Revolutionary Science

Jed Z. Buchwald reviews Science and Polity in France: The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Years by Charles Coulston Gillispie, in American Scientist:

The book’s nine chapters range from a careful account of the involvement of scientists in the early revolutionary Constituent Assembly, through discussions of education, the profoundly important creation of the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, the development of the metric system, and the years of the Terror, war and reaction. Along the way we meet some astonishingly colorful and often tragic characters. There are, for instance, the unfortunate Jean-Sylvain Bailly, a mediocre astronomer who became Mayor of Paris and met his end during the Terror, and the great chemist Lavoisier, a member of the General Tax Farm, who never could do things halfway and who thought that rational deliberation would always trump emotion. He too felt the kiss of Madame Guillotine, and none of his politically well-placed confreres (including the mathematician Gaspard Monge and the chemist Claude-Louis Berthollet) “said a word or lifted a finger.” We meet as well the young Laplace, onetime collaborator of Lavoisier and eventually a central figure in French mathematics and physics, as well as a sometime administrator, of whom Napoleon remarked that “he brought the spirit of infinitesimals to administration.”

More here.