A Boring Century?

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.



Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

13 responses to “A Boring Century?

  1. They were probably trolling.
    Leaving aside the difficulties of actually enumerating and weighting advances, the simple fact is that, in my area, chemistry, a great deal of work was being done, e.g. on phlogiston and other related theories and the final losses of the remainder of alchemical and Aristotelian ideas.

    Or the Industrial evolution began, with steam engines and the use of coke for blast furnaces.
    And once you have a good knowledge of the history of science, you see how it is all related. To take a famous example, some people bring up Hero’s Aelopile as something important and say that it suggests the Greeks could have built the steam engine.
    Which is total bilge.
    They lacked the materials technology, the physical understanding of processes, etc etc, necessary to do so. Science and technology builds upon what has been done before (albeit with lots of little leaps of ingenuity and creativity in there too). It’s like people complain about the medieval period being dull and nothing ever changing. Whereas you can clearly see a technological progression through the era, massive changes of fashion in the short and long scale, and all sorts of fun things going on.

  2. Fernando

    Even in mathematics: one just has to mention Leonhard Euler.

  3. Is there a boring century, scientifically, after say 1200 CE? (And even that lower limit means taking a Eurocentric perspective.)

  4. Tony Angel

    I certainly agree with you that it was not a boring century for the sciences. As well as the examples you give there was the Longitude Prize which generated input from many of the sciences, even biology if you count the poor dog!

    Perhaps the chap was being English Centric as well as only referring to Mathematics. I have read that in a sense Newton was a curse on the further development of Mathematics in England during the 18th Century because the universities either lived on Newton’s Laurels or felt that Newton had left them with nothing else to discover.

  5. Speaking of Rutherford, stamp-collecting, and two (among many) “scientific methods” …

    Here’s part of Thony’s lengthy comment in evolvingthoughts mentioned above (and the whole comment is well worth looking up):

    Newton is/was the founder of the modern scientific method and used observed facts to test his theories and wished to use Flamsteed’s observations for this purpose. Flamsteed was however a true Baconian, theories should only be formed when enough observational facts have been collected, collated, catalogued and categorized then and only then. He regarded Newton’s use of his data to test, in his opinion, premature, and therefore dubious, theories as a misuse and an insult. What we actually have here is not an argument about data but a war between two conflicting philosophies of scientific method, Rutherford’s “scientists verses stamp collectors”.

    It’s ironic that Rutherford, although a physics chauvinist, was by no means a “theory first” guy. The history of the positron provides a dramatic illustration. In 1931, Dirac predicted the anti-electron as an outgrowth of his work on the quantum theory of the electron. In 1932, Anderson submitted his paper on the discovery of the positron. Anderson later wrote, “The discovery of the positron was wholly accidental” — he had not been inspired by Dirac’s paper, he’d been pursuing independent studies of cosmic rays. Blackett, who had been trying to verify Dirac’s prediction, confirmed Anderson’s discovery.

    And Rutherford was not pleased. In 1933 he said:

    It seems to me that in some way it is regrettable that we had a theory of the positive electron before the beginning of the experiments. Blackett did everything possible not to be influenced by the theory, but the way of anticipating results must inevitably be influenced to some extent by the theory. I would have liked it better if the theory had arrived after the experimental facts had been established.

    In short, Rutherford was much in line with Flamsteed’s views on the proper relation of the theory and experiment (as is borne out by Rutherford’s own scientific work).

    • Peter Galison’s book Image and Logic shows how an analogue of the Newton vs Flamsteed methodological dispute has persisted even beyond Rutherford’s era. Some physicists opted to hunt for new particles in the tracks made in cloud chambers while others built spark chambers that were tuned, as the immense detectors at CERN were tuned, to test extremely specific theories proposed by high theory. (Pace John Wilkins, all observation may not be theory-laden; but some of it sure is, especially when it costs billions.)

      I’m hardly competent to make a judgement about the relative importance of the scientific discoveries of various centuries. On the other hand, as a reader of general history interested in the question of how modernity happened, I’d sure put in a vote for the 18th Century. Especially in terms of politics and morals, what was marginal radicalism before 1700 was commonplace, even boring commonplace, after 1800. For example, just to single out one salient transformation, though women didn’t get the vote for a hundred plus years in most countries, they became part of the conversation in the Enlightenment. Overall, the change in outlook was so thoroughgoing that it has become almost invisible because we take it for granted.

  6. All of this leaves unanswered the question of which was the most boring and unproductive of the five centuries between 1500 to 2000. Or is that a blog post for the future?

  7. Michael Weiss

    Even the early middle ages, although not (as far as I know) scientifically. (Except , perhaps, for the monoenergetic heresy :-))

    • Thony C

      Oh, the early middle ages are very definitely scientifically fascinating. Decline of Greek (Romano-Hellenistic) science. Survival of rudimentary science in the monasteries. Retention and decline of science in Byzantium. Development of science in both India and China. Beginnings of science in Islamic Empire and so on and so forth.

  8. Good points. I suppose for a historian, decline is every bit as interesting as progress. Assuming one is willing to employ those categories.

    (And of course the justified correction for eurocentricism.)

  9. Pingback: The Giants’ Shoulders #62: Alpha Pappa | A Glonk's HPS Blog

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