Strange Voyage

A distinguished science historian offers a personal compendium of what he finds most interesting about early modern science, with little attention to strict chronology.

The sea off Portugal. (Photo by Geerd-Olaf Freyer.)

Voyaging in Strange Seas: The Great Revolution in Science. David Knight. 334 pages. Yale University Press.

Its dust jacket lauds Voyaging in Strange Seas as “the ideal book for students (and others) who want to have an overview of what [Knight] calls the ‘long Scientific Revolution.’”

This praise as a textbook overview of early modern science development is a misnomer, for Knight has written a much more unconventional book. Less an introduction or overview, it is a complex and idiosyncratic meditation on important themes and aspects of early modern science.

Knight is a distinguished scholar with a long career in the history of science. He is a prolific researcher who focuses on the history of British science in the 17th through 19th centuries, particularly the early 19th century.

However, facts and dates like these hardly suggest the range of Knight’s research interests, which include the histories of chemistry and of natural history, science and religion, and science and Romanticism. Thus he is naturally prepared to embark on a broad and simultaneously highly personal exploration (or series of explorations) of European science evolution.

The book’s title refers to William Wordsworth’s well-known meditation on the momentous intellectual “voyaging” of Isaac Newton. Early in the first chapter, Knight employs “voyaging” as both a historical context and a metaphor for the book’s general theme or themes. After summarizing results from European voyages of discovery and exploration dating from the time of the Portuguese and Spanish to Captain Cook, Knight turns to the book’s principal theme:

The interiors of all except Europe remained unmapped—a task for succeeding generations—but their outlines were known. This image can also be applied to science. There had been a huge change in the way the world was perceived and understood, and agreement that it could be improved: life could be less arduous and more comfortable. A new empirical attitude prevailed—active, optimistic, based upon observation, experiment and mathematical reasoning. Curiosity that had seemed childish became a virtue. Science and its fruits were perceived by governments to be vital. This book traces this development, crucial to the making of our modern world, which applied inherited knowledge and practical techniques, new and rigorous (if provisional) standards of classification and explanation, new devices for observation and measurement, and entailed the transformation of experience into experiment.

This “theme” is itself complex and not without some ambiguity. (It is not clear what the phrase “this development” actually refers to in the welter of background changes that had just preceded it.) Complexity actually is the warp and woof of historical change; yet it is frequently simplified (distortedly) in making compelling historical narratives, like the traditional master-narrative of the Scientific Revolution (Copernicus to Newton).

There is no such problem in this book, for it contains no simple diachronic narratives. Rather, in each chapter Knight offers a kind of personal compendium of what he finds most interesting about the particular subject, with little attention to maintaining a strict chronology. Often chapters, such as the one on natural history, are structured around a series of interlocking vignettes portraying the scientific protagonists Knight is interested in.

This is my favorite chapter—a magnificent discussion of 18th-century European colonization and exploration.

The chapter sequence does follow a roughly diachronic developmental scheme, moving from backgrounds and origins to the new “philosophy” (stressing the theme of curiosity including interest in the occult and control of nature); the development of astronomy, experimentation, science and religion; the development of science’s social organization (stressing the role of patronage and the differing models of English and French national scientific societies); the biomedical sciences (to use an anachronism), including discussion of epidemics and medical etiquette as well as the more standard treatment of the academically based anatomical tradition; the practical application of science; and the aforementioned development of natural history.

For the most part, these first 10 chapters tell about the scientific enterprise and its contexts in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the final two substantive chapters, the focus moves forward to the 18th.

In the first of these, “A Global Perspective: Exploring and Measuring,” Knight returns to the original theme of geographical “voyaging.” This is my favorite chapter—a magnificent discussion of 18th-century European colonization and exploration. The latter sometimes had scientific motives (testing Cartesian vs. Newtonian deductions about the shape of the Earth) and both had scientific as well as exploitative and commercial consequences. Although science historians pay lip service these days to the need for global perspectives, this is a rare implementation (admittedly, still from a European perspective). The next chapter, equally rich, is on science in relation to 18th-century society and “enlightenment” culture.

The final chapter asks: “Revolution, Evolution: How Then Did Science Grow?” In fact, Knight had already answered that question in the previous chapter. It is worth quoting:

After a couple of centuries the Scientific Revolution was going from strength to strength, unlike those previous bursts of interest in the natural world and its workings. … There were five good reasons for its acquired impetus: a flow of able young recruits, and government support; its association with international trade and communication; its promise of bettering the human condition, and of real and endlessly growing understanding where religious dogma and ancient authority had failed; its ever-closer links to booming new industries; and, most importantly, its enduring institutions.

This summarizes the incredible complexity of the story Knight tells in this book, which he significantly characterizes in its final sentence as “the labyrinth of 300 turbulent years in which the most powerful movement in the modern world grew up and evolved.” And this rich historical feast is presented in the compass of only 291 pages!

The combined complexity and brevity does not make for an easy read. Moreover, there are times when important themes introduced early on in a chapter fail to develop. A case in point is the role of navigation in the maturation of 16th– and 17th-century astronomy. In the first paragraph of the chapter titled “Looking Up to Heaven: Mathematics and Telescopes,” Knight denominates navigation as the “new spur,” which “brought renewed value to astronomy” [p. 60]. One might well expect this theme to be dominant in the chapter, yet it hardly reappears at all.

As I noted, I would not consider this book to be either a textbook (although individual chapters like my favorite could be so employed) or an introduction for the general reader. Rather, it will perhaps best serve as a book to be read leisurely, savored for its unexpected turns and insights, and meditated on by scholars already familiar with the general contours of its historical terrain. One example near and dear to my own research focus in history of chemistry is the following:

The austere Lavoisier, bringing logic and quantities into chemistry, and the exuberant Priestley revealing the wisdom and benevolence of God in following experiment wherever it led, represent between them the main strands of the Scientific Revolution.

One last point: This is an optimistic, even sunny book about the development of science. As such, is quite different from the sense of existential alienation infusing one of its most ambitious predecessors: Charles Gillispie’s Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas (Princeton University Press, 1960), much less the strong and even vehement social and ethical criticisms of the scientific enterprise that arose in the 1960s and 1970s. While admitting that science is “a very human activity, where … ambition and suspicion are its dark side,” Knight immediately thereafter reminds us that “we must never forget that it can and should be a source of powerful   ethical values as well as of power and intellectual satisfaction.”

Seymour Mauskopf is a history professor emeritus at Duke University. He has written and edited several books on the history of chemistry and allied sciences in the 18th and 19th centuries; the history of chemical technology, focusing on munitions and explosives; and the history of parapsychology and marginal science.

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