September 30, 2014

Review: A Professor, a President, & a Meteor by Cathryn J. Prince.

Out from Prometheus Books!

The road to scientific discovery can be a surreptitious one. Although America became a nation in 1776, it was sometime before American science would be taken seriously on the world stage. All of that was to change on the morning of December 14th, 1807.This week, we take a look at A Professor, a President, & a Meteor; the Birth of American Science by Cathryn J. Prince out from Prometheus Books. This book takes a look at the first fully documented meteorite fall in the new world, and this fascinating tale weaves its way into the politics of a young nation and the rise of one of its first true scientific superstars. A Professor follows the life and times of Benjamin Silliman and his inquiry into the Weston Connecticut meteorite fall. At the time, little was known about meteorites and there was considerable controversy as to their true origin and nature. Volcanic rocks carried aloft or somehow fused by lightning (hence the term “thunderstones”) were some of the prominent theories of the day.  More exotic conjectures included a volcanic lunar or cosmic origin. The report of the Weston Fall led to a famous row between Silliman and then President Jefferson. In what has been termed “the mis-quote heard around the world,” the president was to state; “I would more easily believe that two Yankee professors would lie than that stones would fall from heaven.”  Its intriguing to see how the politics and religious bias of the day, then as now, became enmeshed in prejudice and pressure to agree along party lines and outlooks on the world. Silliman was of the New England Federalist camp, while Jefferson was a staunch Deist, feared by many New Englanders to bring down the ultimate wrath of the heavens. The allegorical rebuke by Jefferson may be seen in this context as a rationalist outlook on what was thought of as a superstitious and uneducated account. But even enlightenment is no immunization against sometimes being dead wrong.      

But Silliman was also a firm reporter of the facts, faithfully recording the eyewitness testimony of the Weston Fall and patiently giving the residents their due respect. Also a competent naturalist and geologist, Silliman collected and analyzed samples of the Weston meteorite, which still exists in the Yale meteorite collection. Today, we know that the Weston meteorite was a Class H4 ordinary chondrite. His ability to untangle religion, superstition, and politics from the observed facts displays true testament of Silliman’s skill as a first rate scientist.  

Path of Weston meteorite based on eyewitness accounts. (Created by Author using Google Earth & Paint).

Silliman also brought much needed equipment to the university from abroad, including a mineral cabinet that once belonged to French Inspector of Mines Jean Baptiste d’Orcy, who was guillotined during the French Revolution. That such samples eventually made their way to Yale spoke to the rise of American science and Silliman’s role as its purveyor.  A trained chemist and student of Joseph Priestly (the discoverer of oxygen, who moved to Pennsylvania in his later years), Silliman was also noted for another discovery that you might have heard of, the refinement of petroleum.

Read A Professor, a President & a Meteor to get a fascinating glimpse at the birth of American science via a largely unknown tale of discovery. Today, we understand that our affairs are not merely separate from that of the heavens above, but instead intimately connected to solar weather, meteorite falls, and even the very constituent elements that we’re made of. This true tale of the birth of modern science illustrates a pivotal moment when we shrugged off bias and took a first step towards a technical maturity and looked instead to better understanding of our place in the universe.  

Comments

  1. Jill Swenson says:

    Very thoughtful and well written review. Cool map adds to understanding of meteors trajectory from space.

  2. To see a scholarly review of “A Professor, a President and a Meteor” go to http://www.meteoritemanuscripts.blogspot.com
    Mark

  3. Hi. Didn’t notice comment under picture before. Are you sure Silliman was a student of Priestly? I thought he was a student of James Woodhouse.
    Mark

  4. David Dickinson says:

    Thanks for the catch; maybe not a student, but Silliman was definitely an admirer of Priestly’s and conferred with him during his time at Yale. Priestly had quite scientific stature in the community during his later years, and I’m not quite sure if the term contempories would fit the bill.

  5. Yes, Silliman was an admirer of Priestly. But Priestly’s stature started to diminish in his later years. He was one of the last proponents of the phlogistion theory. Phlogiston was the supposed substance of fire that was released when something burned. Lavoisier had shown that phlogistion was not released when something burned – it combined with oxygen. It was James Woodhouse who took on Priestly’s views on phlogiston in the young Republic.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] This week, we take a look at a science history classic entitled Acid Tongues and Tranquil Dreamers; Eight Scientific Rivalries that changed the World by Michael White. Here you’ll read of tales both old and new of scientists “behaving badly” as they raced to out-think, out-publish and often out-slander each other in the press. The tale begins with the calculus-fueled battle between Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz and continues right up through the cyber-wars of Bill Gates and Larry Ellison of today. It’s mentioned that Newton never failed to attend an execution of a counterfeiter caught during his tenure as Head of the London mint, a fact that speaks to his stoic demeanor. And speaking of executions, the book also traces the birth of modern chemistry and the untimely demise of Antoine Lavoisier via guillotine during the French revolution. His rival and discoverer of oxygen Joseph Priestly narrowly escaped a similar fate and would later make the pilgrimage to America where he would serve as an instructor for one Benjamin Silliman (the “Professor” in A Professor, A President, & a Meteor”. [...]

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