A History of Science

A History of Science by Dr Michiel Meulendijk

Dr Michiel Meulendijk

A podcast exploring the cultures, communities, and contexts of scientific progress.

Categories: Education

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The French Revolution was the culmination of Enlightenment thinking. But rather than celebrating science, the revolutionaries suppressed ideas and killed the people that held them.
In the last decade of the eighteenth century, one of the greatest experiments ever was being conducted. It wasn’t a scientific experiment, even though it was the culmination of Enlightenment thinking. It wasn’t led by scientists, although many of the most prominent leaders had discoveries and inventions to their names. And even though it was conducted in the name of progress and reason, it ended up suppressing ideas and killing the people that held them. I am talking, of course, about the French Revolution.
Hello and welcome to A History of Science: Episode 6: Revolutionary Science.
Introduction
France was not a backward country before the revolution. Rather, it was closer to being the intellectual center of the world. During the eighteenth century, French academies had transformed from rigid schools teaching ancient concepts to breeding grounds for theorizing and experimentation. French public debate was alive with new ideas on natural philosophy and humanist thinking. Periodical publications, including the world’s first ever academic journal, Le Journal des Savants, disseminated these exciting new thoughts to eager French audiences.
The kings of France were amongst the enthusiastic patrons of this new scientific community. They very much liked to style themselves as enlightened monarchs of a modern state. As such, many institutions, observatories, and laboratories enjoyed the royal prefix – most notably the prestigious Royal Academy of Sciences, and were financially sponsored by the state. But individual researchers, too, were known to benefit from royal patronage. One alumnus of the University of Paris, who had become a renowned experimenter in his own right, was Pierre Polinière. He was known for exciting his audiences with demonstrations of scientific principles. At the height of his fame, king Louis XV invited him to lecture at his court. He allegedly dazzled the noble crowd by making an apple explode with an air-pump. Even Louis XVI, the ill-fated last king of France before the revolution, was known to have a keen interest in technology. Under his watch, scientists experimented with balloon flight in the gardens of Versailles, while he himself tried his hand at lock-making in his state-of-the-art workshop.
But it was in this enlightened society, inspired by thinkers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, where, in 1789, the revolutionary flash hit the pan. Frustrated by famine, taxes, and oppressive government, the lower house overthrew the political order and thoroughly reformed the state. In quick succession, parliament abolished feudal obligations, noble titles, tax exemptions, and corporal punishment. They introduced a constitution promising equality before the law, freedom of speech, and democratic representation. At the stroke of a pen, France had entered the age of modernity.
Or so the story goes. The ancient regime, the old order, was denounced as a tyrannical dictatorship, based on the arbitrary whims of a decadent aristocracy. The new France was to be built on the pillars of liberty, equality, and brotherhood – ideas that had somehow sprouted in that tyrannical intellectual climate of the ancient regime. Above all, though, the revolutionaries appealed to reason as the foundation of their ideal state. They envisioned a nation of enlightened people – citizens, not subjects – who formed a virtuous meritocracy, where no man would bow to another.
That hopeful assembly of equals in 1789 would soon be displaced by a wartime dictatorship that wielded terror as a revolutionary principle. Universities would be closed, scientists would be guillotined – all in the name of reason. In this episode, we’ll explore this ironic paradox.

Previous episodes

  • 6 - ⑥ Revolutionary Science▪On the politicization of science during the French Revolution 
    Wed, 27 May 2020 - 0h
  • 5 - Episode 5: The Philosopher’s Study 
    Wed, 20 Sep 2017 - 0h
  • 4 - Episode 4: Between Skin and Bones 
    Thu, 13 Jul 2017 - 0h
  • 3 - Episode 3: Enchanting Numbers 
    Mon, 22 May 2017 - 0h
  • 2 - Episode 2: Beyond the Edge of the World 
    Mon, 01 May 2017 - 0h
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