, Volume 21, Issue 3, pp 657-665
Date: 27 Mar 2012

The European birth of modern science: an exercise in macro and comparative history

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The rise of the West is, quite simply, the pre–eminent historical phenomenon of the second half of the second millennium after Christ.… It is perhaps the most challenging riddle historians have to solve … it is only by identifying the true causes of Western ascendancy that we can hope to estimate with any degree of accuracy the imminence of our decline and fall. (Niall Ferguson, The West and the Rest)

Typically, for Niall Ferguson, these bold claims and big questions are routine business. Yet, they are the sort that give many academic historians of science a frisson of fear and excitement, to be exorcised with a smirk of ironic dismissal. To economic historians like Ferguson, with large historical (hence contemporary) problems to tackle, the rise of modern science in the West after 1500 is not a challenge to be dissolved by administering a slow drip of the dilute acid of expert micro studies. Modern European science is, in his metaphor, one of the West’s ‘killer applications’, along wit ...