Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Mr X

There is a scholar, call him Mr X, who received his training within the academy, but who found it wasn’t enough. He wanted more: to move outside of his wonky circle of colleagues, to engage the public, to communicate ideas in a manner that was artful as well as illuminating.

While his peers wrote difficult books and debated obscure issues at their meetings, Mr X took part in the communication revolution that was bringing academic ideas into greater contact with the wider world. He wrote shorter pieces for broader audiences, telling one colleague “Publish small works often and you will dominate all of literature.” So when Mr X was offered a position far away from his bustling city home, he took it, feeling that his community was no longer defined by geography but by ideas, communicated through the new social technologies.

The new social technologies wern’t blogs or Web 2.0 applications, but the pamphlet and the salon. Mr X is not Steven Jay Gould or PZ Myers but Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, an 18th century French explorer and polymath who led a geodetic expedition to Lapland in 1736.

Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis. Notice Maupertuis' left hand flattening the globe.

Maupertuis is usually remembered as the scholar who described the actual shape of the earth by measuring a degree of arc at high latitude. In so doing, he helped settle a dispute with French cartographer Jacques Cassini over whether the earth was prolate (that is, longer along its N-S axis), or oblate (longer along its diameter at the equator). Cassini believed that the earth was prolate like a lemon. Maupertuis, following in the footsteps of Newton, helped prove that it was oblate like a jelly donut.

A prolate spheroid

An oblate spheroid

Yet as Mary Terrall points out in her book The Man Who Flattened The Earth: Maupertuis and the Sciences of the Enlightenment, Maupertuis’s most interesting work takes place back home as he tries to make a name for himself in this new theater of conversation, a world that connects elite academies and educated polite society.

As I read about the radical effects of social technology on academic writing and reputation today, I wonder: how much of this is really new? Perhaps the boundaries between elite institutions and general public have always been squishier than we’ve made them out to be. Blogs and twitter feeds feel so new, so world changing, because they have in fact changed the world we live in, the way we communicate with friends, peers, and random passers-by. Yet it’s bound to feel like this. The flood feels strongest when you’re standing in the middle of the stream.  The story of Maupertuis makes me think that it is a seasonal event, a spring flood that returns with some regularity, the latest iteration of social technology (and sociable science writing) that probably dates to the printing press. Vive le café.

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9 Comments»

  ArchAsa wrote @

There just isn’t anything new under the sun, is there…? Which is wonderful in my eyes. Great story, I think I know which book to give my father for x-mas now (he loves this stuff as much as me – must be genetic).

  Michael Robinson wrote @

@Asa: Yes I think you’re right. It’s wonderful that there are these patterns. And yet none of them quite work exactly do they? They’re imperfect models that keep us looking for deeper structures, better predictions, etc.

Yet, in a way, you could also say that everything’s always new too since we — historians and archeologists alike I think– are always looking at our dusty artifacts with new eyes, always seeking a new story, highly subjective and dependent on the present moment. In this way, history, to me, feels more like art than science or social science. And I’m very happy about that. Does archeology/anthropology feel the same way to you?

  Thony C. wrote @

Do you mind if I cross link? The shape of the earth

  Patrick Emerton wrote @

Let us recede even further and recall that Socrates railed against this new thing called “writing” — he thought that it was going to be the death of discussion and imagination. (And then he farted in the bath and called for his towel.) … Good points for thought, Mike! … I once talked to a dude that was an integral part of Vatican II, and he said that nothing got done in the official sessions, it was all (the ideas, implementations, etc) accomplished in bars. But yah, there’s a fascinating interplay, or tide as you say, between the cafés and academies, the streets and boardrooms, the bohemians and the department chairs, the sacred and profane (using profane for it’s root meaning: that which is outside of the temple) … I guess it’s always a mix and balance, an interplay – that would be the action, the energy, the thrust. Got a shake things up sometimes. Look at thing on your head. Leave the palace. Let women play women on stage. And in these days, perhaps your neighbor is just as good a news source as NBC.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

@Pat: Yes, the subject goes way back as you point out with Socrates. The word is a rather radical thing in and of itself, isn’t it?

  Patrick Emerton wrote @

Word!

  Richard Nelsson wrote @

Fascinating post and it sent me off looking for more information about the man. I’ll apologise in advance for lowering the tone of this blog, but I did come across this little gem.

On April 2 1987 David Beeston wrote to the Guardian about an article that had recently appeared about the historic export of condoms from Britain to France. Beeston recounted how, while working in the Royal Society archives, he had come across a letter from Maupertuis to Martin Folkes, president of the society, written in February 1743. He said:

“My warmest thanks for the present you sent me and the president. We shared it equally, though in all honesty I believe I could reasonably have taken three-quarters. It is much to the shame to this nation, that while it applies itself with such success to everything that is frivolous in amorous pursuits, it has paid no attention to more serious matters, and that we have to turn to foreigners to protect ourselves against the perils to which our fine ladies expose us.”

Eighteenth century scientists were clearly exchanging more than ideas. Anyone else heard of this story?

  Michael Robinson wrote @

@ Richard: This is too good. No, I’ve never heard of it, but Terrall’s biography makes clear that Maupertuis’s interest in sociability and the salon was not limited to big ideas. He had other objects of desire. Thanks for the great find.

  1099 form wrote @

whats your facebook profile?


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