Early Careerist Profile: Michael Bycroft

At the 2013 annual meeting of the History of Science Society meeting Michael Bycroft discussed “Charles Dufay’s Experimental History of Gems.” Here he discusses the project and his experience at HSS.

“I never intended to write my PhD dissertation on Charles Dufay, an eighteenth-century Frenchman known for his work on static electricity. But once I started reading his papers I could not stop. His approach to electricity was so unlike that of any of the other experimenters of the same period whose work I had read–more comprehensive, more succinct, more organized, and above all more concerned with the discovery of empirical regularities, as opposed to the search for final causes. Where did Dufay get his distinctive style? Whence this positivism avant la lettre?

My answer is based on several texts, but two were decisive. The first is a well-known paper on phosphors (substances that glow in the dark after exposure to light). Several historians had discussed this paper, but none had mentioned a passage near the beginning where Dufay wrote that he had “formed the intention of examining, by all means I could think of, the nature of all gemstones.” This seemed odd at first–Dufay is not known as a mineralogist. But once I started looking for gemstones in Dufay’s articles and manuscripts, I found them everywhere. The other text is a paper on steel-making by the naturalist René Réaumur, Dufay’s mentor at the Académie. I was struck by the similarity between Réaumur’s approach in this paper and Dufay’s approach in his papers on electricity.

Further reading convinced me that this resemblance reflected a deeper affinity. Like Dufay, Réaumur was a prolific mineral collector who never missed a chance to experiment on his specimens. Both men studied nature by choosing an experimental operation–like heating, roasting or rubbing–and performing that operation on a large number of minerals. The rules they stated in their papers were their attempts to summarise the outcomes of their numerous trials: the regularity in their experimental results derived in part from the regularity of their mineral collections.
Diagram of diamond cuts from a mineralogy text written by one of Dufay's acquaintances, Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d'Argenville.

Diagram of diamond cuts from a mineralogy text written by one of Dufay’s acquaintances, Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d’Argenville.

My talk is part of a panel I am organizing on the relationship between natural history and natural philosophy in the eighteenth century. In this period, “natural history” usually meant the collection and classification of plants, animals and minerals; “natural philosophy” often meant the experimental search for the causes of phenomena like heat, light, electricity, and magnetism. The distinction between these two kinds of science was widespread in the Age of Reason. As the case of Dufay shows, however, they sometimes came together in fruitful ways. Does this mean that the distinction was just a rhetorical construct? I don’t think so. But I do think that there is a lot to gain from trying to give a better characterization of the distinction as a stood at different times and places in the eighteenth century. So I am looking forward to trying out my own characterization on an HSS audience, and to hearing what my fellow panelists have to say about the distinction.

I am excited about the conference for many other reasons: meeting people I’ve not seen for years; meeting new and interesting scholars, like the ones on my panel; meeting my generous mentor at the Thursday reception; celebrating 100 years of ISIS; learning how to write Wikipedia articles; and, of course, attending a wide range of fascinating talks.”

michael.bycroftMichael Bycroft is a post-doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, in Berlin, where he studies the many roles of gems in early modern science. He recently completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge, UK, with a dissertation entitled “Physics and Natural History in the Eighteenth Century: the Case of Charles Dufay.” He blogs at www.doublerfraction.blogspot.com.