Today, three friends and an act of forgiveness
change the course of science. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
1804. We're at a salon in the French countryside.
The guest is Joseph Gay-Lussac -- a brilliant young
chemist, only 26. He's just made a series of heroic
balloon ascents. He's been measuring the atmosphere
with instruments of his own invention. He's gone as
high as 23,000 feet with no breathing
Also in the room is Alexander
von Humboldt, 35. Humboldt is a well-known scientific generalist. He's with the German
diplomatic mission in Paris. Humboldt has worked in
geography, astronomy, and atmospheric studies.
Gay-Lussac recently found flaws in Humboldt's
atmospheric work. He savaged it in print.
Now the two meet for the first time, and Humboldt
does a remarkable thing for those aggressive times.
He swallows his hurt. He congratulates Gay-Lussac
on his balloon ascents. He offers the hand of
friendship. That remarkable gesture isn't lost on
Gay-Lussac. And so begins a lifelong cooperation.
After that, Humboldt went on an important
geographical expedition to South America. When he
came back in 1809 he found lodging with the third
and youngest member of this remarkable trio. That
was François Arago
-- a 23-year-old astronomy professor.
Arago and Gay-Lussac were old friends. It's Arago
who reported Humboldt's unexpected act of trust.
It's his writings that reveal the values that the
three of them shared for 50 years.
Arago, Gay-Lussac, and Humboldt all wrote
voluminously. All assumed statesmanlike roles that
reshaped European science. They represented a new
fusion of Industrial-Revolution technology with the
ivory tower of French theory. They brought a new
social conscience to science. Arago fought
scientific elitism. He also fought the French slave
Humboldt's writings drew the scattered 19th-century
sciences together. He too fought for social
justice. Not long before the Civil War, he wrote
acidly about slavery in America. He said that our
talk about freedom seemed to be little more than a
means in the pursuit of profit.
And Gay-Lussac became a great teacher. He had a
most profound influence on science when a young
German named von Liebig
came to study with him. Gay-Lussac opened the
youth's eyes to a whole new view of science. Back
in Germany, Liebig used Gay-Lussac's ideas to
create the first modern R
and D lab.
So three friends helped to shape the science that
rose out of 18th-century revolution. And it all
traced to an act of simple courtesy between
Humboldt and Gay-Lussac, celebrated by Arago. In
1804, the outbound ripple from a small act of human
decency changed science -- and it changed history.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Hahn, R., Arago, Dominique François Jean.
Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Vol.
1 (C.C. Gilespie, ed.) Chas. Scribner's Sons,
Biermann, K-R., Humboldt, Friedrich Wilhelm
Heinrich Alexander von. Dictionary of
Scientific Biography. Vol. ??, (C.C.
Gilespie, ed.) Chas. Scribner's Sons, 1970-1980.
Arago, D.F., Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac. The
Golden Age of Science: Thirty Portraits of the
Giants of 19th-Century Science by Their Scientific
Contemporaries. (Bessie Zaban Jones, ed.),
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966, pp. 187-216.
(The Arago biographies of Volta, Laplace, and
Herschel in this same volume do much to explain
Arago's important place as a scientific observer.)
Arago, M., Life of James Watt. 2nd
ed., Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1839. (M.
must stand for Monsieur. Arago's initials were
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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