X. THE IMPACT OF SCIENCE UPON CIVILIZATION

If this chapter, however inadequate, has wound itself out to an abnormal length, it is not only because we have recognized the scientists as well as their science as belonging to history, it is also because the evolution of ideas is our basic interest, and because ideas played a role in the eighteenth century next only to the nature of man himself. If the achievements of science in that revolutionary era were not as startling as those of the preceding century from Galileo and Descartes to Newton and Leibniz, they entered more powerfully into almost every phase of European history. Through Voltaire and a hundred lesser exegetes the results of research were spread in the middle and upper classes; the new sciences of chemistry, geology, and zoology joined in the slow but profound impress of expanding knowledge upon the literate mind; and the effects were endless.

The influence of science, strange to say, was least and last upon technology. Man’s ways of sowing and reaping, mining and manufacturing, building and transporting, had been formed through centuries of trial and error, and traditions and inertia only reluctantly accepted improvements suggested by laboratory experiments; not till the end of this era did science accelerate the Industrial Revolution. Even so, the first stages of that revolution owed a great deal to chemical researches on dyes; the use of chlorine for bleaching textiles was established by Berthollet (1788), and the industrial manufacture of soda and sal ammoniac was introduced by James Hutton and Nicolas Leblanc. The study of gases by Boyle and Mariotte, and of heat by Black, shared in the development of the steam engine—which, however, was due chiefly to mechanics on the scene. As the century proceeded, a closer rapport grew between practical men seeking production and scientists seeking truth; the Académie des Sciences sent investigators into fields, factories, and workshops, and issued twenty volumes of Descriptions des arts et métiers (1761–81). In return the burgeoning industries began to call upon science for data and experiments; so Coulomb reduced to reliable formulas the tension of beams, and the problems of the steam engine stimulated science to new researches in the relation between force and heat. In the nineteenth century these liaisons were to transform the economic and physical world.

The major impact of science was naturally upon philosophy, for philosophy, which is the quest of wisdom, must build upon science, which is the pursuit of knowledge. At every step science seemed to enlarge the world in complexity and scope, and new perspectives had to be formed. It was no small adjustment that the human mind had to make after discovering that man was not the center of the universe but an atom and moment in the baffling immensities of space and time; that adjustment has not yet been made. By a proud response as old as Copernicus man was almost overcome by the grandeur of his discovery of his littleness; the pride of science obscured the modesty of philosophy; men conceived new utopias in terms of science, and the idea of progress offered a new religion to the modern soul.

The effect of science upon religion—or rather upon Christianity—seemed lethal. Doubtless men would continue to form or favor conceptions of the world that would give hope and consolation, meaning and dignity, to harassed, fleeting lives; but how could the Christian epos of creation, original sin, and divine redemption stand up in a perspective that reduced the earth to a speck among a million stars? What was man that the God of such a universe should be mindful of him? How could the poetry of Genesis survive the explorations of geology? And what of the dozen or more religions in regions now opened up by geography?—were they clearly inferior to Christianity in their doctrines or their moral codes and results? How could the miracles of Christ, not to mention those widely ascribed to saints and Satan, be reconciled with the apparent reign of universal law? How could the soul or mind of man be immortal when it seemed so dependent upon the nerves and other tissues visibly doomed to decay? What must happen to the religion so challenged by a science daily growing in scope, achievements, and prestige? And what must happen to a civilization based upon a moral code based upon that religion?


I. This chapter is especially indebted to A. Wolf’s History of Science, Technology, and Philosophy in the 18th Century.

II. Now began a century of electrical tricks. Georg Bose, a professor in the University of Leipzig, invited several friends to dinner; secretly he insulated the table, but connected various objects on it with an electricity-producing machine hidden in the next room; when the guests were about to eat he signaled an aide to start the machine; sparks flew out from dishes, viands, flowers. He introduced to the company an attractive young woman whose shoes insulated her from the floor, but whose person had been charged with electricity; he invited the guests to kiss her; the gallants received shocks which, reported the professor, nearly “knocked their teeth out.”18

III. In one of his early experiments he burned two diamonds to prove that the sole product of their combustion was carbon dioxide. As this was also the only product of completely burned charcoal, Lavoisier in this way proved the chemical identity of charcoal and diamonds as forms of pure carbon.

IV. The name Herschel is typically Jewish, and the astronomer’s first biographer, E. S. Holden, thought that the father, who was named Isaac, was Jewish. The evidence is inconclusive. The boy received Christian baptism at an early age. Cf. The Jewish Encyclopedia, VI, 362d, and Cecil Roth, The Jewish Contributions to Civilization, 189.

V. Halley’s comet is expected again in 1986.

VI. “Even in the classical [Newtonian] mechanics Laplace’s proof of the stability of the solar system is no longer considered conclusive.… No rigorous answer has been given.”—Florian Cajori in notes to Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, p. 678.

VII. Astronomic latitude is the angular distance between the equator and the plumb-line direction of gravity at any given place. The meridian of a place is the great circle that passes directly over it from pole to pole.

VIII. “Just as, in civil history, we examine titles, study coins and medallions, decipher ancient inscriptions, to determine the epochs of human revolutions and fix dates of events in the history of society, even so, in natural history, we must exhume the archives of the world, draw from the bowels of the earth old monuments, collect their remains, and gather into a body of evidence all the indications of physical change that can enable us to go back to the different ages of nature. This is the sole means of fixing some points in the immensity of space, and of placing a certain number of milestones on the eternal route of time. The past is like distance: our view decreases, and would be quite lost if history and chronology had not placed beacons and flares at the obscurest points.”

IX. Sainte-Beuve phrased this brilliantly: “‘Where were you,’ said God to Job, ‘when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ M. de Buffon seems to say to us, without excitement, ‘I was there.’”75

X. He served as president of the Royal Society of London from 1778 to 1820, and bequeathed his library and collections to the British Museum.

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