We speak blithely of modernity and the Enlightenment, as if the mere writing of a treatise suddenly changes the way people think. Margaret C. Jacob has spent a good part of her career retracing the conduits by which atomistic and mechanistic conceptions of the universe became part of the common sense of modern European consciousness. Early in Practical Matter: Newton’s Science in the Service of Industry and Empire, 1687-1851 , she and Larry Stewart mention several transmission belts for Newtonian science.

The first was the church, the Protestant church especially:

“Just when the Italian heretics were being tried, hundreds of miles to the north, English Protestant clergymen rose in their London pulpits to explain atoms and invisible forces to their well-heeled congregations— all to assist their coming to terms with Newton’s scientific laws. In general, south of the Alps in Catholic Europe, science found fewer comfortable settings than in the cities of England, the Low Countries, France, and a few places in Germany . . . . Where the Inquisition had little influence, gradually atomism became commonplace and so too did the assumption that the sun lay at the center of the infinite universe” (4).

Learned societies provided another venue for discussion and spread of ideas: “Even in St. Petersburg, Russia, new ways of thinking about nature could be found in books, and most importantly, at learned societies and academies where experiment and discussion flourished. So too in the Atlantic colonies of Europe, from Boston to Saint Dominique (today Haiti), new ways of thinking about nature traveled with educated European settlers and traders” (4).

At the center of the book’s argument is the observation that Newtonian theories were studied for their practical technical and industrial applications: “mechanical science as articulated by the British Newtonians had a profound impact on early industrial development. Our focus is almost entirely on the uses of mechanics, by far the most commonly taught and widely read form of post-Principia science . . . . The rise to prominence of a science aimed at application accelerated markedly during the lifetime of Isaac Newton (1642–1727). Within a hundred years, the benefits derived from its application became incontrovertible as people marveled at the great industrial expositions of the nineteenth century. By the middle of that century, taking the famous exposition of 1851 as our closing point, of all the approaches to the varieties of nature, only medicine remained relatively ‘unscientific,’ but that too was changing very rapidly with the new chemistry and the discovery of germs and anesthesia” (6-7).

More on: History, Science

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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