Circa 1320 – 1382
Popularizing Science. A scholar of mathematics and natural philosophy (mainly celestial physics), Nicole Oresme devoted a great deal of his time to translating works of natural philosophy from Latin into French for secular audiences, thus popularizing a scientific understanding of the world.
Education and Career. A student of Jean Buridan at Paris and secretary to the household of King John II of France, Oresme divided his time between the University of Paris, where he taught, and the cathedral of Rouen, where he was named canon in 1362 and dean in 1364. In 1377 he was elected bishop of Lisieux and was consecrated the following year.
Scientific Contributions. A vigorous campaigner against astrology, Oresme argued successfully that whether the earth rotated daily while the heavens stood still or the heavens rotated and the earth was still, it would appear the same to people on earth, so there is no necessary reason to assume one or the other. Like other Scholastic thinkers of his day, Oresme spent much time debating Aristotelian ideas and explanations for natural phenomena, but by the mid fourteenth century, European thought had added so many new and different non-Aristotelian explanations for natural behaviors that he also began explore some “modern” concepts. Accepting Buridan’s idea of impetus to explain motion, he proposed that the heavens operate like a giant mechanical clock, but his theory also maintained a role for divine action in the heavens. His most fundamental contribution to science was to the understanding of how various forces, velocities, resistances, and other quantities—are related through ratios.
A. George Molland, “Nicole Oresme and Scientific Progress,” in Antiqui und moderni, edited by Albert Zimmermann (Berlin: deGruyter, 1974), pp. 206–220.
Nicole Oresme, Nicole Oresme and the Kinematics of Circular Motion: Tractatus de commensurabihtate vel incommensurabihtate motuum celt, edited and translated by Edward Grant (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1971).
Oresme, Nicole Oresme and the Medieval Geometry of Qualities and Motions: A Treatise on the Uniformity and Difformity of Intensities Known as Tractatus de configurationibus qualitatum et motuum, edited and translated by Marshall Clagett (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968).