On the Origin of Science Writing: Joseph Priestley/Isaac Newton edition

Sunday over at Daily Kos, Devilstower had a very nice review of Steven Johnson’s new biography of Joseph Priestley, The Invention of Air. The review did its job — make me go out and get the book.

That said, Devilstower made one claim that I think dramatically overstates Priestley’s accomplishments — while diminishing the real history of the democratizing spread of scientific thinking that significantly preceded Priestley, and continues today.  Devilstower wrote:

He was the author of what was probably the first popular book on science. Not the first science book, there had been many of those, but the first popular science book. What’s the difference? As an example, Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica had been out for several decades before Priestley began writing, but as the title suggests, Newton chose to write his book in Latin, not English, and crafted a text both intentionally dense and painfully difficult. Despite the revolutionary wealth of information in Newton’s book, only the most advanced scholars could pry lose its secrets. Priestley broke with this scholarly tradition and wrote his works in English, being careful to explain enough background to address a general audience. Rather than go through the elaborate mental gymnastics that Newton presented, Priestley laid his work bare on the page.

The problem with this is that it is just not true.  By 1768, when Priestley published a popularized version of his more technical History and Present State of Electricity, the notion of writing about nature in the vernacular had been on the rise for the better part of two centuries at least.

The breakthrough to writing in the living language spoken by more than the scholarly and clerical elite actually came first in Italy during the Renaissance.  Think Petrarch, and his sonnets; Machiavelli with Il Principe — The Prince; Dante, of course, with the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso — and for our purposes here, that somewhat later figure Galileo Galilei, who risked Papal wrath for the double sin of countenancing the Copernican view of the heavens and saying so in Italian.  That this was understood to be a popular work, i.e. one for lay audiences, can be seen by clicking that link — it leads to the 1661 translation, “Inglished from the original Italian copy by Thomas Salusbury.”

There you have a crucial work of popular science available to Italian readers in 1632, and to Priestley’s great-grandparents a generation later.

In that gap, you can find a bit of the broader historical processes creating not just the knowledge required to write about science, but the possibility of doing so for a broad audience.

For example:  you can’t have a popular literature without the means of getting words on paper cheaply enough to attract the punters.  That took time:  for example, England lacked any mills making white paper, suitable for printing at the beginning of the seventeenth century.  (There was some production of brown paper for wrapping and packaging.)  By mid-century, as Isaac Newton was just heading off to grammar school, there were still just two mills in the entire country making the high-quality stuff (thanks to James Gleick’s fine brief life Isaac Newton for that fact and the heads-up to the larger story).  Paper for printing was almost exclusively imported, and was very expensive — 24 sheets of the good stuff cost a day’s wages for a laborer.

This is one of the reasons books were expensive, print runs small, and great care was taken not to get lumbered with copies of works that lacked a market.  That is, to the mystery of why Shakespeare’s First Folio came so late — in 1623  seven years after its author’s death — and with what seems like a small print run, though at the time it was a very considerable edition at around 1,000 copies, part of the answer is that those involved needed to be sure that the market for a large and hence costly book was actually there.

But by the latter half of the 1600s, and especially towards the end of the century, paper was much more generally available, printing technology had spread, and a popular and even a kind of tabloid media could take form.  In that context you find, if not the first, then certainly some of the earliest popular science writing in English, with the most notable early example coming from Newton’s antagonist, Robert Hooke, and his landmark Micrographia, published in 1665.

As much as anything Joseph Priestley ever wrote, Hooke’s extraordinary work offers a social as well as an intellectual portrait of the time.  He wrote it for a general audience; he wrote it to make money; he wrote it out of origins as a poor member of the educated class, made good by his own efforts, his skill, and his capacity to attract the patronage especially of Robert Boyle.

There is social mobility there, technological change, and a new culture forming in the emergence of a public both interested enough and with enough surplus cash to purchase a pricey, lavishly illustrated work about nature.

And then there is the case of Newton himself, calumnied by Devilstower for “elaborate mental gymnastics” of which Priestley is supposed to have been free.  But there is this problem:  Newton was not trying to write a popular text in the Principia, just as Priestley was not in his larger work on electricity.  Newton was presenting new results to a community of colleagues in the form in which its claims could be understood, assessed and tested — that is, in the emerging language of mathematics.

That was the point:  this was a new approach to science and Newton laid out his work to make both his results and his methods available to the audience that could make use of it.  That he was attempting to persuade his fellow natural philosophers, and not the public at large should no more be held against him than should Einstein’s framing of general relativity in exceptionally sophisticated mathematical form (for physicists at the time).

Of course, Einstein went on to write the popular text Relativity, still in print, still a valuable introduction to both the special and general theories.  It is perhaps less well known that Newton  took pains to make available to a broader public the qualitative content of his ideas.

For example, in the famous letters he wrote to the divine, Richard Bentley, to help him prepare the first series of Boyle lectures, he sought to explain his theories in order, as he wrote   (I’m paraphrasing from memory here, so don’t sue me) to enhance faith in and wonder at the works of the divine.  He took pains to explain to Bentley how, in his view, his theory of gravity  did just that, reaching through his correspondent to the public audience that would encounter his lectures.

Most important, in the context of Devilstower’s view of Priestley’s role in creating a place for the broad mass of men and women in the scientific enterprise, in contrast to Newton’s supposed scholarly elitism, Newton himself more than Principia, and his other great book on scientific topics, The Opticks, was published in 1704 — in English.

I can’t say that the book is  a glorious ornament to English prose style, but it’s readable, it’s there, and it contains critical ideas not just about experiments that Newton had performed in his youth, but (in later editions) about how science itself works, how the interplay of experiment and reasoning produce results.

Last, beyond Newton himself, Newtonianism was a big enterprise throughout Europe both during and after Newton’s lifetime.  Mordechai Feingold’s catalogue The Newtonian Moment captures the explosion of popularizations of Newton’s work that followed with striking speed after the admittedly dense Principia.

All this is not to say that Priestley was not important.  Of course he was, both as a scientist and as a democratizing writer about science for a broad audience.  I’m really arguing just two points here.

The first, more minor, is just a defense of the value of historical knowledge.  The past is a much more fine grained place than one in which Priestley, born in 1733, confronts Isaac Newton, born in 1642, across an empty field.  The notion that science was the province of the Latinate elite until it was suddenly set free is false — and does real violence to a much more important understanding, my second point: the issue of the public understanding of science is something that has been a significant battleground for centuries.

We are fighting it still, of course, and to the extent that we are making progress, it is as the heirs of a tradition formed not just by one or another hero, but by centuries of effort by the famous and the much more modest alike.

Images:  “Dr. Phlogiston” — anti Priestley cartoon c. 1780-90.

William Blake, “Isaac Newton,” 1795.

Joseph Wright, “An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump,” 1768. Note that this painting, depicting a scientific demonstration as a recognized form of respectable entertainment for an unequivocally non-expert audience dates from the same year as Priestley’s foray into science popularization.  Image source:  The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Chemistry, good public communication of science, History, History of Science, Isaac Newton, science writing, scientific revolution, Uncategorized

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