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Journal Article

Wonders in the Academy: The Value of Strange Facts in the Experimental Research of Charles Dufay

Michael Bycroft
Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences
Vol. 43, No. 3 (Jun., 2013), pp. 334-370
DOI: 10.1525/hsns.2013.43.3.334
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/hsns.2013.43.3.334
Page Count: 37
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Wonders in the Academy: The Value of Strange Facts in the Experimental Research of Charles Dufay
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Abstract

What happened to wondrous phenomena during the European Enlightenment? A familiar answer is that the learned elites of the period, and especially those linked to the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris, either ignored wonders or debunked them. Historians of science who have challenged this answer have so far paid little attention to one of the main sources of evidence usually invoked in its favor, namely the experimental reports of the chemist Charles Dufay (1698–1739). This paper considers Dufay’s published articles, especially those on phosphorescence and electricity, and argues that far from disdaining wonders he valued them as a means of discovering new regularities and of correcting and confirming hypotheses. Moreover, his interest in wonders was due partly to three concerns that he shared with other members of the Academy, and especially with chemists such as Claude-Joseph Geoffroy and Jean Hellot. These concerns were the production of a large amount of empirical data, the practice of alchemy, and the need to write for an audience of non-academicians. One moral of this study is that Dufay had more in common with two of his seventeenth-century sources, Robert Boyle and Athanasius Kircher, than historians have so far supposed. Another is that the difference between lay and learned attitudes to wonders, insofar as it existed in the eighteenth century, lay not in the ejection of wonders from serious inquiry but in the shifting background of expectations against which different groups judged which facts were wondrous and which were mundane or unsurprising.

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