Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Science in the Eye of the Beholder, 1789-1820*

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Science in the Eye of the Beholder, 1789-1820*

Article excerpt

ELEVEN

Over the last forty-odd years I have been occupied with preparing two large books and several spin-offs on French science during the long half-century of its preeminence, from the 17705 into the 18205.' So far as science internally is concerned, the argument of the final book is that the scientific movement of the first two decades of the nineteenth century was the seedbed of mathematical physics, a rigorous and deterministic biology, and physical chemistry. With respect to physics and biology, we have to do with the formation of new disciplines. Not so chemistry, an established discipline wherein the focus and emphasis shifted from the affinities and properties of reagents, taken as givens, to the physical factors affecting the course of reactions.

The term physics was then displacing natural philosophy and entailed experimental, not mathematical procedures. Phenomena newly to be subjected to mathematical analysis, largely at the hands of Pierre-Simon Laplace his disciples, their opponents, Joseph Fourier, and Sadi Carnot, were those pertaining to optics, electricity and magnetism, acoustics, heat, work, and energy. In optics Etienne Malus formulated expressions governing double refraction. Augustin Fresnel worked out the equations entailing the wave theory of light. Simeon-Denis Poisson mathematicized the forces of electrostatic and magnetic attraction and repulsion. André Ampère accomplished an experimental and mathematical construction of electrodynamics. Poisson and Sophie Germain developed competing formulations for the behavior of sound waves. Fourier invented the analysis that goes by his name in order to give a mathematical account of the propagation of heat. Sadi Carnot's heat cycle was the starting point of thermodynamics. Gustave-Gaspard Coriolis, finally, defined the quantity work and equated it to what would be called kinetic energy.

Although Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck and Gottfreid Reingold Treviranus had independently coined the word biology in 1803, the new term came into currency only after Auguste Comte employed it in Cour de philosophie positive (1830-1842) to cover the new disciplines of comparative anatomy and experimental physiology. Until then zoological anatomy had been a branch of natural history wherein it served to classify species in accordance with their external characteristics. Employing dissection and not mere observation, Georges Cuvier and Etienne Geoffroy SaintHilaire, scalpel in hand, inaugurated the transformation of anatomy and of zoological taxonomy by analyzing how the internal organization of animals related species to each other and fitted them to occupy the environmental niches that they do. Such was the program of research that occupied much of the staff of the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. In the same period Xavier Bichat, Julien Legallois, and foremost among all Francois Magendie inaugurated experimental physiology with the practice of vivisection, interfering with or excising particular organs or systems of organs in the living animal in order to determine their contribution to the functioning of the whole organism. Until then physiology, introspective and literary in vein, had been largely a philosophical part of medicine.

The essay that follows is an inquiry into how the body of science wherein those changes occurred appeared in the eyes of contemporary practitioners. The motivation is simple curiosity in the first place. In the second place, my sense is that the currently enjoined prohibition of whig historiography is probably overdone.2 It may well be impractical if not impossible to write historically of science and other activities solely in the light of contemporary knowledge, awareness, and standards. I shall attempt here to determine what one could and what one could not say about early 19th-century French science if it were possible to induce in oneself an experimental amnesia blanking out awareness of what came after. …

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