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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 80/February 1912/The Old Academy of Science, Paris, 1699-1793 II

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 80‎ | February 1912



IN his account of the Old Academy of Science M. Maury expresses the opinion that the history of the development of science in connection with the Old Academy of Science should be read and studied as a chapter in the development of mind, a chapter as important and as interesting as any chapter in the political history of the century. It traces contests in the search for truth. Of hardly less importance in the history of literature is the work done by the two academies of Science and of Inscriptions than that done by the French Academy itself, devoted as that is to literature alone.

The Academy of Science was reorganized in the last year of the seventeenth century by Ponchartrain, minister of state, and put under the control of his nephew, the Abbe Bignon, a man well fitted for the position he was chosen to fill. The decree of reorganization was signed at Versailles on January 26, 1699, and read to the academy on February 4. A change was made in the number and character of the members. Henceforth there were to be four classes of members: active, or pensionary, who were to reside in Paris and give their time to the study of science; honorary members who might be either foreigners or natives of France; associate members; and pupils, young men of promise who were admitted to the academy as students and helpers of its active members with the expectation that some time they would be received into the academy. Under the new arrangement all branches of science were represented. Larger and better rooms than had been occupied, rooms in the Louvre which the King himself had occupied, were set apart for the use of the academy.

A public meeting in honor of the reorganization was held on June 2, 1699. Fontenelle had taken the place of Duhamel, who had held the position of secretary from the establishment of the academy by Colbert in 1666. Fontenelle's eulogies, read at each annual meeting for a third of a century, are a history of the academy in the lives and work of its members. They are famous alike in the annals of science and of literature. The academy had a president, a vice-president, a director, and a sub-secretary, as well as a perpetual secretary. The director and his assistant were selected from the active members of the academy, the president and vice-president from the honorary members. They were to represent the king, who nominated them and approved or disapproved all elections. These high officials were all of noble blood.

In the reorganization. of the academy the names of men who had failed to attend its meetings with regularity or to show any real interest in its work were dropped, but old men who were still active were retained in spite of their conservative tendencies. The academy at once put itself into communication with scientific societies in the provinces, and also with academies in other countries in which the problems of physics, astronomy, mathematics and chemistry were studied. Personal relations were established between the astronomer Cassini of Paris and astronomers in England, Holland and Italy. Much attention was given to experiment, and special efforts were made to widen the horizon of observation by travel. Expeditions were equipped and sent out to various parts of the world at the king's expense.

In spite of the conservatism of the academy and discussions which lasted half a century the opinions of Newton in physics were finally accepted and those of Descartes rejected. Discussions over the calculus lasted more than five years. The theories of Newton were received in Holland, at St. Petersburg, and in many parts of Germany before they were current in either England or France. In 1726 the academy crowned a work by Père Mazieres of the Oratory which proved beyond a doubt the existence of the vortices of Descartes! In 1730 Jean Bernouilli published a volume on the same side and in 1736 Cassini de Fleury sought to harmonize the theory of vortices with Kepler's Laws. Fontenelle joined in the effort and was supported by two learned societies in Paris. Le Beau, of the Academy of Inscriptions, spoke jestingly of Fontenelle and Camille Falconyet, as "two old men besieged in a fortress formed of the vortices of Descartes in which they were defending themselves against the attacks of impetuous youth." The final blow against Cartesianism was struck by Buff on in 1747, although the way for the acceptance of the teachings of Newton had been prepared by Cardinal de Polignac.

Notwithstanding the fact that the academy was organized and sustained for purposes of investigation and in order to increase knowledge, and the further fact that its members above all other men were expected to favor and defend new views, it is not unnatural that conservative opinions should prevail. Some who were in the academy cared little for science in the true meaning of the word. Some favored those branches of study in which they were personally interested and had little interest in what was done in other branches. The Church defended the old views. It was opposed to any opinions which might lead to a change in methods of teaching. In the middle of the century France was behind countries like England, Holland and Germany in its knowledge of astronomy, geometry, physics and medicine. True such men as Clairaut and Réaumer were leaders in the academy from 1700 to 1750, but Clairaut can not be put by the side of Newton in mathematics, or even of Leibniz, nor, eminent as he was, had he the creative mind of Bernouilli. Yet he was not without honor in other countries as well as in his own. In 1750 his Lunar Tables were crowned by the Academy of St. Petersburg. Réaumer, a many-sided man, carried physics to the heights where Buffon and Cuvier found them. Yet during the first half of the century the academy was unable to point to many men of the first rank among its members. Nearly all of them were men of ability, eager in the pursuit of knowledge, but wanting in those peculiar gifts which belong to men like Newton, or Descartes, or Leibniz. Yet the academy did a vast deal of excellent work. Problems relating to the sun, the moon and the earth were carefully and patiently studied. Newton's theories were shown by D'Alembert to be true, Bradley's discovery of aberration of the stars was made more valuable by measuring that of the planets and of the sun, and by estimating the amount of attraction on the earth. Thury discussed the figure of the earth. Thus, as M. Maury says, "a sort of propylea was formed for the Mécanique celeste of La Place." If Clairaut lacked somewhat in intellectual domination on account of the gruffness of his manners and his love of solitude, in all these respects Réaumer was his opposite. At his reception into the academy he read a paper on gravity, but he devoted his life to the study of the problems of physics. Dissatisfied with the Florence thermometer then in general use, he invented one which met the needs of the time. He made important discoveries in zoology, and wrote a fine history of insects. In practical affairs he was useful in improving the methods employed in the manufacture of pottery, and to his suggestions the iron industry owes a great deal. It is not surprising that with his attractive manners, his genial disposition, he should rule the academy for a score of years, and that he and Clairaut should be universally regarded as its two greatest men, whose fame was eclipsed in later years only by D'Alembert and Buffon.

New sciences like embryology gradually appear, and the sphere of those already studied is largely widened. De Lagny, who died in 1733, made important contributions to geometry and trigonometry, Nicole to the calculus of infinite distances. Joseph Saurin, 24 years older than Nicole, a Cartesian in physics but a Newtonian in mathematics, was also eminent for his knowledge of geometry. Carre published the differential calculus of Marquis de l'Hôpital, and Varignon, Fontaine and Clairaut improved and rendered more valuable the discoveries of Leibniz and Newton. The differential calculus we owe, so it is asserted, to the two Bernouillis, Joseph and Jean. During the period from 1699 to 1750 the academy was an important aid to mechanics, and it made large contributions to the knowledge of astronomy and geometry. In the first quarter of the century Dominique Cassini by his publish writings, and especially by his theories of the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn and his determination of their periods, brought the academy no little honor. The discovery of periodic stars in Hydra in 1704, by Joseph Maraldi, a nephew of D'Cassini, made an epoch in the scientific world. Through the influence of the academy astronomers in different parts of Europe were induced to study phenomena which as yet few had observed and none had explained. Brodiger's proposed explanations of the parhelia and the halos of the moon were deemed worthy of study at Greenwich and many other observatories. Bouguer in the Cordilleras saw aureoles surrounding his own shadow. After protracted and unsatisfactory discussions the academy decided to send an expedition to the pole and to the equator to measure the length of the meridian and determine the exact figure of the earth. La Condamine, accompanied by Bouguer and Godin, a young astronomer, not yet known to science, were sent to Peru in 1735. Maupertuis, Clairaut, Camus and Lamonier went to Lapland. At the suggestion of the minister, Maurepas, the expenses of the expeditions were paid out of the royal treasury. These expeditions and the increased knowledge which they obtained added very much to the scientific reputation of France as well as to that of the academy.

Yet disputes in the academy continued. Men like Maupertuis felt that their knowledge and reputation gave them the privilege of directing others. But men like Bouguer and Condamine resented the proffered instruction even of savants so distinguished as Clairaut and Maupertuis. These disagreements did not, however, prevent the academy from continuing steadily at its work. The journeys to the pole and the equator had furnished data from which it was shown that the earth is a flattened spheroid, though a century later Svanberg, a Swede, discovered errors in the calculations by which it had been made too flat. Condamine had taken with him as helpers an engineer, a horologist, a designer, and Joseph de Jussieu, destined to become famous as a botanist. Condamine was not satisfied with doing that for which he had been sent, and at his own expense and with great risk explored the Amazon. On this expedition he lost his thumbs and his ears. In 1738 he made quinine known to the world. Although not receiving the honor at home which he deserved, he has been called the Alexander von Humboldt of his time.

In 1749 an expedition was sent out to determine the moon's parallax. Efforts had been put forth in this direction as early as 1714. Observations at Berlin and the Cape of Good Hope had not been satisfactory. To secure better results Lacaille went to the Cape, Lalande to Berlin, Brody to Greenwich, Zandetti to Bologna, Wargentin to Stockholm, while Cassini de Thury remained in Paris. It was suggested that the phenomena to be studied should be observed at the same time at these different points. This friendship of scientists was better for the world, many said, than the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle. Through the observations thus made errors were corrected and an impulse given to the study of astronomy which accounts in great part for the progress it made during the last half of the century.

Prior to the middle of the century little progress had been made in many of the sciences which in the next century engaged the attention of its foremost men. Sauvier had distinguished seven laws of sound and interested a good many men in their study. But at the beginning of the century the subject of acoustics was little understood and progress in its development was slow. Considerable attention was given to the subject of electricity, but neither Buffon nor D'Alembert believed that the calculus could be employed in this branch of science as it had been in setting forth the principles of astronomy and optics. A generation later than Buffon it was found that the calculus was of inestimable value in the study of every branch of science. Increase in the knowledge of chemistry was due quite as much to the pharmacists as to its special representatives in the academy. The contributions of one of these pharmacists, Etienne Geoffroy, in his tables of "Chemical Affinities" were of great value. Yet he did not realize, as Newton had done, the importance of his discoveries. As long as the influence of Descartes continued dominant in the academy, progress was difficult, Cartesians were content to explain the reciprocal action of molecules by mechanical forces. Such men as Nicolas Lemery and Fontenelle could see nothing but originality and useless knowledge in the discoveries of Geoff roy. They were unwilling to accept Newton's theory of gravitation. It was a long time before the principles accepted in England, or in Germany under the leadership of Stahl, in chemistry, prevailed in France. Up to the year 1780 the science of mineralogy in France was in a state of torpor. At that time the science of crystallography, and of geology, was unknown. Some progress had been made in the study of botany. As early as 1746 Guellard tried to persuade the academy to give its attention to the study of flora and fauna. The establishment of the Royal Gardens, chiefly for the benefit of medical science, had rendered the study of botany possible and attractive. In 1700 Tournefort, who had been at the head of the gardens since 1683, published his very important "Institutio rei herbariæ." His classification was based on color rather than on structure or function. The relation between descriptive and vegetable physiology was then unknown and was made of no practical value till a century later. Yet Tournefort recognized the existence of genera if not of species. In 1727 the existence of sex in plants was discovered. Not long after Tournefort's death Linnaeus visited France, where he was warmly received and urged to remain as a member of the academy. Though refusing to leave Sweden permanently, he interested members of the academy in his theories and methods of classification which were at once seen to be an immense improvement on those in ordinary use. Yet his methods were soon supplanted by those of the Jussieus.

There was a widespread feeling that the studies of the academy ought to be made of practical value to the people at large. For this reason Duhamel du Monceau, though abstract and severe in his methods of study, sought to use his knowledge for the benefit of agriculture and other industries. He improved the cereals of France, improved, if he did not introduce, the cultivation of the potato, discovered and taught the use of fertilizers, made forestry a science and published a treatise upon it which became a classic. Absence in England prevented his appointment as director of the Eoyal' Gardens. This position was given to du Fay. Before the century was ended BufEon had grasped and proclaimed the unity of all branches of science. There was a growing interest during the last half of the century in zoology. Réaumur gave a great deal of attention to measures for increasing the collections in the museums, and studied the nature and habits of insects so thoroughly that he began, though he did not live to complete it, a six-volume work entitled "Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire des insectes." Of this work Buffon and many others made constant use. Buffon confessed his indebtedness also to the "History of Birds" written by Brisson, a physician and member of the academy. As representing the knowledge of ornithology at the date of its publication, about 1750, this work may be profitably consulted even now. In this branch of knowledge France was behind Sweden, Germany and England. Du Fay and Maupertuis were interested in the study of animals, especially salamanders and scorpions, yet this study was regarded by them only as a byplay. There was at the middle of the century only a single conchologist in France, Dezallier d'Argenville, and he was not in the academy. His book is still consulted. Laurent Jablot is said to have been the first man to study polyps and infusoria. As early as 1718 he anticipated not a few of the discoveries published to the world in 1740 by de Trembly of Geneva. Prior to the time of Réaumur polyps had been classed with vegetables. Anatomy and physiology were studied chiefly with reference to the science of healing. In the previous century men had been interested in these branches of study, some of them for their own sake independent of their relation to medicine. At the beginning of the eighteenth century Jean Méry, Joseph Guichard and Alexis Littré represented these subjects in the academy. Méry entered the academy about the time that Harvey made his discovery of the circulation of the blood, a theory the academy was slow to accept. Mery believed that in the embryo the blood circulates through the lungs. This theory was denied by J. G. Duverney, who gave special attention to the study of the glands and their relation to the urine and the brain. His papers were the subject of long and earnest debate. The problem of generation was also a subject of discussion. There were two parties in the academy, the ovists and the spermatists, and the differences between them were not removed for a century and a half, or till it was discovered that fertilization is through contact. François du Petit, one of the physicians in the academy, devoted himself to the study of the brain and the eye. He was an anatomist from the cradle. It was a common saying that he listened to the lectures of Littré when he was only seven years old, and was able to prepare bodies for dissection at the age of nine. He was a man of vast knowledge and acquired great fame. Antoine Ferrein entered the academy in 1741. He advocated the theory that the circulation of blood is controlled by the heart. Winslow, a pupil of Duverney and unsurpassed as an anatomist save by Albinus of Leiden fifteen years his junior, confined his attention to the outside of the body, to monstrosities and to the dangers arising from certain kinds of dress. Discussions and differences in the academy increased and grew warmer with every addition to scientific knowledge, for the ability to harmonize the discoveries which were made nearly every year with what was already known seemed to be entirely lacking. Men had not yet learned how to compare one science with another. The study of comparative anatomy was in its infancy. Of paleontology almost nothing was known. This science did not receive attention in France till after 1725 when A. de Jussieu read his paper in the academy on the imprints of fauna and flora on certain rocks. These imprints he refused to consider and treat as whims of nature. De Maillet did not dare at this time to have his book on geology printed in France. It was not till Buffon's "Essay on the Epochs of Nature" appeared that men were willing to study nature from what was then called the modern point of view. Prior to 1740 the teachings of the church as to the origin of the earth were everywhere accepted. The entrance of philosophy into the academy added interest to its discussions. There were sharp differences of opinion as to what were living and what were dead forces. Leibniz had affirmed, Voltaire had denied, that the measure of force is as its mass multiplied by the square of its velocity. In this discussion Voltaire and Maupertuis took part. Every change in motion, said the latter, is brought about by the employment of the least possible amount of active force. The theory was attacked in the Berlin Academy by Samuel Koenig, with whom Maupertuis quarreled, and, although he was sustained in his contentions by the academy, it is now generally admitted that Koenig was justified in his criticisms. From the results of this quarrel Maupertuis never recovered.

As the discussions in the academy increased in intensity, and apparently in importance, public interest in its opinions increased also. In science its decisions were received as authoritative. Prior to the revolution not much attention was given to scientific studies in the schools. but inasmuch as the members of the academy had received the best education, both in science and in philosophy, which France could furnish, it was entirely natural that the common people should accept their opinions without hesitation. The members of the academy lived simply, gave their time to their favorite pursuits, and through their publications had large influence on the civilization of France and even of Europe. The work of the academy through the century was directed by a few able men. Fontenelle, who succeeded Duhamel, the first secretary, felt the burdens of his position as early as 1730 and offered his resignation, which was not accepted till 1740. He was at that time eighty years old and his successor, Mairan, eminent for his attainments, was nearly as old. He was soon followed by Grand jean de Fouchy who had won fame as an astronomer, who retained his secretaryship for thirty years. Condorcet was his assistant, but the real control of the academy was in the hands of Buffon. Yet Buffon was unable to prevent Condorcet from succeeding de Fouchy.

At the death of Buffon there were other naturalists who were well prepared to take up his work and carry it forward even more successfully than he. They were less prejudiced than he against new opinions. Some of them could give more accurate descriptions of natural objects. Buffon's knowledge of science prior to the century and in a good degree up to his own time was extensive. It was not accurate like that of the Jussieus and of Lavoisier. He did little for the future save through his suggestions and his wide generalizations. He derived living beings from molecules, and the atoms in which Epicurus believed. But he did not solve the problem of generation. As an administrator he had few equals. His gift for order and arrangement was very great. He made the Garden of Plants a great help for students of science. Yet in most departments of science, England during Buffon's life was fifty years in advance of France. Yet the academicians were by no means idle, nor did they fail to appreciate the discoveries of their contemporaries in other countries. Men like Daubenton gave lectures in connection with the Eoyal Gardens and were on the lookout for young men to take the place of their elders in the academy. In his investigations he just missed having a share in making comparative anatomy a real science. Vicq d'Azyr, of Normandy, a pupil of Antoine Petit, carried the study of zoological anatomy to a great height. Buffon would gladly have seen him director of the Royal Gardens, but Daubenton took care to place him where his gifts as an anatomist would have full exercise. He was a member of the academy in 1774. His reputation rests on his work on anatomy and physiology published in 1786. Two years later, at the death of Buffon, he became his successor. He was the precursor of Cuvier. He was one of the first to point out the importance of the teeth in the study of animals.

The conservatism of the academy is shown in various ways, but perhaps in nothing more clearly than in its willingness to reject inoculation as a protection against the ravages of the smallpox. In 1764 it was on the point of condemning it altogether, but was prevented from doing so by Petit, who was more reasonable than some of his associates. A few years later Jenner was made an associate member of the academy. Bailly's report, which appears in the Mémoires for 1784, carried the day for inoculation. Inoculation was favored by at least two of the king's ministers, Turgot and Malesherbes. About this time Mesmer was in Paris and by his lectures and experiments created much excitement. The academy appointed a committee of which Dr. Franklin, then a resident of Paris as a representative of the United States, was a member, to visit Mesmer, but Mesmer refused to impart his secrets to him or to any one outside his chosen circle. Although de Jussieu was favorably inclined toward Mesmer and his methods, Lavoissier, Bailly and Franklin reported against him. In spite of the opposition of the academy, Mesmer prospered, though his theories were not widely propagated during the Revolution. Subsequently mesmerism was opposed as a species of somnambulism. The academy was called upon to find a remedy against the bite of mad dogs but was unable to do so. The sufferings of the people during the later years of Louis XVI. drew the attention of the academy away from the study of science to the consideration of means for helping the people. The price of bread had risen to such a height that the academy was asked to consider its cause and to see what could be done to bring it back to the former fignres. A wise report, showing that the price depended always upon the price of cereals, made by Leroy, Desmourets, and Tillet did something to calm public feeling. In 1782 the aid of the academy was asked by the States Assembly to help in determining the proper values of land. Through the impulse given by the Montyon prizes, offered as early as 1779, some successful efforts were made to protect the lives of men whose work exposed them to unhealthy conditions. In 1784-5 a work on metals by Henri Albert Josse, of Geneva, received the approval of the academy. The academy, though careful not to express itself on any political question, did not escape suspicion during the terrible days of the Revolution. Some of its members, Bailly and Lavoisier, perished on the scaffold. Condorcet committed suicide. The lives of others, Malherbes, Bochardt and Saron were undoubtedly shortened by the strain of the period. Yet the new government strove for a time to make use of the knowledge of its members. They were asked to draw up and present to the Assembly a system of weights and measures, as well as of money, which would meet the demands of the new era. The first committee was composed of men like Lavoisier, Lagrange, Borda, Condorcet and Tillet. The request was repeated in 1792 and was referred to a committee composed of Lagrange, Berthollet, and Antoine Manges, of the Academy of Inscriptions. This committee reported in favor of the decimal system which was afterwards adopted. Meanwhile the work of the academy was supposed to go on without interruption. But its sessions could not be held regularly. Some feared to attend them, Bailly and Condorcet did not venture to show themselves at these meetings. Yet Lagrange, Laplace, de Jussieu, Desfontaines, Adamson, Haüy, Berthollet, Coulomb, Borda, Bossuet, Portal, Thomasin, Daubenton and Lavoisier were usually in their places at every session of the academy. Lalande acted as secretary. November 14, 1792, Chanfort moved that the sessions of the academy be suspended. This motion did not carry, though a similar motion passed November 26. The last meeting, however, was held December 21, at which it was voted to adjourn for Christmas. Although the academy did not meet as an academy, the ministers of the government continued to ask its advice as late as January, 1793. A Commission of Public Instruction sought its opinion as to a system of weights and measures. The opinion was given by Borda, Laplace, and Lagrange. The report which these men made is the last report which appears on the records of the Old Academy. Yet many of its members wrought as patriots for their country Fourcroy discovered a new method for making saltpeter, Guylonde, Morceau and Berthollet worked on steel, Monge gave his attention to improving the foundries, and A. C. Perrier to forges. August 6, 1793, the Convention sent to the academy, which it suppressed August 8, a request for its opinion as to the value of money. August 14, 1793, Lakenal, as one of the officers of the new government, issued a decree requiring the members of the academy to meet in their old place and be ready to answer any question which might be sent them. But these meetings were irregular and of little value. The academy had been proscribed as the enemy of the Republic. During the four years from 1789 to 1793 half of the members of the Old Academy died. Many of them had lived in poverty, all of them in fear. October 25, 1793, the Convention ordered the establishment of the Institut, of which the Academy of Science might form one of its classes. It was indeed its first class. It was intended to serve the Republic by its practical knowledge of mathematics and physics. Nothing was done at this time toward establishing an Academy of Moral and Political Science, or of Literature and the Fine Arts. These were to come later. This order, which was secured through the influence of Lakenal, was, as a matter of fact, carrying out the order of the king as issued April 23, 1783. All science was united in two great classes, physical and mathematical. By the Republic these classes were made sections of the Institut. In each of these sections there were three pensionaires, and three associates. In 1803 another reorganization took place and in the new Institut, the Academy of Science was given the third place. Its further history is the history of a section of the French Institute.