Friday, March 16, 2012

Scientists of Sundry Varieties

Not too far from where I live is a major national laboratory where amazing things are discovered on a regular basis, and I count myself fortunate to have worked with some of the fine scientists and engineers over the years. In fact, some families are on the second and third generation of scientists working there. But if you were a young gentleman of a scientific bent in the nineteenth century, your journey to greatness might have taken an entirely different path.

To begin with, the very term scientist was relatively new. Those interested in observing natural phenomenon and developing and testing theories about it were more likely called natural philosophers in the early part of the century. That’s why the journal of the Royal Society, Britain’s oldest chartered scientific association, is called Philosophical Transactions. Then too, you didn’t need an advanced degree or any degree at all to call yourself a natural philosopher. William Herschel, who is credited with the discovery of the planet Uranus, began life as a talented musician and composer. Humphry Davy, who discovered the properties of laughing gas and the elements calcium, magnesium, boron, and barium, had a grammar school education and once hoped to be a poet.

There was one requirement of a natural philosopher, though. You had to have someone willing to foot the bill for your efforts. Sometimes that might be your family. Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society for many years, came from wealth and was able to pay someone to tutor him in his chosen field of study, botany. Other times, you apprenticed to someone already working in your field of interest. Michael Faraday, the noted chemist and physicist, worked as secretary and valet for Humphry Davy for a time. And if you were wealthy enough, you could pay all the costs yourself and putter away to your heart’s content. The term used for this last category of natural philosopher is Grand Amateur, and Phileas Fogg of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days is a memorable example.

If you wanted to make a living at science, however, you had two choices. One was to lecture or run a laboratory at an established institution. The premier of these was the Royal Institution in London. It had been founded near the turn of the century to bring attention to advances in science and technology among the public. Your other choice was to discover something noteworthy like a new element or unknown planet or build up such a body of knowledge that the Royal Society would take note and elect you as a Fellow. The Royal Society was nearly 200 years old by the mid-nineteenth century. At the beginning of the century, it comprised both scientists and wealthy peers those scientists hoped would pay to sponsor their work. By 1847, however, Fellows were elected based on their scientific prowess alone.

And if someone in power, like one of those Grand Amateurs who happened to be a baron or duke, took note of your work, you might be referred to the ruler for a knighthood and even offered an annual salary. Often the salary came with appointment as an officer of the Sovereign, such as in the case of the Astronomer Royal. Even if you weren’t officially appointed to a position, there was the expectation that you would use that salary to allow you to continue working for the betterment of the nation.

Much like the scientists I know today.


Gillian Layne said...

My heart started pounding when I saw that telescope. Early science is such a fascinating field! I loved this post. I've started reading The Philosophical Breakfast Club by Laura J Snyder. It portrays the relationship of Charles Babbage, John Herschel, William Whewell and Rhicard Jones. It's a great read so far. :)

Regina Scott said...

Oh, that sounds like a great book, Gillian. I'll have to look for it. I'm hoping to have a few more posts on scientists over the next couple of months.