An Essay on Thomas Kuhn's First Scientific Revolution, the Copernican Revolution

By Swerdlow, N. M. | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, March 2004 | Go to article overview

An Essay on Thomas Kuhn's First Scientific Revolution, the Copernican Revolution


Swerdlow, N. M., Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


Abbreviations:

CR Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution

ET Kuhn, The Essential Tension

SR Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

US Conant, On Understanding Science

THE COPERNICAN REVOLUTION, Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought, to give its complete title, Thomas Kuhn's first book, may be the second best selling book ever written on the history of science. As I write this essay, the Harvard University Press edition is in its nineteenth printing, and that does not include its many years as a Vintage Book. It was also one of Kuhn's first publications in the history of science; previously he had published but six papers, on seventeenth-century chemistry and on the Carnot cycle, five of which were short notes. The book had its origin in lectures for a course at Harvard using a historical approach to teach, not so much science as an understanding of science, to students outside the sciences, that were later rewritten for a more general readership. This history is important to understanding the character of the book, and even the history has a history, which is worth telling.

On 16-18 September of 1936 Harvard University observed its Tercentenary with a very grand commemoration at a very difficult time. It was, as one always says, "the Depths of the Depression," the Tercentenary Fund had not done well, and the alumni, who were counted on for contributions, were mostly of the sort who referred to the guest of honor, the honorary chairman of the United States Harvard Tercentenary Committee, Harvard's most famous alumnus, President Roosevelt ('04), as "that man in the White House" and "a traitor to his class." Few despised Roosevelt more than Harvard's former president, Abbot Lawrence Lowell, who feared that he would use the occasion "to make a stump speech" for the November election, and at first refused to preside over the meeting of the alumni at which Roosevelt was to speak. But despite these forebodings, it turned out to be a splendid occasion, featuring a floating concert on the Charles by the university band accompanied by fireworks for a crowd estimated at 350,000 on both sides of the river. Seventy-one papers presented at a conference preceding the festivities, reported at length in newspapers, were followed by no less than sixty honorary degrees awarded to the likes of Compton, Eddington, R. A. Fisher, G. H. Hardy, Levi-Civita, Malinowski, Piaget, and, for reasons that escape me, C. G. Jung. The principal events of the last day, the Tercentenary itself, were, in the morning, the Salutatory Oration in Latin by Professor Edward K. Rand (Salvete Omnes! it begins), an address by Governor James M. Curley, in no way an alumnus, who referred to Roosevelt as "dear to the hearts of the alumni of Harvard," the Oration by Harvard's president, James Bryant Conant, and the awarding of honorary degrees; in the afternoon, at the meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association, speeches by Learned Hand ('93), President James Rowland Angell of Yale, who warned of the dangers to endowed institutions of property, income, and estate taxes, and President Roosevelt.

The ceremonies, for an audience of seventeen thousand, were held in Harvard Yard between Widener Library and Memorial Church, and mostly it poured rain-there is a picture of Roosevelt, who refused an umbrella, sitting defiantly in a wet morning coat and top hat-leading President Angell to remark in his speech that he had heard a saturated graduate say, "This is evidently Conant's method of soaking the rich." Due to the rain, the afternoon session was adjourned to Sanders Theatre, where Lowell gave Roosevelt the most perfunctory introduction ever given to a president of the United States outside of Congress, "The next speaker it would be impertinent for me to introduce to you. . . . Gentlemen, the President of the United States!" The opening of Roosevelt's speech is also memorable. As Conant later reported, he began:

A hundred years ago, when Harvard was celebrating its two hundredth anniversary, Andrew Jackson was President and Harvard men were sore afraid. …

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