We are all familiar with the impact of Enlightenment thinking on the politics of the American Revolutions. Overtures or Locke and Rousseau are found in debates leading to the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers debating the Constitution. Thomas Pane forcefully renounces the ideas of hereditary rule (Common Sense) and Patrick Henry literally screams for the ideals of the Enlightenment from his Virginia Statehouse lectern. America was founded on a platform of refutation of Establishment and support of traditional political power. At the same time, and for many of the same reasons, there is a global revolution in scientific thought during the 18th Century. Long held beliefs about how the world works, its origins, and the nature of natural philosophy were being challenged.
We live today in a society that largely accepts modern science but this acceptance of the power of individual investigators to understand how the world works. This was absolutely NOT the case in 1750! “Perfect Science” and the authority of the Roman Catholic church dominated how learned people thought about the world. Stones fell to the earth because, as Plato argued, that is where they belong. Animals never evolve, they are, as it was written in Genesis, made by God. Its not really that people believed these things, but the act of challenging these beliefs was upsetting to the established political order of the world. People believed what they were told by the accepted authorities (especially the Church) and all experience that conflicted with these accepted beliefs were viewed with extreme suspicion – witness the belief in witchcraft as an explanation for calamity.
Enlightenment science, starting in the late 17th Century, encouraged a focus on direct observation, inquiry and experimentation. Things no longer happen because they should happen or because of divine intervention but they happen because of discoverable and understandable natural laws (that may have been authored but not enacted by God). Furthermore, since these observations and experimentations are well within the ability and capability of all men, we have the rise of Men of Letters or Gentlemen Scientist.
We are in a somewhat awkward period when the academies that taught men (it was only men) the orthodox learning passed down from theologians and ancient Greek philosophers and the great research universities where all people (men and women, people from all over the world and of all races and creeds) study the process of scientific learning. We are “Gentlemen” Scientists in the 18th Century because science is not a profession but is dominated by amateurs and only men of means really could engage in meaningful inquiries (everyone else worked for sustenance). Much like our political breather, the Gentleman Scientist hopes that through demonstrations, debates, and lectures we will change how people view the world. Our goals are to convince all people that they can trust their experiences and that the world is predictable and stable not a place subject to the whims and passions of God and demons. We tinker, we lecture, we experiment and most importantly we write! With the rise of relatively cheap and accessible print publications, 18th Century Science is fueled by the rapid and easy sharing of learning on a global basis.
My persona as a Gentleman Scientist focuses on the impact of ordinary men on the development of modern science in the 18th Century. In my program I share learnings from the “Big Science” of the era:
- Electricity – We have a Hauksbee Generator and Leyden Jar, and use it to demonstrate the creation, flow, and storage of “electric fire.” Benjamin Franklin was certainly not the only person experimenting with electricity in the Americas.
- Disproof of Spontaneous Generation – The idea that God creates all life took a bizarre twist when germ theory become more accepted. Where did these creatures come from and could they simply appear from nowhere as they appear to?
- Global position through astronomical observation and the determination of Longitude. The Moors were able to measure distances north and south (latitude) with astrolabes and observations of Polaris but distances east to west (longitude) was elusive. It was not until John Harrison built a chronometer able to keep time on a rocking ship’s deck that accurate longitude was able to be measured as the difference between local and Greenwich Time.
- Proof of earth’s rotation through measurement of the Coriolis Effect. Pendulums, precess because the support literally moves during the pendulum swing. This is an important precursor to the “Big Science” of the 20th Century – Relativity.
- Determining the size of the solar system through observations of the Transit of Venus. In 1761 and 1769 there were two opportunities to observe Venus passing between the earth and the sun. The Royal Academy send people to all part of the Earth (Capt. Cooke was sent to Tahiti) to get multiple measurements of this astronomical event so that the distance of the Earth to the Sun could be computed.
My goal in this impression is to help modern scientist understand the lives of those who paved the way for our profession. The Gentleman Scientist created modern scientific journals and pursued studies that many cases would be impossible to do today and they did these remarkable accomplishments with crude instruments and clever reasoning.