Representations of Space in Seventeenth Century Physics

by Miller, David Marshall

Abstract (Summary)
The changing understanding of the universe that characterized the birth of modern science included a fundamental shift in the prevailing representation of space the presupposed conceptual structure that allows one to intelligibly describe the spatial properties of physical phenomena. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the prevailing representation of space was spherical. Natural philosophers first assumed a spatial center, then specified meanings with reference to that center. Directions, for example, were described in relation to the center, and locations were specified by distance from the center. Through a series of attempts to solve problems first raised by the work of Copernicus, this Aristotelian, spherical framework was replaced by a rectilinear representation of space. By the end of the seventeenth century, descriptions were understood by reference to linear orientations, as parallel or oblique to a presupposed line, and locations were identified without reference to a privileged central point. This move to rectilinear representations of space enabled Gilbert, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton to describe and explain the behavior of the physical world in the novel ways for which these men are justly famous, including their theories of gravitational attraction and inertia. In other words, the shift towards a rectilinear representation of space was essential to the fundamental reconception of the universe that gave rise to both modern physical theory and, at the same time, the linear way of experiencing the world that characterizes modern science.
Bibliographical Information:

Advisor:Peter K. Machamer; J. E. McGuire; John Earman; Paolo Palmieri; Jonathan Scott

School:University of Pittsburgh

School Location:USA - Pennsylvania

Source Type:Master's Thesis

Keywords:history and philosophy of science


Date of Publication:06/02/2006

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