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Popular Science and Public Opinion in Eighteenth- Century France

Michael R Lynn



In his general overview to the Tableau de Paris, Louis-Sebastien Mercier sug­gested that no matter where you went in Paris, "Everywhere science calls out to you and says, 'Look.'" In the eighteenth century, science entered the public imagination and became a part of the popular mentalité where it played an important mediating role in the appropriation of the Enlightenment within urban culture. Voltaire had noted this as early as 1735 when he claimed, "everyone is pretending to be a geometer and a physicist." During the age of the Enlightenment, science spread from private laboratories and royal aca­demies to the public realm where it became an integral part of urban culture. No longer the purview of elite savants or wealthy amateurs, science became an object of popularization and commodification as an increasingly large group of people began to see it as something worth spending time and money to acquire. People avidly consumed knowledge so they could sprinkle their conversations with scientific metaphors and references or, in some cases, actually utilize and implement this newfound knowledge in their lives.

Over the course of eighteenth-century France a broad array of individu­als, ranging from elite savants to more dubiously inspired charlatans, presented scientific discoveries, inventions, and theories to an eager and growing audi­ence. Innumerable opportunities existed for people to learn about different types of science. Some of the best-known and most oft-mimicked scientific displays utilized the power of electricity. In April of 1746, for example, Jean-Antoine Nollet, a professor of experimental physics and member of the Academie Royale des Sciences, transmitted an electrical shock through 180 of Louis XV's royal guards, all holding hands, while the monarch and his entourage looked on. Later, and much to the delight of the king, he simul­taneously shocked 200 Carthusian monks, "volunteers" from a monastery near Paris. Even more startling, some savants debated whether or not they could electrify eunuchs. Three of the king's musicians, all castrati, underwent a series of tests; to everybody's satisfaction, they jumped as much as the other test subjects. While certainly amusing, at least to the observers, these experiments also tested the power and nature of electricity while simultaneously taking advantage of the elite audience to act as verifiers for the production of scienti­fic knowledge.

The spectrum of popular science, however, ran a wide gamut from Nollet's demonstration before an elite, royal audience to a much more philo­sophically suspect scientific show found in the entertainment sector near the Boulevard du Temple. Perrin, a self-styled "professor of amusing physics," performed lectures on natural philosophy to wide acclaim, even though his experiments were dominated by theatricality and spectacle. His fame rested largely on the strengths of his dog, a spaniel that could "read, calculate, solve problems, and do other physics tricks and games." Perrin's "little savant dog" occupied a central place in his physics show; women in particular applauded this multitalented animal that by 1787 could read both English and French, as well as ably assisting demonstrations of experimental physics. Perrin managed to raise himself from relative obscurity, aided by little more than a deft hand and a very talented dog, to become a mainstay in the world of scientific popu­larization, and he performed his experiments in the boulevard theaters with spectacular success.

The audience watching Perrin, however, differed somewhat from the one attending Nollet's experiments. While both Nollet and Perrin introduced a theatrical element into their demonstrations, the intended result of their work exhibited a number of distinct differences. Nollet engaged in a certain amount of entertainment, but he also worked on knowledge production, tried to secure patronage, and attempted to disseminate new scientific discoveries. Perrin, on the other hand, appeared more deeply concerned with the com­mercial nature of his work; nonetheless, he, too, attempted to educate people even as he tried to nurture an audience base that would ultimately secure his livelihood. Perrin offered some scientific information to his audience although his style of presentation may have caused people to remember the performance and not the lesson. In both cases, however, the general public purchased access to science and participated, however loosely, in the dissemination of enlight­ened ideas in Paris.

Science as a form of cultural capital played a key role during the eighteenth century. But how did people gain access to science? And what did they do with their newfound knowledge once they had acquired it? This book explores the appropriation of science in French society and the development of an urban scientific culture. Science underwent a process of commodification and popularization during the eighteenth century as more and more individu­als sought to acquire some knowledge of scientific activities and as more and more people entered public debates on science.....