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Flowery Regions of Algebra

Simon Schaffer: Pierre Simon Laplace, 14 December 2006

Pierre Simon Laplace 1749-1827: A Determined Scientist 
by Roger Hahn.
Harvard, 310 pp., £21.95, November 2005, 0 674 01892 3
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... French, they use the word ‘Cartesian’. But they ought rather to say ‘Laplacian’. Pierre Simon Laplace was born into a prosperous rural family in 1749; he trained for the priesthood; and in 1773 was elected to the Académie. He had recently composed a series of astonishingly assured calculations about the application of probability calculus to the ...

Comet Mania

Simon Schaffer, 19 February 1981

The comet is coming! 
by Nigel Calder.
BBC, 160 pp., £8.75, November 1980, 0 563 17859 0
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... Nigel Calder’s latest successful foray into the exotic depths of space investigates one of the more psychologically compelling problems in astronomy – comets and their consequences. Comets have always fascinated us: it is the task of this book to document that fascination – it does not explain it. Calder’s previous spectaculars, such as Violent Universe or Einstein’s Universe, have tried bravely to give us an insight into those problems which astronomers now find exciting: black holes, quasars, pulsars, general relativity ...

In place of fairies

Simon Schaffer, 2 December 1982

Stolen Lightning: The Social Theory of Magic 
by Daniel O’Keefe.
Martin Robertson, 581 pp., £17.50, September 1982, 0 85520 486 9
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Scienze, Credenze Occulti, Livelli di Cultura 
edited by Paola Zambelli.
Leo Olschki, 562 pp., April 1982, 88 222 3069 8
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... is exactly what O’Keefe has accomplished for his own misty past, instead of Orpheus, Hermes and Simon Magus, we are told of Marcel Mauss, Durkheim’s nephew, who, according to Evans-Pritchard, worked expertly on the anthropology of magic ‘without leaving his flat in Paris’ and who rallied the disciples of his sect around expensive dinners in excellent ...

Learned Insane

Simon Schaffer: The Lunar Men, 17 April 2003

The Lunar Men: The Friends who Made the Future 
by Jenny Uglow.
Faber, 588 pp., £25, September 2002, 0 571 19647 0
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... Soon after his 70th birthday, Charles Darwin sat down to compose a Life of his grandfather Erasmus, poet and sage of 18th-century Lichfield, brilliant physician, mechanical inventor, incorrigible heretic and evolutionist.* The biography was a mix of piety and polemic. Erasmus Darwin’s fate, his chronic diseases, strenuous urging of social and organic progress, and posthumous obloquy, were too close for comfort to his grandson’s hopes and fears ...

Our Trusty Friend the Watch

Simon Schaffer, 31 October 1996

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time 
by Dava Sobel.
Fourth Estate, 184 pp., £12.99, August 1996, 1 85702 502 4
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... The curious Lilliputians guessed Gulliver’s pocket-watch must be ‘the God that he worships’, because ‘he assured us he seldom did anything without consulting it.’ The giant King of Brobdingnag had a different perspective: Gulliver must ‘be a piece of Clockwork (which is in that country arrived to a very great perfection)’. Any acute 18th-century reader of Swift would easily make sense of these timely jokes ...

Evil Man

Simon Schaffer: Joseph Priestley, 21 May 1998

The Enlightenment of Joseph Priestley: A Study of His Life and Work from 1733 to 1773 
by Robert Schofield.
Pennsylvania State, 328 pp., £35.95, January 1998, 0 271 01662 0
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... Why do we hear so much of Dr Priestley?’ asked Dr Johnson rather sternly in the course of a chemistry lecture he attended in Salisbury. Joseph Priestley was the pre-eminent public intellectual of late 18th-century England. In theology and politics, chemistry and prophecy, this seemingly dour and absurdly productive Yorkshire visionary inspired intense admiration and loathing in roughly equal measure ...

Dozing at His Desk

Simon Schaffer: The Genius of the Periodic Table, 7 July 2005

A Well-Ordered Thing: Dmitrii Mendeleev and the Shadow of the Periodic Table 
by Michael Gordin.
Basic Books, 364 pp., $30, May 2004, 9780465027750
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... On the last day of January 1919, the Soviet New Year, the poet Alexander Blok smashed up his father-in-law’s desk. ‘Symbolic action’, Blok recorded pithily in his diary. Michael Gordin’s book helps to explain the action’s symbolism and its violence. Blok’s father-in-law, the desk’s first owner, was the greatest of Russian chemists, Dmitrii Mendeleev, who died in 1907 at the age of 73 ...

Exactly like a Stingray

Simon Schaffer: The evolution of the battery, 3 June 2004

Volta: Science and Culture in the Age of Enlightenment 
by Giuliano Pancaldi.
Princeton, 381 pp., £22.95, June 2003, 0 691 09685 6
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... It is well enough known that Napoleon’s victory over the Austrian army at Marengo on 14 June 1800 had a major effect on the history of the menu. The surprising haste of the engagement left the French commissariat far behind its commander, whose hunger had to be satisfied with what his cook had to hand: a scrawny chicken butchered with a sabre, some eggs, tomatoes, oil, garlic and a few crayfish ...

Somewhat Divine

Simon Schaffer: Isaac Newton, 16 November 2000

Isaac Newton: The ‘Principia’ Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy 
translated by I. Bernard Cohen.
California, 974 pp., £22, September 1999, 0 520 08817 4
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... introduction to this new translation points out, it was only with the triumphant work of Pierre Simon Laplace, more than a century later, that the tasks set by the ‘Principia of legend’ were finally accomplished. Though published in other European languages, within Britain the founding text of the nation’s mathematical physics was digested in study ...

Cleaning up

Simon Schaffer, 1 July 1982

Explaining the Unexplained: Mysteries of the Paranormal 
by Hans Eysenck and Carl Sargent.
Weidenfeld, 192 pp., £9.95, April 1982, 0 297 78068 9
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Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts 
by R.C. Finucane.
Junction, 292 pp., £13.50, May 1982, 0 86245 043 8
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Hauntings and Apparitions 
by Andrew Mackenzie.
Heinemann, 240 pp., £8.50, June 1982, 0 434 44051 5
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Beyond the Body: An Investigation of Out-of-the-Body Experiences 
by Susan Blackmore.
Heinemann, 270 pp., £8.50, June 1982, 0 434 07470 5
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... Do the spirits teach Socialism?’ asked a working-class spiritualist magazine in 1897. The answer, of course, was yes. In a year which sees the centenary of the establishing of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882, it is worth recalling why the Society was founded and who its real enemies were. The last two decades of the 19th century saw a remarkable growth in the general interest in socialism and spiritualism ...

In the Know

Simon Schaffer, 10 November 1994

Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture 
by William Eamon.
Princeton, 490 pp., £38.50, July 1994, 0 691 03402 8
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The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire 
by Pamela Smith.
Princeton, 308 pp., £30, July 1994, 0 691 05691 9
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... Like some garrulous character in a story by Italo Calvino, an Italian physician tells of his meeting at a 16th-century siege with a Spaniard who had just lost his nose in a barrack-room brawl. ‘The nose fell in the sand, and I saw it because we were together. So holding it in my hand, all full of sand, I pissed on it, and having washed it with urine I attached it to him and sewed it on very firmly ...


Simon Schaffer, 6 April 1995

Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, Scientist, Antiquary, Founding Father of the British Museum 
edited by Arthur MacGregor.
British Museum, 308 pp., £50, November 1994, 0 7141 2085 5
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... The British Museum – not a Museum of Britain’, so reads the caption on a photograph of the Museum’s imposing portico, at the start of a recent survey of national collections conducted by the Museums Journal. The BM is not an exhibition of the nation nor does it incorporate one coherently developed collection. Until well into the 19th century it housed the legacy of the Royal Library, the Classical legacy of the Mediterranean world, colonial natural history, and a host of private cabinets of curiosity, in apparently chaotic if snooty profusion ...

Entranced by the Factory

Simon Schaffer: Maxwell’s Demon, 29 April 1999

The Natural Philosophy of James Clerk Maxwell 
by P.M. Harman.
Cambridge, 232 pp., £35, April 1998, 0 521 56102 7
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... Late 20th-century sciences are publicised through hands-on exhibitions, press conferences, chat shows and interactive CD-Roms. The Victorians had a different system and, as usual, painstakingly classified it. There was the conversazione and the soirée; the grand lecture and the subscription dinner; the amateur society and the private club; above all, there were periodicals and public museums ...

Heat Death

Simon Schaffer: Entropists v. Energeticists, 13 April 2000

Ludwig Boltzmann: The Man who Trusted Atoms 
by Carlo Cercignani.
Oxford, 329 pp., £29.50, September 1998, 0 19 850154 4
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... The Second Law of Thermodynamics has an oddly talismanic status in the public life of physics. Flanders and Swann wrote a song about it; C.P. Snow lectured on it. Whether it refers to the impossibility in a sealed system of letting heat flow from a cooler to a hotter body, or to the tendency of the universe to run down to more chaotic and disorderly states, it forms a key element in the magnificent edifice of the science of heat and energy constructed in the closing decades of the 19th century ...

With Great Stomack

Simon Schaffer: Christopher Wren, 21 February 2002

His Invention so Fertile: A Life of Christopher Wren 
by Adrian Tinniswood.
Cape, 463 pp., £25, July 2001, 9780224042987
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... Christopher Wren, England’s best known architect and one of its greatest natural philosophers, experimented with everything: stone and wood, cones and domes, animals and men. He liked to depart from revered authorities. Under his hands plans for a church steeple or an academic hall would turn into a bold revision of Vitruvian schemes, the twitches of an anatomised dog into a startling challenge to Galenic orthodoxy, the motion of a planetary model into liberation from the ‘tyranny’ of ancient astronomy ...

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