No Need for Geniuses: Scientific Revolutions and Revolutionary Scientists in Paris in the City of Light

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25 January 2016

No Need for Geniuses:

Scientific Revolutions and Revolutionary Scientists
in Paris in the City of Light

Professor Steve Jones

Welcome to the Museum of London. My name is Steve Jones, and I am going to give this talk this evening called “No Need for Geniuses” and it is about science in Paris.

I first went to Paris, I am horrified to look back, in May 1968. I arrived at the Gard du Nord, from Edinburgh, from an icy and still-1950s-like Edinburgh, and I was greatly impressed by the liveliness of the scene, but I was going down to the Pyrenees to collect snails, which is what I have wasted most of my career doing, so I did not have much time in Paris. So I got the Metro down to Gard d’Austrerlitz, and when I was on the Metro, I noticed strange perfume. It was pungent, not unpleasant, but pungent, and I thought, well, what rather strange, odd tastes in perfume these French people have, and not until I got down there and read the paper did I discover there had been a major riot in Paris that day and “perfume” was in fact tear-gas, which had actually soaked down into the Metro.
However, there is still a generation of people of my age in France who are called the Soixante-Huitaires, the 1968ers, who still mentally live in 1968 and they are still looking under the cobblestones for the beach – it is not there! The revolution in 1968 came to nothing of course, but the Revolution of 1789 was quite different – that really was an upheaval which, in some ways, formed modern Europe, and it sprang directly from the Revolution of 1776 in the United States, which really formed the world’s modern political system. The thing which I had not realised until I started getting interested in the subject and reading around it, was the astonishing role that science played in Paris, and France in general, in those years, and even more surprising that scientists played in the Revolution itself. Many scientists were central to the Revolution and got heavily involved in it. Many people who are remembered as revolutionaries were in fact, on the side, scientists. Many scientists paid a heavy price for their involvement. One academician, a fellow of the Royal Society, in four in Paris was guillotined, murdered by the mob, or killed in battle or in prison, and that was a lot, and many of the most figures that we know fell into those categories.
The cover of my book shows scientists standing on top of an enormous podium, where they were showing off, and then suddenly being thrown off, and you see a balloon in the distance, which it was the year of the balloons of course, you see surveying instruments, and it was the year of the survey of France, you see various important books, mathematical instruments, all of which are falling to the ground, where an angry mob awaits them. This is actually a Gillray cartoon, an English cartoonist, who is mocking France, but it actually tells the story in quite a clever way.
So, why is it called “No Need for Geniuses”? Well, it turns on the Revolutionary Tribunal, and you will know the Revolution was in 1789, but in 1793 came the Terror, and the Terror, which was promoted by Robespierre and others, and Marat and others, was really a terror – it was a revolution which went mad of its own accord and sentenced thousands of people, literally thousands of people, to the guillotine, including of course the monarch and his wife. It was almost unheard of for somebody to come before the Revolutionary Tribunal and not be sentenced to death. However, one person was, and that person was a scientist, a chemist, called Lavoisier, and Lavoisier – and we will talk quite a lot about him – was the founder of modern chemistry. He was the first to seek patent in chemistry. He was one of the co-discoverers of oxygen and hydrogen and nitrogen. He founded the understanding of human metabolism, the way that we burn food and use oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. So, he was a major figure in science, and he was sentenced to death, for reasons I will explain in a moment, but somebody, very bravely, shouted from the body of the court, “You cannot kill that man, he is a genius!” and the judge sneered and said, “The Revolution has no need for geniuses,” hence the title!
So, why was Lavoisier in front of the Tribunal? Lavoisier is remembered by all chemists, and most modern scientists, as a figure on the same level in chemistry as Newton was in physics or Darwin was in biology. Why was he there? Well, he was there because he had a hobby, and his hobby was collecting taxes and in France, in the pre-Revolutionary era, taxes were paid mainly by the poor. Actually, it sounds rather modern in that context. People paid for the right to buy the right to collect taxes – they were called the tax-farmers, and what the State would do, it would put out a bid for 24 people to pay many millions of francs, hundreds of millions of francs, to the State to collect as many taxes as they could, up to an agreed level, and if they could collect any more, they could keep it. This was enormously repaying to the tax funds. It was extremely hard luck on the poor peasants who had to pay the taxes because they would be flogged or beaten or even hanged if they did not pay the taxes. We have an exact parallel to that today of course with PFIs, Private Finance Initiatives. That is exactly what that is: people are paying the State to borrow some money from it, and the State is paying an enormously inflated sum back to them, £40 to change a light-bulb in a hospital and that kind of stuff. So, that was the tax-farm, and here was Lavoisier being mocked by a French cartoonist, with a starving peasant in front, Lavoisier going out to collect his taxes. Lavoisier made the equivalent of about £50 million in modern money during his career as a tax-farmer.
The tax-farm was very inefficient, as indeed many taxation systems are, and there were various kinds of taxes, one of the most [repellent] of which was called the Octroi, and the Octroi was the tax which people had to pay to bring goods into the big cities, to Paris in particular. If you were to bring any goods, food included, salt, all the essentials of life, into Paris, you had to pay a tax, and there was a wall around the centre of Paris, and the Parisians still say I live “intra-muros”, I live “within the wall”. But it was very leaky and there were all kinds of tricks that people played. It was not really a wall. Many of them were just houses in a terrace, and somebody would buy a house and what they would do is they would bring in goods through the back-door of the house and take it out the front-door of the house and not pay any taxes on it. Another very good scheme, which was used by several people, was to make a wickerwork model of a servant and go out in your carriage and fill the servant with brandy and cigarettes and that kind of stuff, and come back and then unload the servant and you did not pay taxes that way.

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