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.
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.
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.