The Bourgeois as Scientist and the Sociability of the Learned Society
In the 1830s the Emulation Society of the Jura, the learned society of Lons le Saunier, received an essay entitled 'Singular Inflammation of Phosphorous in the Body of a Chicken'.1 The paper, offered by an amateur scientist to an assembly of his peers, recounted a family supper in celebration of Mardi Gras. The author, as père de famille, sat at the head of the table and carved the last chicken before Lent. As he cut into the chicken, he observed smoke, which he took to be steam, albeit of an odd colour. His neighbour at the table saw flames inside the chicken, and all present noted an odd smell. Subsequent events demonstrated the true scientific interest of the case:
O great prodigy! With what great astonishment we saw a brilliant phosphorous flame rise from the upper region of the insertion of the neck and spread itself in an instant from one end to another, with a few atoms falling in flames on the table. This sad apparition killed the appetite. . . . Most of the diners refused to eat this infernal dish. Some of the more courageous (myself included) hazarded a taste and finding neither the odour nor the taste of phosphorous, but, on the contrary, a tender and succulent meat, ate with pleasure.
As a scientist, the carver of the infernal chicken could not leave the mystery unexplored. He proceeded to dissect the chicken on the dining- room table and included a detailed account of the results in his paper. He was perplexed by the absence of any internal organic lesions to explain the chicken's combustion, until he recalled an experiment he had performed a few days earlier. He had heated some phosphorous and, finding the smell and the smoke too strong, had thrown it out of the window. He had explained the phenomenon to his children and warned them to stay away from the phosphorous, but the chickens in the yard must have eaten it.
This solution to the mystery did not entirely satisfy the gentleman-____________________