Some time back Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt had an interesting post on her Guardian H-Word blog with the intriguing title We have always been modern, and it has often scared us. In the comments someone who hides behind the pseudonym Trogopterus included the following statement in his comment:
…the 18th century was the most boring and unproductive of the five centuries between 1500 to 2000.
Highly provocative, in fact one might even call it history of science fighting talk. My century of research is more interesting than yours! This statement caught my attention because many years ago, when I first started becoming seriously interested in history and philosophy of science, if I had read this claim I would have probably passed it by in silence sagely nodding my head in silent agreement. Now when I read it I react as if bitten by a tarantula, why? What has changed? Firstly I have actually learned something in the intervening years and secondly the whole field of history and philosophy of science has gone through a seismic change that apparently passed Trogopterus by without him noticing it.
The attitude encapsulated in this brief statement is a product of the mind-set described by Ernest Rutherford’s infamous quote, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting”. This point of view based both its history and its philosophy of science on an idealised model of mathematical physics. Modern science was created in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Newton et al., took a giant step forwards in the nineteenth century, Faraday, Maxwell etc., and exploded in the twentieth century, Planck, Einstein, Rutherford, Bohr and so on and so forth. The stamp collectors are not really scientists and don’t need to be taken into consideration!
I have blogged about Rutherford’s discriminatory concept in the past when discussing the philosophical dispute between Isaac Newton and John Flamsteed, where I characterised the physicists as Newtonian empiricists and the stamp collectors as Baconian empiricists. Whereas the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries where to a great extent the centuries of the Newtonian empiricists the eighteenth century was very much the coming of age of the Baconian empiricists and was anything but boring.
The previous two centuries had seen the establishment of Newtonian or mathematical sciences mathematical astronomy, mathematics and mathematical physics the eighteenth century saw the establishment of the so-called Baconian or historical sciences biology and its subdivisions botany and zoology, geology and palaeontology; where very often the same researchers were involved in developing more than one field. This is the century of such giants of science as Cuvier, Buffon, Linné, Maupertuis, Hutton, Erasmus Darwin and many others all of whom are on eyelevel with a Descartes or a Galileo.
The eighteenth century also saw the emergence of chemistry as a modern discipline at first under the auspices of the phlogistonists such as Black, Watt, Priestly, Cavendish et al. and then under the ‘modernists’ led by Lavoisier. Even John Dalton belongs as much to the eighteenth century as the nineteenth.
Trogopterus actually admitted that he only regards the mathematical sciences as being of significance when challenged by both Becky and myself, he stated:
I do indeed privilege certain sciences. That is because I have a very narrow range of knowledge: I am a mathematician with an interest in the history of mathematics. I know nothing about artisanal cultures and industrial contexts (In fact, to confess the truth, I am not really interested in them.)
However even here his rejection of the eighteenth century is founded on ignorance or at least a common misconception. The foundations of modern mathematics and mathematical physics were laid in the seventeenth century but it is a mistake to think that what we view as mathematical physics or analysis are products of that time. Any modern physicist opening Newton’s Principia or looking at early calculus texts would be perplexed at what he or she would find there. Modern mathematical physics and analysis are both products of the eighteenth century erected on the foundations of Newton, Leibniz Descartes et al. by people like Euler, numerous Bernoullis, Laplace, Lagrange and others.
Astronomy also saw a very substantial change in the eighteenth century. From antiquity to Flamsteed observational astronomy was concerned with creating star maps of the heavens as a grid against which to track the movement of other celestial bodies, fundamentally a mathematical exercise. In the eighteenth century largely in the hands of Charles Messier and William Herschel the function of observational astronomy changed radically. These men began to catalogue and categorising celestial objects in the same way that their Baconian colleagues were categorising plants, animals, geological features and fossils. Observational astronomy changed from being a positional mathematical science to being a historical science like zoology. This change would lead to a change in cosmology from being concerned with a singular solar system, as it had been since mankind first started to systematically observe the heavens, to being the study of multiply star systems, galaxies and a whole host of other deep space objects.
The above is but the briefest of outlines but I hope I will have indicted to my readers that far from being “the most boring and unproductive of the five centuries between 1500 to 2000” in the history of science, the eighteenth century was in its own way as fascinating, stimulating and productive as any of the other four centuries in the period. If I wasn’t already committed to my Renaissance I would have no problems taking up the eighteenth century as an area of research and I am certain that I would never suffer a dull moment.