The Scientific Quest



SLOWLY the mood of Europe, for better or for worse, was changing from supernaturalism to secularism, from theology to science, from hopes of heaven and fears of hell to plans for the enlargement of knowledge and the improvement of human life. The upper classes, pursuing their epicurean ways, made little protest against a religious faith which they conceived to be salutary for the unfortunate masses excluded from the paradise of pedigree; yet even among the gilded few there were some who played at science, balanced equations, burned their fingers or sniffed their noses in laboratories, or gazed in puzzlement at the multiplying stars. In Paris fashionable ladies crowded to Lémery’s lectures on chemistry, to Du Verney’s demonstrations in anatomy; Condé invited Lémery to his very exclusive salon, and Louis XIV appointed Du Verney to aid in educating the heir to the throne. In England Charles II had a “chimical laboratory” of his own; barons, bishops, and barristers contrived experiments; elegant mistresses came in their carriages to observe the marvels of magnetism; Evelyn dabbled in physics, and proposed to establish an institute for scientific research; Pepys, between ships and skirts, plied the microscope, the air pump, and the dissecting knife, and became president of the Royal Society.

The universities lagged behind the public in the new interest, but private academies took it up. First, apparently, the Academia Secretorum Naturae at Naples (1560); then the Accademia dei Lincei at Rome (1603), to which Galileo belonged; then the Accademia del Cimento which his disciples Viviani and Torricelli founded at Florence (1657). This last institute was dedicated by its name to experiment, and took Cartesian doubt as its starting point; nothing was to be received on faith; every problem was to be investigated without regard to any existing sect or philosophy. 1 Some of these academies were short-lived, but they left successors when they died. Academies were established at Schweinfurt (1652), Altdorf (1672), and Uppsala (1710); in 1700, after thirty years of pleading by Leibniz, the Berlin Academy took form; and to Leibniz’ credit we must ascribe also the Academy of St. Petersburg (1724).

In France the Académie des Sciences developed from the meetings (1631–38) of Mersenne, Roberval, Desargues, and other scientists in the home of Pascal’s father in Paris, or in Mersenne’s monastic cell. It formulated a program “to work for the perfection of the sciences and the arts, and to seek generally for all that can be of use or convenience to the human race”; it resolved also “to disabuse the world of all those common errors that have long passed for truth,” but it counseled its members to avoid discussion of religion or politics. 2 In 1666 the Academy received a royal charter, and a room in the Bibliothèque Royale; at Versailles we may still see a large canvas, by Testelin, in which Louis XIV presents this charter to a group headed by Christian Huygens and Claude Perrault. Each of the twenty-one members received an annual salary from the government, and funds for expenses; in effect the Academy became a department of the state. Louis was especially kind to astronomers. He invited Cassini from Italy, Roemer from Denmark, Huygens from Holland, and built for them a splendid observatory. When Hevelius of Danzig, who had distinguished himself by his studies of the moon, lost his precious library in a fire, the King sent him a substantial gift to repair the loss. 3 Laplace credited the Académie with most of the scientific advances made in France; but its dependence upon a King closely allied with the Church proved detrimental to the progress of French science, 4 and the English forged ahead.

It was characteristic of England that its scientific academies were private foundations only incidentally indebted to the government. About 1645, according to John Wallis, he became acquainted in London with “divers worthy persons, inquisitive into natural philosophy and other parts of human learning, and particularly . . . Experimental Philosophy.” 5 They agreed to meet once a week to discuss mathematics, astronomy, magnetics, navigation, physics, mechanics, chemistry, the circulation of the blood, and other such subjects. This “Invisible College,” as it was then called, took its inspiration from the House of Solomon in Bacon’s New Atlantis. When Wallis removed to Oxford as professor of mathematics, the association divided into two sections, one of which met in the lodgings of Robert Boyle at the University, the other in Gresham’s College, London; Wren and Evelyn were early members there. The political turmoil intervening between the death of Cromwell and the Restoration interrupted these London meetings, but they were resumed soon after the accession of Charles II; and on July 15, 1662, the King conferred an official charter upon the “Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.” The ninety-eight “original fellows” included not only scientists like Boyle and Hooke, but poets like Dryden and Waller, Wren the architect, Evelyn, fourteen peers, and several bishops. Between 1663 and 1686 some three hundred additional fellows were enrolled. No class distinctions divided them; dukes and commoners rubbed elbows in the enterprise; and poor members were exempt from dues. 6 In 1673 Leibniz, admitted to membership, declared the Royal Society the most respected intellectual authority in Europe. As early as 1667 Thomas Sprat published his excellent History of the Royal Society; he too, though he became bishop of Rochester, was stirred by the Baconian breezes that were blowing over England.

Some theologians complained that the new institute would undermine respect for the universities and the Established Church, but the moderation and caution of the Society soon calmed ecclesiastical opposition. Its strange experiments amused the court and the King, who laughed when he heard that it was weighing air and meditating mechanical flight. Swift satirized it in Gulliver’s Travels7 as the Grand Academy of Lagado, whose members made plans for extracting sunshine from cucumbers, and for building houses from the roof downward; and Samuel Butler, author of Hudibras, told how a club of scientists was excited by discovering an elephant in the moon, only to find that it was a mouse in their telescope. 8 But it was under the auspices of the Royal Society that Evelyn improved English husbandry, that Sir William Petty established the science of statistics, that English science and medicine advanced beyond anything known in contemporary France or Germany, that Boyle almost founded chemistry, that Ray revolutionized botany, Woodward geology, and Newton astronomy. The Society made thousands of experiments in chemistry and physics; it received, dissected, and studied the bodies of executed criminals; it became a repository of clinical reports from physicians in all parts of the country; it collected reports of technological developments; it kept in touch with scientific research abroad. Its emphasis on natural processes and law discredited superstition and the witchcraft persecution.

In 1665 Henry Oldenburg, its secretary, began to publish The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which has continued to our own day. It invited and received contributions from abroad; it was among the first to print the findings of Malpighi and Leeuwenhoek. Oldenburg had come to England in 1653 to negotiate a trade treaty for his native Bremen; he remained, and became a friend of Milton, Hobbes, Newton, and Boyle; he corresponded actively with scientists and philosophers in all parts of the world. The members of the Royal Society, he said, “have taken to task the whole universe”; 9 and he wrote to Spinoza:

We feel certain that the forms and qualities of things can best be explained by the principles of mechanics, and that all effects of Nature are produced by motion, figure, texture, and the varying combinations of these; and that there is no need to have recourse to inexplicable forms and occult qualities, as to a refuge from ignorance. 10

Through these Philosophical Transactions, the Journal des savants, the Giornale de’ letterati, and the Acta Eruditorum the scientists and scholars of Europe were able to overcome national boundaries, to keep in touch with one another’s work and findings, and to form a united army of advance in a vast creative enterprise. Almost hidden away in their studies, laboratories, and expeditions, ignoring or surviving the clatter of politics, the march of regiments, the din of dogma, the mists of superstition, and the prying agents of civil or ecclesiastical censorship, they pored over texts, test tubes, and microscopes, mingled chemicals curiously, measured forces and magnitudes, plotted equations and diagrams, peered into the mysteries of the cell, burrowed into the strata of the earth, charted the movements of the stars, until all the motions of matter seemed to fall into an order of law, and the overwhelming immensity of the universe seemed to obey the predictions of the amazing human mind. In France Fermat, Pascal, Roberval, Mariotte, Perrault, and whole families of Cassinis; in Switzerland the Bernoullis; in Germany Guericke, Leibniz, Tschirnhaus, Fahrenheit; in Holland Huygens and Leeuwenhoek; in Italy Viviani and Torricelli; in Denmark Steno; in Scotland James and David Gregory; in England Wallis, Lister, Boyle, Hooke, Flamsteed, Halley, Newton: these and many others, in this brief period of Europe’s history from 1648 to 1715, labored apart and together, solitary and conspiring, to build, day by day, night after night, the mathematics, astronomy, geology, geography, physics, chemistry, biology, anatomy, and physiology that were to effect a fateful revolution in the modern soul. Oldenburg, feeling this internationalism of science, and never dreaming that nationalism might make science itself a partisan and cataclysmic tool, saw in this inspiring co-operation an omen of a better life. “I hope,” he wrote to Huygens, “that in time all nations, even the less civilized, will embrace each other as dear comrades, and will join forces, both intellectual and material, to banish ignorance and to make true and useful philosophy regnant.” 11 It is still the hope of the world.

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