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could get a better handle on the natural world by manipulating it through experiment was, to a large degree, the most important conceptual leap of the era. The idea that science could proceed not just through abstract theorizing about ideal cases (as many ancients had) nor just through passive observation of the world around us, but by systematically intervening in that world, observing the results of those interventions, and then generalizing those results into theories about how systems outside the laboratory behaved was unbelievable fruitful. The control aspect of this is important to emphasize: the revolution was not primarily a revolution toward empiricism strictly speaking—people had been doing science by looking at the world for a long time—but a revolution toward empiricism driven by controlled isolation[1].

This kind of interventionist approach to science was vital to the later theoretical breakthroughs: while Newton’s genius lay in realizing that the same patterns of motion lay behind the movement of bodies on Earth and in space, that insight wouldn’t have been possible if Galileo hadn’t first identified those patterns in terrestrial falling bodies. It was Galileo’s genius to realize that by reducing a system of interest to its simplest form—by controlling the system to hold fixed as many variables as possible—patterns that might be obscured by the chaos and confusion of the unmodified natural world would become more apparent. All of this is very well-known and (I take it) uncontroversial—at least if you take my simplifications in stride. My purpose here is not to comment on the history of science per se but (in good classical scientific fashion) to isolate and emphasize a single thread in this narrative: that of isolated decomposition of systems.

After the revolution that this approach precipitated in physics, the basic experimental method

  1. For more on the role of intervention in science, see Woodward (2011)