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The Teacher, Preacher, P.R. Man of Science–The Patriarch Part 2

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 15, 2015

Continued from “How Science Education Came to America”:

His Eminence

His Eminence

Benjamin Silliman would become a great name. He was “the Patriarch” of American science, according to Louis Agassiz, the Swiss biologist who would take up the mantle of science education at Harvard in 1847. But Silliman would do so without making any great discoveries, without introducing any bold new concepts or systems, and without ever fitting the stereotype of the scientist as solitary brooding genius. On the contrary. What American science needed then was “an organizer, a promoter, a teacher, a preacher, a public relations man, a communicator and coordinator, and an exemplar of professionalism,” science historian Robert Bruce has written. “Silliman was all of these.”

He was a charismatic figure, with a clear and forceful way of speaking and an impressive, even aristocratic physical presence—tall and lean, “erect as a general on parade and with a general’s expression of great power,” as a former student recalled, with a high brow, deep-set eyes, a thin straight nose, and slightly pursed lips—altogether inspiring confidence and even belief in his listeners.

Silliman made it his mission to develop science and science education at Yale, and later nationwide. For this, he also possessed the ineffable trait that Bruce describes as “effectiveness in procuring facilities and supplies.” It wasn’t just that he had a keen eye for new material to embellish the Yale collection; he was also adroit at wheedling funds out of the Yale Corporation to pay for these acquisitions. Much of this effort went in support of mineralogy, a topic early Americans found far more tantalizing than we generally do today. For them, it afforded “a pleasant subject for scientific research,” according to an 1816 account, and also tended “to increase individual wealth” and “to improve and multiply arts and manufactures and thus promote the public good.”

Mineralogy attracted some colorful personalities. Silliman handed over $1,000, a huge sum then, for one mineral collection, notwithstanding that it had been put together with profits from the most notorious quack medical invention of that era, Elisha Perkins’s “Metallic Tractors.” Silliman’s brother, a lawyer in Newport, arranged the purchase of a mineral collection brought from England by a doctor who then had the misfortune to die in a duel over his “too great familiarity” with the wife of a South Carolina plantation owner.

One coveted acquisition eluded Silliman, at least at first. In the darkness before dawn on December 14, 1807, a “globe of fire,” seemingly half the size of the full moon, blazed across the skies of western Connecticut. Darkened rooms went bright as day. Farmers started up from their chores, or sat upright in bed in terror, as if the Judgment Day had come. As locals later described it to Silliman, three “loud and distinct reports,” like cannon shots, burst over the town of Weston, followed by “a continued rumbling, like that of a cannon-ball rolling over a floor.” It was a meteorite, estimated by Silliman to be at least 300 feet in diameter before it broke apart and rained down in pieces.

Silliman and a faculty friend, ecclesiastical historian James L. Kingsley ’99, arrived on the scene a few days later to gather eyewitness accounts and obtain a few fragments by purchase (the weeping and teeth-gnashing among local farmers having given way to gleeful profiteering). A detailed report by the two professors, including Silliman’s chemical analysis, concluded that the meteorite had come from outer space. Their account was soon being read aloud before learned societies in Philadelphia, London, and Paris. President Thomas Jefferson was skeptical, supposedly remarking, “I would more easily believe that two Yankee professors would lie than that stones would fall from heaven.” He had reason to mistrust Yale and Connecticut, both then bastions of anti-Jeffersonian Federalism, but the quote was probably apocryphal. The skepticism, on the other hand, was genuine. In a later letter, Jefferson wondered pointedly how the meteorite “got into the clouds from whence it is supposed to have fallen.”

Like much of the educated world then, Jefferson was still struggling with the dogma-shattering idea, introduced just a dozen years earlier by the French comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier, that species created by God could become extinct. As a passionate advocate of scientific discovery and president of the nation’s first great scientific organization, the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Jefferson had authorized funds to excavate the bones of a mastodon—the very species that alerted Cuvier to the possibility of extinction. And yet he also ardently pursued the hope that these mammoth creatures still lived in the unknown American West. Jefferson must have been equally torn now by the idea that the Earth God had made for man could be randomly bombarded from the heavens. (Though if it must be so, why not Connecticut?) These doubts were characteristic of a nation and a time in which ancient cultural and religious beliefs were constantly crashing up against new facts. That is, it was a nation struggling to come to terms with science.

Continue reading at “Spreading the Word About Science” …

One Response to “The Teacher, Preacher, P.R. Man of Science–The Patriarch Part 2”

  1. […] Continued from “The Teacher, Preacher, PR Man of Science”: […]

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