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



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Bailly became the first Mayor of Paris. He did very well, but unfortunately, there was a massacre in Paris on the site of the present Eiffel Tower, where various rioters were shot down by Bailly’s troops. Bailly was grabbed and guillotined. They erected the guillotine on the site of what became the Eiffel Tower and were about to kill him and somebody said, “You are trembling, Bailly,” and this was in February, and he said, “Only through cold,” and they executed him there, and that was the end of poor old Monsieur Bailly.
Of course that execution was the first of many. There is a well-known revolution who wrote from Newcastle-on-Tyne to his colleagues in Paris just before the Revolution proper that “Five or six hundred heads cut off would have assured your repose, freedom and happiness”, and that was referring to a smaller upheaval which had not gone anywhere – it had been quashed. He revised that figure to “50,000 heads cut off would assure your repose”. That was Marat, and Marat certainly was a dangerous activist and political extremist. He wrote, in Newcastle-on-Tyne, a pamphlet, in English, “Chains of Slavery: A Work Wherein the Clandestine and Villainous Attempts of Princes to Ruin Liberty are Pointed Out”, by Jean Paul Marat. But he also wrote some scientific stuff, he wrote two pamphlets: one is called an “Essay on Gleets”, and “gleets” are venereal diseases, non-specific urethritis; and a second “An Enquiry into the Nature and Cure of a Singular Disease of the Eyes”. And he was a doctor and he was quite successful. In fact, his treatment of urethritis was much better than what had gone on before. Instead of using a steel cannula to push it up the penis of the poor man being treated, he used a rubber one which was not nearly as painful, probably just as ineffective. In fact, the University of St Andrews gave him a degree for having done that. Marat is a graduate of the University of St Andrews, but Marat had to pay for that – it was quite a common pastime in those days. Of course, that too has come back… It was quite a common pastime in those days, and Dr Johnson, with his usual weight, said “The University of St Andrews is getting richer by degrees”, and I am kind of tempted to say that myself about University College London and many other such places.
So, he was a scientist, and he was quite an effective scientist. He developed something that he called the solar microscope. He went back to Paris, just three years before the Revolution, and he became interested in Newton’s refraction prism experiments, and he disagreed with Newton. He felt that Newton had got it all wrong and he wrote angry books about Newton, which got him into trouble. He invented this solar microscope in which the sun came into that mirror and then came through the microscope and made images on the wall, and he felt that he had found a caloric fluid, because he found that, if he put flames, in that flame, you could see wobbly stuff coming up from the flame, which we know to be hot air, but he thought that was magic stuff that was called phlogiston which is released by burning objects – that was disproved by Lavoisier actually.
He did more than that: he actually did quite a lot of electrical work, and actually, Marat did experiments which he published, in an obscure place, on electrocuting a frog and making it jump, five years before the famous Italian Galvani did the same thing, and he felt that electric sparks of lightning were in fact the fluid, and that’s a diagram from one of his writings about lightning.
So, he was really quite an effective scientist. He was wrong about lots of things, but he certainly saw himself as a real scientist. He became very embittered because he was never invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Sciences, and I know lots of my colleagues who secretly are very embittered because they have never been asked to be Fellows of the Royal Society, and I can smugly say, well, I am a Fellow of the Royal Society and it has made no difference whatsoever to me, except having to pay £200 a bloody year for nothing!
He was very able, and in the end of course, he was murdered in his bath. That is a portrait by David of Marat, stabbed by Charlotte Corday, who came in and killed him because her relatives had been executed on his orders. He is painted as a hero and a saint, but he was very far from that.

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