Sunday, November 1, 2015

Revolution in thought and practice (Books - The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow)

Erasmus Darwin, 18th Century physician, writer, grandfather of the more famous Charles, and one of the eponymous lunar men of Jenny Uglow's book, wrote in the later years of his life:
Credulitas. Credulity.  Life is short, opportunities of knowing rare; our senses are fallacious, our reasonings uncertain; man therefore struggles with perpetual error from cradle to the coffin.  He is necessitated to correct experiment by analogy, and analogy by experiment...
If you live life with an ounce of curiosity in you, you likely recognize the longing Darwin so pithily expressed . If you, like Darwin, James Watt and Matthew Boulton inventors of the steam engine, Josiah Wedgwood potter and chemist, Joseph Priestley religious radical and the discoverer of oxygen, or any of the other principal characters in Uglow's The Lunar Men (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), live to pursue your curiosities, then this is your creed.

These men, and all of Uglow's central characters were male, explored, discovered, and invented not because they had earned a special degree, nor because they claimed a spot in a profession called science, but because a desire to know about their world drove them to it. In some cases this was dispositional, in others, their trades drove their interest.  Wedgwood became knowledgeable about chemistry because he wished to find a material that produced more durable pots or more striking glazes. Their curiosity and ambition also drove them to create the Lunar Society, where they exchanged ideas, launched collaborations, and helped to revolutionize industry and the broader society of which it is a part.

Those driven to understand and give order to their world were known at the time not as scientists, but as philosophers. Their job was not merely inquiry, but the art of reporting their discoveries which, according to Uglow, made for less of a hard line between art and experiment. What struck me about this book was less the camaraderie between these influential men that is the angle used to sell Uglow's narrative, than the fundamental change the world underwent in understanding itself and the narratives created to give it these new order.  The the mid to late 1700s saw a revolution in thought perpetuated by Rousseau, the American and French revolutions, the creation of engines, and the organization of the elements that make up all matter.  Until the 1780s, water was understood as an 'element.'  The Joseph Priestley identified that water was composed of constituent substances, including one he called phlogiston.  Lavoisier identified 'oxygene' and his terminology invented modern chemisty:
Here logic and rationality were the key: using Greek roots, each compound would be named after the elements they were made up of, their names depicting the reactions that formed them: adding 'hydrochloric acid' to zinc would create 'zinc chloride,' releasing the gas 'hydrogen' in the process.  the system was clear and appealing... To Keir chemistry was an experimental and above all exploratory science: 'In fact, I neither believe in phlogiston nor in oxygene,' he wrote.  Phlogiston was a mere 'mode of explanation,' and his objections to the French were that they were dogmatic, pedantic and exclusive. If you adopted the terminology, you implicitly adopted all the unproved ideas that went with it - all the 'oxygene, hydrogene, calorique and carbone, all of which are imaginary or at least hypothetical beings.'  
This paragraph is the crux of Uglow's engaging book.  She conveys something fundamental about the influence of science on our lives.  The chemical composition of the earth is a fact, but it is a fact that must be understood through language.  Oxygen as a gaseous component of air or one of two constituents of a water molecule has always existed, but only calling that substance 'oxygen' and describing the forms is takes in combining with different substances calls it into existence as a chemical element.  The way we understand our whole world was invented not only by these men's inquisitiveness and actions, but by their words, and that is the point Uglow conveys with great clarity but in the form of an engaging story about the people who gave birth to these revolutions in idea and in practice.

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