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



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So, that brings Marat into the world of science, and then somebody else, who is also rather surprising, was brought into the world of science. In the 1770s, people began to think about putting lightning conductors on buildings, and this was very, very unpopular because many people argued that the lightning conductors would attract thunder from all over France. In the Americas, they were blamed for earthquakes as well – I think that was even less likely. In St Omer, which is in northern France, somebody called Vissery de Bois-Valé put a complicated lightning conductor on his roof and there were immediate riots and rows, in a very French way, demanding that he take it down, and the citizens of St Omer rioted against the lightning conductor. He refused to do it, and it went to court. The city took him to court to force him to come down, and the discussion went on and on and on and it became kind of a cause celebre in Paris. All the physicists in Paris talked about it. Goethe mentioned it in his writings. It was talked about in the Royal Society of London.
But the case went on and on and on, and the lawyer in charge was very ineffective and he could not explain the science, and he hired a young assistant, who went straight to the centre of the issue and said, “Look, let us not bother ourselves with all this science, all this theory – theory is worthless and useless. All that matters are the observations of sensible men.” Men, of course… “Has anybody ever seen a lightning conductor attract lightning from outside? Has anybody ever been saved or killed by a lightning conductor?” There were only 11 conductors in the whole of France at the time, and they had not, and so he said, “In that case, it is okay, stop making a fuss about it, leave it there,” and he wrote a long judgement, which he sent to Benjamin Franklin, the American living in France, and the name of that individual was Robespierre. That was Robespierre’s first legal case, and he was a young man and it made him famous. He was elected to the Academy of Arras and, from that; he climbed upwards to the highest levels of the French political system. So, he got into it, he got into politics through science.
He was instrumental in the Terror. “Terror is only justice” – sounds a bit like our Home Secretary here – “…consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country”. He paid the price, needless to say, because he himself was arrested and threatened with execution. He tried to commit suicide with a pistol, but he only succeeded in blowing his jaw away, and the following day, he was executed. There is the execution of Robespierre and there is his death mask.

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