Traditional accounts of the scientific revolution focus on such thinkers as Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, and usually portray it as a process of steady, rational progress. There is another side to this story, and its protagonists are more likely to be women than men, dilettante aristocrats than highly educated natural philosophers. The setting is not the laboratory, but rather the literary salons of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, and the action takes place sometime between Europe's last great witch hunts and the emergence of the modern world.Science for a Polite Society is an intriguing reexamination of the social, cultural, and intellectual context of the origins of modern science. The elite of French society accepted science largely because of their personal involvement and fascination with the emerging philosophy of nature. Members of salon society, especially women, were avid readers of works of natural philosophy and active participants in experiments for the edification of their peers. Some of these women went on to champion the new science and played a significant role in securing its acceptance by polite society.As Geoffrey Sutton points out, the sheer entertainment value of startling displays of electricity and chemical explosions would have played an important role in persuading the skeptical. We can only imagine the effects of such drawing-room experiments on an audience that lived in a world illuminated by tallow candles. For many, leaping electrical arcs and window-rattling detonations must have been as convincing as Newton's mathematically elegant description of the motions of the planets.With the acceptance and triumph of the new science came a prestige that made it a model of what rationality should be. The Enlightenment adopted the methods of scientific thought as the model for human progress. To be an ?enlightened? thinker meant believing that the application of scientific methods could reform political and economic life, to the lasting benefit of humanity. We live with the ambiguous results of that legacy even today, although in our own century we are perhaps more impressed by the ability of science to frighten, rather than to awe and entertain.
Table of Contents
Preface -- The Introduction, in which the Author offers two tales of the Scientific Revolution -- Science in the Reign of Louis XIII -- Pawning off the New Science: Theophraste Renaudot and the Conferences of the Bureau d’adresse -- Of Black Sheep, False Suns, and Systematic Thought: René Descartes and His World -- Science in the Reign of Louis XIV -- A Science for a Polite Society: the Crown as the second most Philosophical Hat in Paris -- A Pretty Novel of Physics, in which Cogito, ergo sum meets l’État, c’est moi -- Science in the Reign of Louis XV -- The Demonstration of Enlightenment -- The Discovery of the Newtonian World; or, Flattening the Poles if not the Cartesians -- Electricity in the Eighteenth Century; or, The Philosophy of Shocks and Sparks -- The Conclusion, in which the Author Draws a Moral