The Fashion for Physics: Public Lecture Courses in Enlightenment France

By Lynn, Michael R. | The Historian, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

The Fashion for Physics: Public Lecture Courses in Enlightenment France


Lynn, Michael R., The Historian


On 21 November 1754 a French newspaper, the Affiches de Paris, announced the beginning of a new lecture course in experimental physics by the famed savant and long-time popularizer Jean Antoine Nollet. This course--covering such topics as electricity, mechanics, optics, and magnets--was but one in a myriad of similar endeavors all aimed at disseminating Enlightenment science to the people of Paris. Hundreds of popularizers offered thousands of public lecture courses and demonstrations throughout the eighteenth century. Nollet himself gave well over 150 classes in the course of his 35-year career. (1) Parisians went wild over science, a predilection reported by the celebrated writer, Francois-Marie Arouet, called Voltaire, as early as 1735. Everybody, he noted, was "beginning to act like a geometer and a physicist." (2) By the end of the century, this trend had expanded exponentially, causing one social commentator, Jean-Baptiste Pujoulx, to claim that "savants roamed the streets, and our boulevards have become schools of physics" (3) As a common cliche suggested, in the eighteenth century "science was for everyone." (4)

During the course of the Enlightenment, science expanded from private laboratories and royal academies and entered popular culture. No longer limited to elite savants, science became an object of popularization and commodification as the general public began to see it as something worth spending its time and money to acquire. "The taste for physics is so spread out in the world today," wrote the author Jean Ferapie-Dufieu, "that it seems necessary ... to have at least a smattering of it." (5) Many people pursued knowledge in order to sprinkle their conversations with scientific metaphors and references or perhaps even to utilize and incorporate this newfound knowledge into their lives. Science as cultural capital took on a whole new role as knowledge of scientific language, methods, goals, and discoveries became a necessary and significant part of eighteenth-century culture. Public lectures on a number of topics such as natural history, experimental physics, chemistry, and mathematics drew in an extraordinary array of men and women from a variety of social, economic, and educational backgrounds. However, these lectures have received little attention from historians of eighteenth-century France who have focused instead on the study of movements like Mesmerism or technological innovations like ballooning. Most of the historiography on French popular science examines the work of the intellectual elite. The relationship between science and popular culture, however, has rarely been addressed for Enlightenment France. (6)

This essay uses experimental physics as a case study to examine the nature and process of popularization in eighteenth-century France and explains its place within the larger cultural milieu of the public sphere and urban scientific culture. Disseminators employed a variety of methods when taking science out of elite academies and laboratories and delivering it to the general public. While most historians of French science have focused on printed popularization, this essay examines public lecture courses and their significance within the urban cultural milieu. Those venues provided Parisians with access to elite scientific activities and gave people an opportunity to influence the ways in which that science should be made available for a commercial audience. Public lecture courses, like salons, scientific and literary clubs, reading societies, freemason lodges, and provincial academies, provided locations where interested amateurs could appropriate science. Most important, the rise of public lecture courses indicated a conceptual shift in the way people viewed science. The attraction of science did not come about because of some dramatic change in the content of science or because the Enlightenment philosophes asserted that it was important. Instead, the form and forum of scientific popularization underwent a transformation at the instigation of both disseminators and their audience. …

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