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.