Popular Science Monthly/Volume 80/January 1912/The Academy of Sciences, Paris, from 1666 to 1699 I

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1542576Popular Science Monthly Volume 80 January 1912 — The Academy of Sciences, Paris, from 1666 to 1699 I1912Edward F. Williams




THE account of the Paris Academy of Sciences, one of the five organizations which together form the French Institute, is found in its Mémoires, and in the history of the academy published in 1733 of which the portion written by du Hamel, the first secretary, was in Latin and covered the years from 1666 to 1679, This history was continued in French by M. de Fontenelle, du Hamel's successor, to nearly the end of the year 1699. An edition of this history in five volumes was published in Holland in 1740, but those who wish for absolute accuracy should consult the Mémoires published at Paris in 1740. Of these Mémoires there were forty volumes. The history of the old academy, which covers very fully the period from its reorganization in 1699 to its abolition by the revolution written by L. F. Alfred Maury, a member of the institute, published in 1864 by Diderot freres, though trustworthy, and very valuable, is far from easy reading.

During the first half of the seventeenth century, a literary man was expected to be a scientific man also, or at least to possess a general knowledge of scientific principles and of the discoveries which scientific men had made. Descartes, for example, was a physicist, a mathematician and a philosopher. Specialization began in the eighteenth century with men like Buffon. Not long after the middle of the seventeenth century there grew up a feeling in the more cultivated circles that something ought to be done to increase the honor shown scientific men, and to make better provision for their work. Although science was in a more advanced condition in several other countries than in France, France was behind no one of them in her efforts to organize her scientific forces and render them of value to her people. As the "Historians' History" (Vol. XL, p. 637) says: "The seventeenth century was one of the great scientific ages of humanity. It saw the birth of analytical geometry and of the infinitesimal calculus, the formulation of the astronomical laws of Kepler and Newton, and the workings of astronomical discovery. It witnessed the first great stride of physics, the progress of optics and acoustics, the invention of the barometer, the thermometer, the manometer, the air pump, the electrical machine; the first rudiments of the steam engine; the first researches on plant life, and the first attempt at botanical classification. Anatomy and physiology were revolutionized by the discovery of the circulation of the blood, of the chyliferous and lymphatic systems, by the beginning of histology and microscopic research. Medicine made progress in all its branches and was enriched by new medicaments."

Much of this was accomplished outside France. "In mathematics the French may place the names of Descartes, Pascal and Fermat, alongside of Kepler, Newton and Leibnitz, but the great Keplerian and Newtonian laws of universal gravitation; the great Leibnitzian theories on the formation of our globe; the astronomical discoveries of Galileo, Huyghens and Helvetius surpassed the work of Gassendi, Picard, Cassini, Bouillaud and Cassegrain. In physics Pascal, Descartes, Mariotte and Denis Papin upheld the French name, but the French have but one zoologist, Claude Perrault, physician and architect, to place alongside with those of Italy, England and especially Holland; in botany, Tournefort let himself be outdistanced by the English; in zoology the French had but Descartes and Maillet; in medical science they had only Pacquet, Duvemey and a few skilful practitioners." It is little wonder that Colbert, the prime minister, who was not slow in recognizing this state of things, should seek to change it by bringing the scientific reputation of France up to the level of that of other countries, or that he should take advantage of the treaty of Pyrenees to persuade the king to organize an academy of sciences. In no other way, he believed, could he increase the fame of the king more permanently than by establishing on a firm basis an academy to do for science what the academy of Richelieu had begun to do for literature.

Colbert's first thought was to form an academy which would embrace the most distinguished men in all branches of learning. This was soon found to be impracticable. It might be dangerous, politicians suggested, to discuss historical matters too carefully and earnestly, and as lovers of literature were satisfied to remain in Richelieu's academy only science and art were left for the new academy. There were many reasons why lovers of art and architecture were not represented in the new organization.

Although scientific men had for many years been in the habit of meeting in private houses to discuss questions of interest in science, at first only mathematicians were admitted to the new institution. These were Carcavi, Huyghens (of Holland), Roberval, Torricelli (of Italy), Auzout, Picard and Budt. To this number de la Chambre, physician in ordinary to the king, a physicist and famous as an author, was added. In a short time chemistry and anatomy were represented by du Clos, M. Perrault, Pacquet, Gavant and Marchaut. A few young men were brought into the academy to be trained in the studies it was seeking to advance, that they might be ready to fill vacancies as they occurred. These young men were Miquet, Couplet, Richer, Pivert and de la Voge. Pensions or salaries were provided for the members of the academy, who were expected to devote their whole time to study and experiment. There was a special fund in addition for experiment. That these men of science might work to the best advantage it was agreed that physicists should meet on Saturdays, mathematicians and astronomers on Wednesdays. General meetings were held every month at which reports were read by Secretary du Hamel of all that had been done. These were in Latin, a language in which the secretary had great proficiency. The meetings were held at first in the Royal Library, but were soon removed to the Louvre, where, save during the interval caused by the revolution, they continued to be held till 1806, when the Institute found a permanent home in the Mazarin Palace. As was said in a previous article, the Paris Academy of Sciences has been regarded in many ways as the most important scientific institution on the continent, if not in all Europe. It has been the model after which many other scientific academies have been formed. Its 68 members are now divided into eleven sections. Five of these sections, viz., those of geometry, mechanics, astronomy, geography and navigation, belong to the mathematical department of the academy; six of them, those of chemistry, mineralogy, botany, rural economy, anatomy and zoology, medicine and surgery, to the department of physics. Care has been taken from the first to fill each section of the academy with the best available men, and, although some first-class men have not found their way into its ranks, yet comparatively few of them have been left without its honors.

It is exceedingly interesting as well as instructive to look over the quartos which contain a description of the work of the academy prior to 1700. Nominally eleven in number, yet as volume three is in three parts and volume seven in two, there are fourteen volumes to be examined. They furnish a clear idea of the state of scientific knowledge at the time when the studies reported were made, and enable one to trace the progress of science in its various departments through more than a generation. In Volumes I. and II. we have a history of the academy with the names of its members prior to 1734 and a list of their publications. Nothing is more attractive to a real student in all these volumes than this list of names and publications. Volume III. contains descriptions of the animals which the academy secured for dissection. Most of them are common animals. The cuts which represent them are fine specimens of the art of the time. A picture of the animal as it appears in life is first given, then follows a cut of the skeleton and such other parts of the body as the dissector cared to exhibit. In the text a description is given of the animal as it ordinarily appears, with all that can be learned about it from classical and other writers. This is followed by a detailed description of its construction. In these descriptions we have the unconscious beginnings of comparative anatomy. In them all careful comparison is made with similar parts in the body of man as well as with the bodies of other animals. Volume IV. contains an essay by M. du Clos on the principles of natural mixtures and observations on the character and location of the mineral waters found in the different provinces of France. Of these waters 67 varieties were examined in addition to the waters of Spa. In an essay by M, Dodort, written as a contribution to the history of plants, careful descriptions are given of many common, and of not a few rare plants. Volume V. is noted for the variety of subjects treated. M, Frenicle explains a method for solving problems by means of exclusion. There is in this volume a brief treatise on right-angled triangles and a table of magic squares. M. Blondel suggests a solution for the four cardinal problems of architecture. But one must turn the pages of this volume for one's self in order to see what subjects interested scientific men during the last quarter of the seventeenth century. In this volume one will find abundant proof of the scientific ability of M. Frenicle. In Volume VI. there are special treatises by M. de Roberval and M de l'Abbé Picard, though the astronomical works of M. Picard are contained in Volume VII. A large portion of this volume was published as an independent treatise in 1698. Volume VII. contains, in addition to the works of Picard, essays by Huyghens and astronomical letters from M. Auzout first published in 1665. An essay by M. Picard, now very difficult to obtain, written in 1671, to go with an atlas which appeared in folio form, is found in this volume. Other observations are described which were made for a folio volume printed at the Louvre and appearing in 1693. From a letter from M. Auzout to an Italian observer and instrument-maker contained in this volume, we learn the method then used for determining the diameter of the planets. There is also a description of a journey by M. Richer to Cayenne in the interests of astronomy and physics. Special journeys were made by de la Hire and others to different sections of France in order to secure accuracy in a proposed map. These were continued from 1672 to 1684. The accounts of these journeys are of considerable interest. The volume contains tables by which to find, on any day of the year, the time when the polar star passes the meridian, its horizontal declination and the height of the pole at any point on the earth's surface. There are accounts, too, of observations, physical and mathematical, made by the Jesuit fathers in India, Siam and China, and of the use made of the observations by the academy. Vol, VIII. is filled with the miscellaneous works of M. I. D. Cassini. A few of the suggestive titles are of interest: Origin and progress of astronomy, and its use in geography and navigation; elements of astronomy, verified by observations made by M. Richer on the island of Cayenne; discovery of the celestial luminary which appeared in the zodiac; rules followed in Indian astronomy in the calculation of the movements of the sun and moon; reflections for a Chinese chronology; the island of Taprobane; hypotheses and tables of the satellites of Jupiter. In Volume IX. we have the works of de la Hire. They are mathematical in their nature, though they indicate acquaintance with the whole field of science. Volume X. treats of a wide range of subjects. Nearly four pages are occupied with titles alone. These essays indicate the direction scientific thought was taking and refer to matters of interest in physics, astronomy, anatomy and physiology. This volume was published in 1732 as a volume of extracts and papers from the records of the academy. As early as 1692 the academy had published a volume of its regular proceedings. A second volume appeared the next year. For the general reader Volume X. is undoubtedly the most interesting volume in the series. Many of the papers it contains had been given the public through the Journal des Savans, which was started at about the time the academy was organized. From the volumes in this series the works of Huyghens, Mariotte and Perrault are omitted, as their complete works had been published separately under the auspices of the academy. Volume XI. contains an analysis of new methods of resolving problems of all kinds and degrees to infinity. Though edited by M. Richer, it is the work of M. Delogny. The authenticity of this series of reports, with the history included in Volumes I. and II., is guaranteed by the signature of M. Fontenelle, perpetual secretary of the academy from 1699 to 1741. Fontenelle was born in 1657 and died in 1757.

Before speaking more definitely of the work done by the academy prior to its reorganization at the beginning of the eighteenth century, it should be noticed that in this academy we have the earliest example of cooperation in scientific study and of the endowment of research.

Colbert's plan was to bring men of scientific attainments together, and make it possible for them, at the cost of the king, to devote themselves entirely to work in their special departments. No better plan than that adopted in 1667 could at that time have been conceived. Funds were provided out of the royal treasury for experiment and costly journeys. Sir Isaac Newton was aided by this academy, which not only in this instance, but through its correspondence with other learned bodies, showed its hospitality for learning and its readiness to accept truth no matter from what source it might come. It has often been said that Newton needed a Paris Academy and a Laplace to make his theories popular, not only in France, but in all Europe. His "Fluxions" known as early 1675, were not published till after Descartes, in 1684, had given his "Calculus" to the world. These discoveries were of immense value in scientific study. The academy early became a kind of clearing house for European scientific students. Through it its members could make their opinions known to the world. The language they used and their literary skill rendered their writings popular. It was a rule of the academy, adopted at its organization to read every important scientific work published and report and discuss its contributions to the subject which it treated. The discoveries which members of the academy made, the instruments they used in their studies, the improvements suggested in many of them, were freely communicated in letters to other learned societies. For example, a careful description of the micrometer, invented by Picard and Auzout, was sent by de la Hire to Mr. Oldenbourg, secretary of the Royal Society of Great Britain. Correspondence was had with the society formed by a company of men in one of the provinces who called themselves Les curieux de la Nature, as well as with the society, Del Cimento, which flourished at Florence under the patronage of Leopold de Medici.

In this way the scientific world was united in a common aim, the increase of knowledge, at a time when many of the nations were at war. In this way it was possible for every discovery in science, every theory advanced in book or essay, to be criticized and discussed by a body of men who certainly were not inferior in mental endowment or in attainment to any equal number in all Europe. It was natural, therefore, that a book published under the auspices of the academy should receive wide circulation and careful consideration. As the work of one of the members of the academy was to a certain extent regarded as the work of all, the academy was proud of such a book as "The History of Plants" prepared by MM. du Clos and Dupont, with the aid of several other academicians, and published in 1676. Its popularity may be inferred from the fact that a second edition was called for three years after its first appearance. There was, however, a danger into which, during the later part of the seventeenth century, the academy fell, of being too practical in its work. To gratify the king or his ministers it gave a great deal of its time to the study of subjects which looked to an increase of the revenues of the nation, rather than to an increase of scientific knowledge. For example, much time was occupied in the analysis of the mineral waters of France, in studying methods of improving shipbuilding, the sailing of ships, in studying the principles of architecture, of bridge building, and other subjects, which, though of value to the country, were not those in which members of the academy were supposed to be most deeply interested.

One is interested also in studying the history and characteristics of some of the men who became famous in connection with the academy, du Hamel, the first secretary, though he had been a teacher of philosophy as well as of geometry, was given his place because of his facility in the use of the Latin language and his skill in reporting the opinions of others. He remained in office till 1699, when he was succeeded by Fontenelle. It was eminently fitting that he should write a history of the academy as he had known it. Couplet was the first treasurer and the keeper of the instruments used in experiments, an office in which he was followed by his son; Couplet had been a mechanical engineer. Early in 1667, Perrault prepared a room in a laboratory placed at his disposal for the study of physics. By careful experiment he fitted himself for the study of comparative anatomy and vegetable physiology. The motive to these studies was curiosity rather than the thought that the knowledge obtained would be of profit to any one. The problems deemed most important were those of astronomy and geometry. Hence for a long time astronomical studies received the greatest honor in the academy, and outside of it. It is, therefore, not strange that the men who devoted themselves to these studies should consider themselves superior to their fellows. They were zealous for their department and paid little attention to what was done in other departments than their own. For a full generation there v/as ill feeling between members of the academy caused chiefly by differences of opinion in reference to scientific subjects. Yet advance was made in other departments than those of astronomy and mathematics.

Du Clos and Bourdalin analysed certain salts and observed the changes constantly taking place in many bodies. Mineral bodies were carefully examined. Denis Dodort sought to determine the virtue of plants by chemical analysis. Vegetables he tested by fire and obtained what he and others called caput mortuum. The worthlessness of this method was pointed out by Mariotte in 1679 in his essay on vegetation. Many abortive efforts were made by the academy to obtain fresh water from the salt water of the ocean. Special attention was given to a study of the vacuum, de la Hire studied the chemistry of color, du Clos and Dodort the history of plants, the result of which, as has been said, published in 1676, brought great honor upon the academy. Dodort showed much skill in all his observations. His errors were only those of his time.

The plans of the authors of this volume embraced a complete history of plants. The great lack was knowledge of the physiology and chemistry of vegetables. All naturalists were what are now called amateurs. They gave attention to many subjects. Thus Frenicle read a paper in 1660 on insects, pointing out in particular some changes observed in the caterpillar. Mariotte brought out a theory of vision which was strongly opposed as unscientific by Pacquet and Perrault. He wrote on hydrostatics also. Strenuous efforts were made, for a number of years, to measure the height of the pole at Paris. It was observed that the pendulum beat with differing degrees of rapidity at the poles and the equator. Yet in spite of the jealousy of mathematicians and astronomers, every subject of scientific importance sooner or later was discussed in the academy.

Efforts were made by the king to bring into his academy the most eminent scientists of all countries. Thus Huyghens came from Holland at the founding of the academy. Jean Dominique Cassini, an Italian astronomer, came from Florence in 1669. Olais Roemer,of Denmark, came in 1674. He was the first to measure the velocity of light by observing the eclipse of the satellites of Jupiter. Nicolas Hortzoeker, of Düsseldorf, an optician, though residing in Paris for a time, preferred his independence under the elector Palatine to service in France under the king. Neither Tschirnhauser, nor the two Bernouillis, nor Sir Isaac Newton would expatriate themselves to become active members of the academy. They were content to be foreign associates and the academy honored itself by making them such.

A visit from the king in 1681 was a memorable occasion, especially for the astronomers, in whose work and instruments he was deeply interested. The visit brought larger and better equipment for the academy. Yet the king did not hesitate, at the suggestion of minister Louvais, who cared less for science and research than Colbert, to employ members of the academy for objects which had little reference to science, de la Hire was given tasks at surveying. Others were commanded to look after the fountains and waterfalls at Versailles. Perrault, Roemer and Blondel were ordered to discover the height to which a bomb could be sent and to trace accurately its path. The tendency of the time was toward the practical. It is not surprising, therefore, although the study of science was not wholly given up, that during the last quarter of the century the academy should lose much of its fame as a center of purely scientific research. The time had come for a change in its management, or for its reorganization. To that we must now give attention.