Lightning, the Mind, and a World Before Scientists

Carl Zimmer in his blog, The Loom:

LightningBefore 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.”

More here.