What drove pioneering scientists? Did they seek wisdom or wealth? Did they want to reveal nature or reform it? Were their insights brilliant or bizarre? And did they shape their world more than it shaped them?
In A History of Science, I explore the cultures, communities, and contexts in which these people gained their remarkable insights.
This podcast is produced by me, Dr Michiel Meulendijk. I am an information scientist and a history buff.
⑥ Revolutionary Science▪On the politicization of science during the French Revolution
The French Revolution was the culmination of Enlightenment thinking. But rather than celebrating science, the revolutionaries suppressed ideas and killed the people that held them.
In the last decade of the eighteenth century, one of the greatest experiments ever was being conducted. It wasn’t a scientific experiment, even though it was the culmination of Enlightenment thinking. It wasn’t led by scientists, although many of the most prominent leaders had discoveries and inventions to their names. And even though it was conducted in the name of progress and reason, it ended up suppressing ideas and killing the people that held them. I am talking, of course, about the French Revolution.
Hello and welcome to A History of Science: Episode 6: Revolutionary Science.
France was not a backward country before the revolution. Rather, it was closer to being the intellectual center of the world. During the eighteenth century, French academies had transformed from rigid schools teaching ancient concepts to breeding grounds for theorizing and experimentation. French public debate was alive with new ideas on natural philosophy and humanist thinking. Periodical publications, including the world’s first ever academic journal, Le Journal des Savants, disseminated these exciting new thoughts to eager French audiences.
The kings of France were amongst the enthusiastic patrons of this new scientific community. They very much liked to style themselves as enlightened monarchs of a modern state. As such, many institutions, observatories, and laboratories enjoyed the royal prefix – most notably the prestigious Royal Academy of Sciences, and were financially sponsored by the state. But individual researchers, too, were known to benefit from royal patronage. One alumnus of the University of Paris, who had become a renowned experimenter in his own right, was Pierre Polinière. He was known for exciting his audiences with demonstrations of scientific principles. At the height of his fame, king Louis XV invited him to lecture at his court. He allegedly dazzled the noble crowd by making an apple explode with an air-pump. Even Louis XVI, the ill-fated last king of France before the revolution, was known to have a keen interest in technology. Under his watch, scientists experimented with balloon flight in the gardens of Versailles, while he himself tried his hand at lock-making in his state-of-the-art workshop.
But it was in this enlightened society, inspired by thinkers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, where, in 1789, the revolutionary flash hit the pan. Frustrated by famine, taxes, and oppressive government, the lower house overthrew the political order and thoroughly reformed the state. In quick succession, parliament abolished feudal obligations, noble titles, tax exemptions, and corporal punishment. They introduced a constitution promising equality before the law, freedom of speech, and democratic representation. At the stroke of a pen, France had entered the age of modernity.
Or so the story goes. The ancient regime, the old order, was denounced as a tyrannical dictatorship, based on the arbitrary whims of a decadent aristocracy. The new France was to be built on the pillars of liberty, equality, and brotherhood – ideas that had somehow sprouted in that tyrannical intellectual climate of the ancient regime. Above all, though, the revolutionaries appealed to reason as the foundation of their ideal state. They envisioned a nation of enlightened people – citizens, not subjects – who formed a virtuous meritocracy, where no man would bow to another.
That hopeful assembly of equals in 1789 would soon be displaced by a wartime dictatorship that wielded terror as a revolutionary principle. Universities would be closed, scientists would be guillotined – all in the name of reason. In this episode, we’ll explore this ironic paradox.
⑤ The Philosopher’s Study▪On alchemy’s transition into chemistry
In the 16th century, alchemy became a victim of its own success. The more it achieved, the more its reputation suffered.
Cheating death. Curing every disease. Possessing unlimited amounts of gold. Such fantastic objectives were pursued all throughout medieval Europe by alchemists. They burned, melted, distilled, and vaporized any substance they could get their hands on. They tirelessly hunted for ancient codified scrolls in an attempt to unlock their hidden formulas. They drank, inhaled, and injected their mysterious concoctions. They suffered from lead and mercury poisoning. Their hands trembled as they picked up their flasks, their minds forgetful, anxious, and paranoid. Rather than the key to eternal life, they mostly found early graves.
In the Scientific Revolution, this superstitious alchemy died out. Modern, rational chemistry was born. Or so the story goes. In reality, there was a very thin line between the art of alchemy and the science of chemistry.
Hello and welcome to A History of Science: Episode 5: The Philosopher’s Study.
“Alchemy is a fine occupation. Not only is it very useful to human need and convenience, it gives birth every day to new and splendid effects.” Says Vanoccio Biringuccio, a mining engineer from Sienna in 1540. He continues: ”The art of alchemy is the origin and foundation of many other arts. It should be held in reverence, it should be practiced. The practitioner should enjoy that pleasing novelty which it reveals to him in operation.”
That pleasing novelty is the most direct reward for experimentation. That shiver up your spine as you peek through the microscope, or pour a few drops from a pipette into a test tube, is one of the cornerstones of science. It satisfies human curiosity, long before practical applications of discoveries, and any riches that may come with them, present themselves.
The joy of discovery was an essential ingredient of the Scientific Revolution. And as we have seen in our episode on Columbus’ voyage to America, discovery, strangely enough, had to be discovered itself. In the quote above, some fifty years after Columbus set foot on the new continent, our Italian mining engineer lovingly applies this new concept to alchemy. In his days, alchemy was the closest anyone could get to discovering new things and unraveling the threads of Creation. As such, alchemy sounds like a looming precursor to the Scientific Revolution, a promising token of what was to come.
That’s not how we remember alchemy, though, is it? In our collective memory it is much closer to the image I sketched in the introduction: crazy sorcerers working in damp basements pursuing their fever dreams of eternal life or unlimited gold. In this episode we will follow the transformation of medieval alchemy into a modern science. And especially, we’ll explore when, how, and why its reputation was utterly destroyed in the process.
What exactly alchemy was, is difficult to pinpoint. It was as much a craft as it was an art; as much esoteric mysticism as proto-science; and as much learning by doing as passing on ancient knowledge. People from any walk of life could find themselves in the elusive profession of alchemy: physicians and apothecaries, blacksmiths and masons, painters and sculptors, and peasants and noblemen alike.
Among them are many familiar names, often of people you would not expect to see in relation to alchemy. Leonardo da Vinci, who, among his many other occupancies, dabbled in alchemy, left countless notes describing alchemical procedures he had used in his art. Among these is a recipe for making mixed gold alloys look purer than they really are, an invaluable procedure for a Renaissance artist. Even Isaac Newton, arguably the hero of the Scientific Revolution, spent decades searching for alchemical texts, in a spurious effort to reorganize ancient alchemical wisdom into a coherent collection; not a stor...
④ Between Skin and Bones▪On surgery’s discord with anatomy
In the 16th century, great advances were made in anatomy. Amazingly, this didn’t lead to a single improvement in surgery, which remained crude, cruel, and lethal.
Are you as intrigued by the skeleton in this show’s logo as I am? Probably not. It does have its place in the history of science, though. It’s a five hundred years old drawing that comes out of the first modern anatomy book ever written. It has had people mesmerized by it ever since.
Nowadays, the writer of the book, the Fleming Andreas Vesalius, is hailed as a revolutionary proto-scientist and the founder of modern anatomy. And while those claims are not exaggerated, there is one thing Vesalius’ book did not have any impact on: medical practice.
His exquisitely detailed drawings of the human body did not shed doubt on the ancient practice of bloodletting, nor did they stop anyone from trepanning skulls as a treatment for insanity. They didn’t even improve amputations, Cesarean sections, or any other type of common surgery.
Hello and welcome to A History of Science: Episode 4: Between Skin and Bones.
The Scientific Revolution saw an unprecedented increase in knowledge in a wide range of subjects, from physics to astronomy to biology. By 1650, anatomists had dissected our bodies and learned the purpose of most of its organs; physicians had fiercely debated William Harvey’s theory of blood circulation – and relented to his evidence; physicists had viewed the makeup of our tissue through their microscopes, and had seen the tiny organisms that lived on it with their own eyes.
All was in place for a medical revolution. But nothing happened.
For centuries to come, the constantly increasing understanding of nature and anatomy did not change medical practice one bit. Until the late nineteenth century, doctors still relied on Hippocrates for their diagnoses and their cures. Why?
Now that’s a complex question to answer. One that can be approached from many different angles, involving an array of interesting characters and events. It is a question worth coming back to time and again, and we certainly will.
In this episode, we will explore this question from the perspective of surgery: why didn’t it change with advances in anatomy? And why was real progress – when it happened – so slow to spread? Especially, we will dive into the stories of two pioneers who made important discoveries in the very same decade, yet who never met: Andreas Vesalius and Ambroise Paré.
Andreas Vesalius and Dissection
In 1538, Andreas Vesalius stole a corpse. In the dead of night, he sneaked to the field of gallows in his hometown of Brussels. There, the tortured corpses of executed criminals were left to rot in gibbets, until nature devoured them. Vesalius cut down one of the unfortunate men’s corpses, cut it into smaller chunks, and took it home. There, he boiled the limbs one by one, until the flesh fell off and only the blackened bones remained. He then set himself to the task of painstakingly reassembling the body, bone by bone. When he was done, he had created the first anatomical skeleton since antiquity. It would make him world famous – and unpopular with his neighbors, no doubt.
Vesalius had to operate in secrecy, as the dissection of corpses was outlawed virtually everywhere in Europe. Killing someone was one thing, but depriving him of his body on Resurrection Day was a step too far in Christian Europe. Because of that, the last dissections had been performed in pre-Christian Greece. In the fourth century BC, Herophilus and Erasistratus had dissected the bodies of condemned criminals. Their texts had been lost, and what remained of their knowledge was Galen’s account of their work. That account, combined with the knowledge he had gained from animal dissections, formed the basis of medieval anatomy. And it was deeply flawed.
③ Enchanting Numbers▪On computers’ invention as mechanical calculators
Computing began long before the twentieth century. Mechanical calculators ran on cogs, wheels, and steam engines.
How would you like a job as a computer? Not a programmer, not even a mathematician. A computer. Someone who makes calculations. By hand. All day, every day.
I guess that doesn’t sound appealing. Until well into the previous century, however, those jobs did exist. And so did the word computer. It referred to these people, who worked patiently in the back-office of every factory, bank, and government department. There they calculated everything, from mortgages to railroad bridges to government budgets.
In the decades after the Second World War, they were quickly being superseded, first by mechanical calculators and later by electronic computers. To us in the twenty-first century, the idea that those jobs ever existed seems utterly ridiculous. But it took centuries of increasingly complex inventions and visionary realizations before manual computing was finally a thing of the past.
Hello and welcome to A History of Science: Episode 3: Enchanting Numbers.
Until the invention of the modern electronic computer in the 1940s, calculating had always been hard manual labor. In the sixteenth century already, Tycho Brahe, the astronomer who was renowned for the accuracy of his data, complained about it in the preface to one of his books. He strikingly reminded his readers that if they got tired of the many calculations in his writing, they’d better take pity on the author, who had had to do them all three times over.
The burden of calculating could be reduced somewhat using an abacus, but it remained tiring and mind-numbing work. During the Enlightenment, when the whole world was increasingly being interpreted in terms of math, the first attempts at mechanizing math itself were made. These early mechanical calculators marked the beginning of the long journey that culminated in the invention of the computer.
In this episode, we will explore the inventors of the mechanical computer. It is a story of men and women who lived centuries apart but were all ahead of their time. And who, in contrast to our heroes of our previous episodes, all applied science that was actually correct.
Blaise Pascal and the Pascaline
Let’s start off with a little thought experiment. Imagine a clock. But instead of twelve numbers, this one has ten. It starts at zero and counts up all the way to nine. And instead of just two arms, this clock has ten: one for each number. All arms move on the same wheel, so if one moves, they all move. And finally, the arms are all black, except for the one pointing to zero: that one is bright red. Congratulations, you have just invented a calculator.
Don’t see it yet? Let’s try a sum: three plus four. Imagine moving the red arm from the zero to the three. Now move the black arm that happens to point to the zero to the four. The red arm now points to seven: three plus four.
What I have just described is the Pascaline, the first ever mechanical calculator. It was invented in 1642 by the Frenchman Blaise Pascal. Pascal was something of a child prodigy, who would go on to become an influential mathematician and philosopher in his own time. When he was nineteen, however, he saw his father struggling with tax collection, and decided to invent a machine to help him with additions and subtractions.
Pascal’s machine was more advanced than the one you just imagined, even though the basic principles were the same. As you may have noticed, the clock-like calculator we discussed only works for sums under ten. Above that, you need some sort of mechanism to increment one digit at every ‘hour’ to a similar clock representing the tens. That way, a sum that passes nine will move on to zero on the same clock, but will add one digit to another clock on its left. Pascal designed an elegant lever for that operation,
② Beyond the Edge of the World▪On worldviews in Columbus’ time
Columbus discovers America. But more importantly, he discovers discovery itself.
In 1492, Columbus sailed west to prove that the world was round. His sailors, terrified of falling off the edge of the world, were on the brink of mutiny just as America’s coastline came into view.
Except they weren’t. Ever since antiquity, nobody who had given it a moment’s thought actually believed the world was flat. Especially sailors, who could see the world’s curvature on the horizon with their own eyes.
This myth of medieval people believing the world to be flat was constructed after the fact. It was a story of ignorance that neatly fitted with the newly defined ‘Dark Ages’. It showed just how far men had come, and how truly the Renaissance man was head and shoulders above his ancestors.
Or is there more to the story than that? The discovery of America may not have proven to anyone that the earth was round, but it did completely uproot everyone’s concept of what the world looked like.
Hello and welcome to A History of Science. Episode 2: Beyond the Edge of the World.
In 600 BC, Pythagoras was the first of the ancients to call the world round. In the centuries that followed, revered Greek writers including Plato and Aristotle all paid lip service to the idea, until in the second century AD the Alexandrian writer Ptolemy settled the issue once and for all. In his Almagest, he summarized all arguments made over the centuries for a spherical earth. The book would remain the standard on astronomy for the next 1400 years, and ensured that the spherical earth was known throughout medieval Europe.
Among the proofs that Ptolemy gave were theoretical and practical ones. To his more learned readers, he argued that every part of the earth’s surface tended towards the center, and so logically formed a perfectly round globe. Yet he also described how mountains seem to rise out of the sea to sailors on an approaching ship, indicating that they must have been hidden by the curved surface of the sea. And it were imaginative explanations like these that ensured that no fifteenth century sailor was afraid of falling of the edge of the world.
So Columbus’ voyage did not convince his supposedly backwards contemporaries of the sphericity of the earth. His discovery of the American continent, however, did completely change the perspective medieval people had of the earth. Not from a flat disc to a round globe, but from perfectly shaped spheres of land and water to a seemingly random pattern of continents. In this episode, we will explore how Columbus’ discovery changed that perspective, and how it planted into the minds of fifteenth century people the seed of discovery.
The Ptolemaic System and Planetary Orbits
What did the world look like to Columbus and his contemporaries? It was as round to them as it is to us, but apart from that?
Well, for starters, it was the center of the universe. Ptolemy summarized earlier philosophers’ arguments for the earth being the universe’s center in his Almagest. This idea fitted neatly with the Christian idea of man and his habitat being the core of God’s Creation, and went down like butter in medieval Europe.
The ancients envisioned the universe as a geometrically based system, built up from perfect circles, triangles, and other forms. They reasoned that for any movement to continue indefinitely, such as the planets’ orbits, only perfect mathematical shapes would suffice. Any other shape would be inefficient causing the planets to lose their speed and eventually crawl to a halt.
A map of the Ptolemaic system, then, closely resembles a clockwork. The earth forms an orb in the center, with all other planets moving around it in perfect circles. Now, in reality the planets move in egg-like ellipses, not in perfect circles. And earth rotates in an ellipse of its own, of course. And, just for the record,
① Bloody Beginnings▪On blood transfusion as medical cure-all
Daring 17th century doctors try their hand at blood transfusion. With fatal consequences.
The mere sight of it is enough to make many people faint. Blood has long been thought to be the magical ingredient to life. It has been used in rituals, cures, and potions. It has been believed to contain the essence of our being – our very soul, itself.
On average, five and a half liters of blood flow through our body. Lose two of them, and die.
Hello and welcome to A History of Science. Episode 1: Bloody Beginnings
Blood transfusion has been a mainstay of medical practice over the course of the last century. Ever since the discovery of blood types in 1901, blood has been safely shared between people. The enormous need for blood donors that grew out of the industrialized warfare of the First World War led to the invention of blood banks. And now, a hundred years later, blood transfusion is amongst the most likely medical procedures that anyone will undergo at some point in their life: for anyone suffering major trauma, it is a life-saving procedure.
The transfusion of blood is an idea that long predates modern medical science. It was not thought of as a remedy for stabbed soldiers bleeding to death on the battlefield. It was practiced by doctors who could not fathom the existence of blood types, DNA, red or white blood cells. Indeed, it was pioneered just after the discovery of blood circulation.
In this episode we will explore these early pioneers of blood transfusion. Who were they? What drove them? And perhaps most importantly, what could they possibly hope to accomplish?
William Harvey and Blood Circulation
In 1628, British physician William Harvey wrote history. In April of that year, he published his masterpiece De Motu Cordis, or An Anatomical Exercise on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Living Beings. In it, he describes the results of years of painstaking experiments, measurements, and observations, and concludes that blood is pumped through the body by the heart.
As intuitive as his discovery may sound to us, it was indeed very far removed from accepted medical science at the time. Before Harvey, blood was believed to be generated in the stomach, as a byproduct of the digestion of food. It would make its way through the body, constantly being warmed up by the heart. After reaching its boiling point, it would then evaporate and leave the body through the lungs. Breathing was the exhaling of fumes of vaporized blood. The human body as a steam engine, with the heart being the furnace, and the mouth as a steam whistle.
Fortunately, William Harvey lived in an exciting time, one we now call the Scientific Revolution. Classic ideas about how the world worked were increasingly being turned on its head by experimental science. Ancient writers, such as the Greek philosopher Aristotle and the Roman physician Galen, had dominated medieval intellectual life for centuries. Their works were treated as gospel – literally. Just like the Bible contained all knowledge one could possibly need about morality, Galen was the only textbook one could ever need on medicine. And if the Reformation was an out-of-hand conflict about the Bible’s interpretation, medieval medical science was a continuing feud about interpreting Galen and Aristotle. If your patient died, you had simply misinterpreted Galen’s instructions. They could not possibly have been wrong.
Now that the ancients were slowly but surely falling out of favor as experimental science proved them wrong, William Harvey’s words did not fall on deaf ears. In the decades following the publication of his book, Harvey’s work became the accepted theory on blood circulation. And by some, his work was not just read, but positively internalized.
Richard Lower and the First Blood Transfusion
Richard Lower was a London-based physician who,
He has a very clear and informative way of delivering the information in the podcast and A history of science is very interesting
I like this show but the reason i can’t listen to it is because of the mouth sounds he makes when he’s talking. Big pet peeve. You can edit that out.
Well researched and interesting
The topics are well researched and interesting. He always suggests a book for further reading! Really enjoyed the Ada Lovelace episode!