A history of the startling scientific innovations that rose to meet disconcerting troubles in revolutionary France.
Jones (Genetics/Univ. Coll. London; The Serpent's Promise: The Bible Retold as Science, 2013, etc.) fashions an elegant, somewhat meandering, and never dull narrative about the rich contributions by Age of Enlightenment–era French scientists who were encouraged by the wobbly state and monarchy to come up with solutions to mankind’s many problems. These involved addressing famine, correct measurements (the metric system), modern maps, new crops, and the establishment of new observatories and academies. Many of these scientists—all male save for mathematician Sophie Germain and, later, chemist Marie Curie—were members of the Collège de France (which received a “spring clean” by Louis XV’s finance minister, the economist Jacques Turgot) or the Royal Academy of Sciences. They included well-educated aristocrats who were also civic-minded—e.g., the radical Jean-Paul Marat, who was trained in medicine and known for conducting studies of venereal infections. In Paris, the wild enthusiasm for the electrical experiments of adopted Frenchman Benjamin Franklin occurred “at a period when science had entered the public arena, and when there seemed to be almost no limit to what it could do.” In a loosely thematic approach, Jones delves into the world-changing experiments and research by these able and daring scientists, beginning with the harnessing of electricity and working through the revolution itself, which was a “celebration of reason over passion” (at least at first). The author notes that the revolutionary year of 1789 also saw the publication of seminal works by Antoine Lavoisier, botanist Antoine de Jussieu, and mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace. Jones also examines the processes of solving problems related to explosives, famine calories and heat retention, flight, relativity, evolution, and chaos in the universe.
A passionately presented book that offers sparkling tangents for further study.