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Archway With Words: Professor Steve Jones and the Science of the times

Archway With Words will host a talk on science and the French Revolution by Professor Steve Jones

21 September, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

Professor Steve Jones

PARIS, 1789: not only a city racked with political intrigue but a society exploding with invention and intellectual curiosity.

The Revolution happened not simply because the working classes did not have bread to eat. The world of knowledge was expanding at such a rate that old ideas of monarchy and divine right were being shown up for exactly what they were: anomalies in a world on the cusp of modernity.

Scientist Professor Steve Jones, who lives in Camden Town, not only teaches at universities but delights in sharing his thirst for knowledge by writing books that make the complicated easily explainable.

He is appearing at this week’s Archway With Words festival to speak about his latest work. No Need For Geniuses tells the story of the French Revolution in terms of the scientific world.

While we associate the Revolution with the Age of Enlightenment, the death of absolute monarchy and the violence associated with the political upheaval, Prof Jones says that advances in science went hand in hand with the swish of the guillotine.

“I indulge in what the French call ‘vulgarisation scientifique,’ writing about the natural world for a general audience,” he says. “More than two centuries on from a crisis that changed world history, this book celebrates the scientists in that era.”

And what scientists. Prof Jones reveals the vast changes wrought by Revolution – but also forged by the curiosity and intellectual brilliance of academics.

He points out that France at the time did not have the same writers as the British Romantics, nor composers of the quality of Beethoven or Mozart. But what they did have was science and philosophy. “This was the language of intellectual life,” he adds. “Their work laid the foundations of today’s physics, astronomy, biology and chemistry. They were true revolutionaries – agents of an upheaval of understanding that had rather more effect on the future than did the bloody disturbances on the streets.”

This is partly because the Revolution was led by two groups coming together. “It was led by ‘Philosophes and Politiques’, each of whom believed that their own field illuminated the other,” he says. “Together, the two groups were convinced they would lead humankind to an era of inevitable progress.”

The execution of Marie Antionette in 1793

He cites a Paris “saturated in science” and that the idea of the Revolution being led by a burgeoning middle class taking on a corrupt aristocracy that was draining the nation of productivity was not quite true: “Scientists were more involved than bankers,” he says.

As a new world emerged, there was a hunger to re-classify and order. This was not just introducing the metre, or decimalisation of currency. Sometimes, as the book reveals, it went to extraordinary lengths. They planned to adopt a new calendar with months divided into three, 10-day weeks. Each was then given a name based on the climate. This was parodied by Georgian England, adds Prof Jones, with wags renaming our months “Snowy, Flowy, Blowy, Showery, Flowery, Bowery, Hoppy, Croppy, Droppy, Breezy, Sneezy and Freezy”.

Prof Jones takes the reader through different fields – farming, physics, zoology and astronomy, to the origins of the potato crisp to dynamite.

He describes how advances in agriculture, to tackle hunger and famine, led to breakthroughs in the use of fertilisers and the introduction of the potato. And the science of the period also helped the Napoleonic era, who defended the Republic from aggression by the courts of Europe.

“Explosive shells, improved gunpowder and high-tensile steel, production lines for weapons, the semaphore telegraph, spy planes in the form of balloons, canned food and even new ways to tan soldiers’ boots helped France to prevail,” he states.

There is not a page in Steve Jones’ excellent book that does not amuse or enlighten – and shows a wholly different slant to the Revolution whose effects we still feel today.

• Professor Steve Jones on Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine is at Archway Methodist Church, 6 Archway Road, N19 3TD, on September 28 at 7.30pm. www.archwaywithwords.com

Wordy cause…

ARCHWAY With Words runs until September 28 – and among the other authors speaking include Review’s very own Dan Carrier. On Sunday September 24 at 7.30pm, he will be in conversation with AWW director Stephanie Smith, at Hargrave Hall, Hargrave Road, N19 5S, talking about his book Dr Zipp’s Amazing Octo-Com, which is out in early October. Entry is free. Also on the bill is Marion Rankine, who will be discussing her book about the social history of the umbrella, Brolliology, at 2pm.
• www.archwaywithwords.com

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