intellectual trivia roundup

“When a philosopher says something that is true then it is trivial. When he says something that is not trivial then it is false.” -CF Gauss. “We should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.” -Oscar Wilde. Time for the trivial…

lomonosov :: dashkova :: philosophical society :: hopkinson :: prizes

• • •

1. Mikhail Lomonosov was born in 1711, the son of a codfisher. At 19 he ran away to a life of academia, and became a staggeringly prolific intellectual and polymath. He’s been called the Russian Ben Franklin, but I’m not sure that captures it. He was a:

  • chemist, identifying conservation of mass and debunking phlogiston theory decades before Lavoisier was credited with doing so; also first to freeze mercury
  • astronomer, the first to hypothesize an atmosphere on Venus
  • geographer, predicted the existence of Antarctica, developed navigation tools, explained how icebergs form
  • physicist, argued for atomic theory before they were called atoms; identified heat as molecular motion and therefore hypothesized the concept of an absolute zero, where that motion stops; hinted at a wave theory of light
  • artist, his study of minerals led him to build the first stained-glass factory outside of Italy
  • poet, poeted
  • linguist, wrote a grammar fusing standard Russian with formal Church Slavonic language; relative usage of either in a work depended on which mood the author was trying to evoke

Besides general contributions to scientific and artistic knowledge, Lomonosov also played a critical role in the development of Russian art and science. In 1724, the Russian Academy of Sciences was founded, intended to bolster the production and instruction of science in Russia. To kickstart its growth, many of the initial members were European intellectual luminaries. But by Lomonosov’s time, they’d left, the funding had dried up, and the academy had withered, with no real structure or institutional aim. Following his election in 1745, Lomonosov helped to revive it, mandating more publications in Russian, adding new Russian members, and publishing piles of his own work, helping Russia to institutionally “catch up” to the scientific revolution.

Mikhail Lomonosov
Mikhail Lomonosov

Lomonosov is famous in Russia, but seemingly unknown outside it. Perhaps in part this is because he was asocial and reserved, and when he bothered to talk to anyone, it was usually only to argue with them. So there weren’t a lot of people who cared to champion his work. I also think he may have been a victim of his own polymath-ism: maybe he was so eager to move on to some new topic that he never quite fully realized his initial ideas, never quite taking that final confirmatory step to push his idea into general acceptance. Maybe he just didn’t have the PT Barnum gene (“every good scientist is half BF Skinner and half PT Barnum”), or maybe it was Eurocentric bias. It’s hard to say. Lomonosov died young, at 53, and also wore a powder wig which I guess I never realized was something they did in Russia. In any case, I strongly recommend this article about him. Seriously: read it. My gloss over does not do him justice.


2. Lomonosov wasn’t alone is rebuilding the Russian Academy of Sciences: he had help in the form of Ekaterina Dashkova (1743-1810). Dashkova wasn’t a scientist, though it’s tough to pin down exactly what she was; a friend once described her as “a doctor, an apothecary, a surgeon, a veterinary, a carpenter, a magistrate, a lawyer” who “hourly practices every type of incongruity.” I really like that last part.

Born to a noble family, Dashkova married young, had a child, and watched her husband gamble away their fortune and then die all by the age of 20. Because of her social standing, she was close friends to Catherine the Great. Well, at times she was a friend of Catherine. Friend: Dashkova played an unspecified role in the coup that put Catherine in the throne. Not a friend: For unknown reasons Catherine, once in power, cooled on her. With her husband dead and more or less shut of upper-crusty social endeavors, the well-educated Dashkova opted instead to travel Europe, where she studied and was received by the Euro-intellectual elite. Then she came back to Russia. Friend: Catherine warmed to her again, and she was put in charge of the moribund Russian Academy of Sciences and the nascent Russian Academy (of non-sciences) in 1782, the first woman to be so appointed anywhere.

Princess Dashkova, full regalia
Princess Dashkova, full regalia

She put the Academies on the map: increasing publications (especially of Lomonsonov), funding scientific expeditions, and compiling the first dictionary of the Russian language, mostly by herself, in just six years. She was also publishing well-received dramatic works at this time. After about a decade, back to not a friend: Catherine had another change of heart and forced Dashkova to resign around 1794. When Catherine died in 1796, Dashkova was exiled briefly, before being allowed to return to Moscow, where she stayed until her death.


3. Though they met only briefly, Dashkova struck up a friendship with Benjamin Franklin, who offered her membership in the American Philosophical Society. The APS was founded in 1743 by Franklin—a kite-flying gout-having almanac peddler—and John Bartram, the “father of American botany.” The idea for the APS was some 15 years older and dated back to the Junto, also known as The Leather Apron Club. In his early 20s, Franklin decided that informal roundtables at the local watering hole simply wouldn’t cut it anymore, and set up a formal discussion group for his “ingenious acquaintance.” He called it the Junto. Oddly, for a set of intellectuals, the name is a bad translation—an improperly masculinized version of the Spanish word junta, meaning group or meeting.

Among early Junto members were a glazier/mathematician/inventor, a surveyor/bibliophile, a cobbler/astrologer, a merchant/scrivener, and a gentleman (the gentleman was Robert Grace, who didn’t have a profession but was let in on account of his massive library). Here’s Franklin’s description of the group:

“…every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.”

…which actually sounds pretty good. If anyone would like to form a modern-day Junto, be in touch. I’d also strongly recommend reading his list of discussion questions. I especially like this one: “Is there any man whose friendship you want, and which the Junto, or any of them, can procure for you?” (FADE IN: int. Junto meeting): “That chap Adams seems like a fine fellow indeed; shared a drachm with ‘im I did yestereve. Might I impose on one of you fine gents to procure for me ‘is friendship?” (No, I don’t know why the Cockney accent, but it feels right).

Junto action shot
Junto action shot

It’s not clear how long the Junto lasted. The Philosophical Society usurped it in 1743, was defunct by 1746, then was revived again—this time for good—in 1767. At that point it was fused with the similar-in-purpose but less-pithily-named American Society for Promoting Useful Knowledge (the new society thus ended up with the completely unwieldy and slightly agrammatical moniker American Philosophical Society Held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge. Brevity was clearly not a consideration). Franklin served as its first president.


4. With Franklin getting old after the revolution, the Society brought in Francis Hopkinson as the new president. A Declaration of Independence signatory, Hopkinson has the same broad patchwork of interests/accomplishments as seemingly every other famous 18th-century white dude: federal judge, songwriter, poet, sharp-tongued satirist and mordant observer of the human condition. Author of the neat-sounding Typographical Method of Conducting a Quarrel; inventor of an “improved candlestick” (don’t ask, I don’t know) and a bell-based musical instrument called the Bellarmonic. He also helped design the Great Seal, so he’s probably Illuminati.

totally above-board

A more nebulous Hopkinson claim to fame: creating the first flag of the United States. It turns out there’s actually no real evidence for the heartwarming story of Betsy Ross sewing the first American flag for George Washington (the Ross story dates back to America’s first centennial, when her grandson began peddling it, and it was apparently accepted without question). Of course, there’s also no evidence that Hopkinson designed the flag either, except for his having submitted a bill to Congress for his services (cost: ¼ cask of wine). Congress did not pay; probably the flag was designed by a committee.


5. The best part about the philosophical society? The awards. There’s the Magellanic Premium (achievement in navigation astronomy, or natural philosophy), the Barzun Prize (achievement in cultural history), the Judson Daland Prize (achievement in clinical investigation), the Burns Award (outstanding achievement in the field of excellence), and a ribbon for laziness in “joke” writing, for which I’m in the catbird seat.

The Magellanic Premium, it turns out, is not named for Ferdinand Magellan, but rather for the Portuguese man of letters Jean-Hyacinthe Magellan. He began life as a monk, but gave up the faith for scholarly study, and ended up responsible for the development of an array of thermometers, barometers, and other meteorological instruments. He endowed the prize in 1786, but he was lucky to have the money to do so: not much earlier, his friend (a Hungarian count) had borrowed a substantial sum from him, disappeared, and ended up shot to death as a pirate somewhere near Madagascar, taking Magellan’s loan to his watery grave. True story.

The Premium has been awarded just 33 times in 228 years. The first went to Francis Hopkinson, though I cannot isolate the contribution for which it was awarded. Other winners include: James P. Espy (1836; developed convection theory of storms, wrote The Philosophy of Storms, and laid the groundwork for weather forecasting), Pliny Chase (1864; great name), Paul Heyl and “Lemon” Lyman Briggs (1922; developed the earth inductor compass used in airplanes), Karl von Frisch (1956; first to identify the meaning/utility of the honeybee “waggle dance”—no lie), Charles Stark Draper (1959; “father of inertial navigation”), Edward Beach (1961; bestselling author of submarine novel/film Run Silent, Run Deep), Martin Lindauer (1980; also studied bees. What is this bee fascination?), Joseph H. Taylor (1990; identified the binary pulsar), Bradford Parkinson and Robert Easton (1997; developers of GPS).

Gable! Lancaster! Submarines!

Also on that list: the Dame S. Jocelyn Bell Burrell who received the award in 2000 in part for having discovered/observed the first radio pulsars in 1967. For her, the Premium was a consolation, because in 1974 two of her advisors won the Nobel Prize, largely for…discovering/observing radio pulsars. Whether because she was a woman or a grad student, Bell can be added to the list of scientific screw jobs/whitewashes that includes Rosalind Franklin and Barbara McClintock. Fred Hoyle, a notoriously prickly physicist, was so incensed by Bell’s snub that he accused her advisor of stealing; some claim this impolitic but probably justified response kept him from sharing in the Nobel Prize several years later. Then again, Hoyle held numerous out-there ideas, including that petroleum comes from the middle of the earth and not from fossilized organic material).


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