The Loom

i-cecdc39098edb8698a81bd85afbad220-lightning.jpgBefore 1833 there were no scientists.

It was in that year that William Whewell, a British philosopher, geologist, and all-around bright bulb, coined the word scientist. His mentor, the poet Samuel Coleridge, thought the English language needed a term for someone who studied the natural world but who did not inhabit the lofty heights of philosophy (like Coleridge).

There are plenty of people who lived before 1833 that most of us would call scientists–Isaac Newton, Antoine Lavoisier, Edmund Halley, Carol Linnaeus to name just a few. But the word would have been meaningless to them. The closest term they might use was “natural philosopher.” Their work and ideas were still deeply rooted in medieval ways of thinking about the world, and about the work they did.

Science did not emerge suddenly in a sudden onslaught of Modern Reason crushing Old Ignorance. Its rise was much slower and much more interesting. One of the most important parts of science as we know it is a way for people to share their observations and experiments. Today peer-reviewed journals are at the core of the scientific process. But until the seventeenth century, nothing like them existed. Natural philosophers generally were more interested in what the ancient Greeks and Romans had to say about medicine, physics, and biology, than what they might observe for themselves. In 1665, a group of natural philosophers in England got together and decided to publish what is arguably the first scientific journal: the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.

It’s still going strong today, putting out a lot of important papers. And for the next couple months, the Royal Society is making the entire archive–all the way back to 1665–available for free.

In a press release, the Royal Society pointed to some particularly neat papers, such as Ben Franklin’s 1752 description of flying a kite in a thunderstorm. But I immediately looked up a much older paper about lightning from 1666, entitled “A relation of an accident by thunder and lightning, at Oxford.”

I first came across this paper a couple years ago while working on my book Soul Made Flesh. In the book, I describe how scientists natural philosophers discovered how the brain works in the 1600s. I focus mainly on Thomas Willis, widely considered the first neurologist. Willis did astonishing work, recognizing some of the fundamental features of the brain–that the flesh of the brain itself was the seat of thought, for example, rather than the spaces around it, known as ventricles. Willis published the first accurate pictures of the brain, in the first book about the brain. He argued that melancholy, epilepsy, and nightmares were all chemical disturbances in the brain. He even coined the word neurology.

For all that, however, Willis was still floundering in the dark. He had no idea of how the brain communicated with the rest of the body. He laid out an elaborate theory about how particles (“spirits”) moved around in the brain and then traveled down the nerves. But he had no actual evidence for this idea. And he knew nothing about electricity.

The communication recounts how Willis and his colleagues dissected a man killed by lightning. The bolt had thrown its victim, an Oxford scholar, out of the boat he had been rowing. When the scholar’s body was brought back to town, Thomas Willis came to see it along with his assistant Richard Lower and the mathematician John Wallis, who later wrote the . They picked up the man’s hat and put their fists through the hole the lightning had torn. His doublet had been ripped open and his buttons knocked off. Willis and his friends found spots and streaks across the torso where the skin seemed to be seared and hard, “like Leather burnt with the fire,” Wallis later wrote to the Royal Society.

The following night Willis and company returned, along with a crowd of onlookers, to cut the man open. “The whole Body was, by night, very much swell’d,” Wallis wrote. The stench that rose from the body was unbearable, but they soldiered on because such an opportunity might not come again in their lives. “There appear’d no sign of contusion,” Wallis wrote, “the brain full and in good order; the nerves whole and sound, the vessels of the brain pretty full of blood.” They opened the man’s chest and found that the burns did not reach below the skin. “The Lungs and Heart appear’d all well, and well-colour’d without any disorder,” Wallis wrote. The heavens had struck the man dead, and yet the natural philosophers could find nothing changed inside the body.

It would take Benjamin Franklin and other eighteenth century scientists to begin working out the nature of electricity, and to recognize its role in the nervous system. But I still like to picture Willis puzzling over a cadaver, not realizing that the man had been killed by the same thing that made thought possible.

Here are some other landmark papers you can find in the archives…get them while you can.

The Complementary Structure of Deoxyribonucleic Acid
F.H.C Crick and J.D Watson – 1954

On the Hoyle-Narlikar Theory of Gravitation
S. W. Hawking – 1965

An Account of an Experiment Made by Mr. Hook, of Preserving Animals Alive by Blowing through Their Lungs with Bellows
Robert Hooke – 1667

An Account of a Very Odd Monstrous Calf
Robert Boyle – 1665

Observables upon a Monstrous Head
Robert Boyle – 1666

Account of a very remarkable young musician (Mozart)
Daines Barrington – 1770

Alexander Fleming (Paper describing early stages of penicillin discoveries) – 1922

Arthur Eddington’s solar eclipse observations, confirming Einstein’s general theory of relativity (Phil Trans 1919)

Comments

  1. #1 Ian Findlay
    September 14, 2006

    I would rather like to go back to being a “natural philosopher”.
    It would also make the Ph.D. easier to explain.

  2. #2 Natasha
    September 14, 2006

    Just the Doctor of Philosophy part Ian? Or the philosophical attitude one earns during the several years that it takes to get one?

    Gould writes a very nice account of the shift from ‘natural philosophy’ to a more empirical attitude to science, at least in biology, in ‘The Hedgeghog, the fox and the Magisters pox’.

    The other word Whewell coined was consilience. Gould talks a lot about this view Whewells, of how the sciences work at their best, (ie when we get lucky) when consilience occurs, when knowledge ‘jumps’ together.

  3. #3 marcel
    September 14, 2006

    You wrote:

    The bolt had thrown its victim, an Oxford scholar, out of the boat he had been rowing. When the scholar’s body was brought back to town, Thomas Willis came to see it along with his assistant Richard Lower and the mathematician John Wallis, who later wrote the . They

    How did you intend to conclude the sentence above?

  4. #4 Matt
    September 14, 2006

    In the later years of the nineteenth century T.H. Huxley built upon the defintion of a scientist by legitimizing it as a professional occupation. Through education and practical experience scientists were trained for employment in both private industry and governmental surveys. Science was no longer the preserve of the independently wealthy.

  5. #5 Old Hippy
    September 15, 2006

    “Science did not emerge suddenly in a sudden onslaught of Modern Reason crushing Old Ignorance.”
    I would think not, with 50% of Americans still not understanding evolution, and preferring instead to believe in a fairy tale.

  6. #6 Stephen
    September 15, 2006

    So a ‘natural philosopher” isn’t just someone who comes by philosophy easily?, like a ‘natural baseball player’…

  7. #7 Chad Okere
    September 16, 2006

    Okay, I’m looking at the site but I don’t see how to access the archives for free, everything appears to be something that you have to pay (thousands of dollars) to get. Where do you go to actually browse the open collection?

  8. #8 Owlmirror
    September 16, 2006

    Okay, I’m looking at the site but I don’t see how to access the archives for free, everything appears to be something that you have to pay (thousands of dollars) to get. Where do you go to actually browse the open collection?

    Hm. I can get the free access just fine. For example:

    Experiments to Determine the Density of the Earth.
    By Henry Cavendish, Esq. F. R. S. and A. S. – 1798

    When you click on the link:

    http://www.pubs.royalsoc.ac.uk/archive

    Do you not see the paragraph that says this:

    For the first time the Archive provides online access to all journal content, from Volume One, Issue One in March 1665 until the latest modern research published today ahead of print. And until December the archive is freely available to anyone on the internet to explore.

  9. #9 Carlie
    September 16, 2006

    I had trouble finding it too – it depends on which part exactly you click on. Not the black links at the top, not the red journal package links at the bottom, but the red “Journals digital archive” about a quarter of the way down the first page.
    Lots of good paleo stuff in there, and I’m having fun reading Leeuwenhoek’s stuff too. It’s all so excited and fun – “I saw little things!”

  10. #10 H. P.
    September 22, 2006

    In your piece Lighting, the mind, and a World before Scientists, You mention “neat papers, such as Ben Franklin’s 1752 description of flying a kite in a thunderstorm.” Is there such a paper?

    The reference you give is to a description of several of Franklin’s experiments on electricity, including one on how to kill a turkey with a charge from a Leyden jar, but no kite experiment.

    If you know of a reference, and/or how this experiment was actually done, I would love to hear it.

    thank you. hp

  11. #11 Owlmirror
    September 22, 2006

    You mention “neat papers, such as Ben Franklin’s 1752 description of flying a kite in a thunderstorm.” Is there such a paper?

    There most certainly is. The archive is searchable, after all. You just need to search.

    A Letter of Benjamin Franklin, Esq; to Mr. Peter Collinson, F. R. S. concerning an Electrical Kite
    Philadelphia, Oct 1, 1752; Read: Dec 21, 1752

  12. #12 HPC
    September 24, 2006

    Thank you! Since you gave a reference to this experiment in your paper,

    In a press release, the Royal Society pointed to some particularly neat papers, such as Ben Franklin’s 1752 description of flying a kite in a thunderstorm.

    but the reference was to a different paper of Franklin’s on electricity (also interesting) I was at a loss how to proceed.

    Thank you again for your help.

    HPC

  13. #13 CHC
    February 14, 2007

    God is not only a matter of believing, but of “knowing” in a personal sense as one knows a doctor or a father or a friend, and of having mind-blowing tangible daily evidence of his existence that cannot be explained away even by the most cynical. There comes a point where reason becomes insignificant.

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