science’, because it started with so little knowledge and ended with so much. It made impressive and significant contributions such as Galileo’s mechanics, Kepler and Newton’s astronomy, Harvey’s blood circulation, Descartes’ geometry, Van Leeuwenhoek and Hooke’s microscopy, and last but not least, Perrault, Mariotte and Halley’s experimental investigations which produced a concept of the hydrologic cycle. This was the period that saw the downfall of Aristotle, and the remoulding of man’s mind, by replacing the teleological aspects of the previous centuries with experimental philosophy. John Dryden (1631–1700) in his poem Longest tyranny, written in 1663, the year of his election to the Royal Society, said:

The longest Tyranny that ever sway’d
Was that wherein our Ancestors betray’d
Their free-born Reason to the Stagirite
And made his Torch their universal Night.
So Truth, while only One supplies the State,
Grew scarce, and dear, and yet sophisticate;
Until ’twas bought, like Empirique Wares, or charms,
Hard words sealed up with Aristotle’s Armes.

Aristotle thought that ‘all men by nature desire to know’, but it took Johannes Kepler and some two thousand years to state that ‘to measure is to know’. According to Francis Bacon (1561–1626):

‘There are two ways, and can only be two of seeking and finding truth. The one, from sense and reason, takes a flight to the most general axioms, and from these principles and their truth, settled once for all, invents and judges of all intermediate axioms. The other method collects axioms from sense and particulars, ascending continuously and by degrees so that in the end it arrives at the most general axioms. This latter is the only true one, but never hitherto tried.’

The various developments in the field of hydrology during the seventeenth century are discussed herein, except those of Pierre Perrault, Edmé Mariotte, and Edmond Halley. They will be treated separately in the next chapter.

By Asit K. Biswas, Chapter 9 of the book: History of Hydrology, 1970, North-Holland Publishing Company, Amsterdam.

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