Today, we read modern science when it was first
being made. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Amazing what turns up in
library stacks. Here's an 1836 edition of the
French journal Comptes Rendus. It's the
proceedings of the French Academy, and it's from a
time when French analytical science was the
strongest in the world.
To see what this remarkable volume really means,
let's turn some pages: There's a lot of material
Arago, then Perpetual Secretary of the Academy.
Much of that is material he was passing on from all
over the world. For example, he transmits a letter
from Mary Fairfax
Somerville in England. She reports on
experiments with the spectrum of light. (Two years
later, Arago would make basic contributions to that
The current president of the Academy was Charles Dupin. Dupin, like Arago,
was a major voice in bringing the Academy back to a
better appreciation of applied science. Both he and
Arago had a keen
appreciation for English industrial
accomplishment, even if science belonged to France
for the moment.
We find many of the mathematicians you may've
studied in college: Cauchy, Liouville, Jacobi.
Liouville has a short paper on how to solve a
strange differential equation -- first derivative
with respect to time equal to the third derivative
with respect to position. I wonder where that might
occur in nature! But I hold my tongue. For it was
Liouville who set up means for dealing with many of
the essential equations in engineering.
The chemist Gay-Lussac is
there. So is von Humboldt
of the Humboldt current, and Peltier, who explained
how thermocouples work. Justis
von Liebig (who set up the first modern R&D
lab twelve years before) has two articles on
chemistry. The English astronomer John Herschel reports on Halley's
Comet. We find Navier and Poisson, who wrote the
basic equation for viscous fluid flow.
I realize that you listeners can't possibly
recognize all these names. But, coming from your
scattered walks of life, you'll all recognize some.
I've never, in my whole life, seen such a
concentration of greatness in one volume of any
I can think of two reasons why this is so: For one
thing, we'd given up on pure rationalism and were,
once more, stirring subjective creativity back into
our science. For the next two generations, we would
make remarkable strides. What began with these
French analysts would finally give us Einstein.
But the other reason for all this greatness is one
we should take to heart. It is that all science
rests under one cover -- math, chemistry, biology,
physics, astronomy, geology, geography. The French
academy still presumed that we could read outside
our field. Science lived in a room with no doors,
and scientists all fed upon one another's ideas.
This startling book reveals the pay-off of
cross-fertilization going on at a level far beyond
anything we dare practice today.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds