Friday, October 28, 2011

Weston Revisted: Scholarly Reviews of "A professor, a president and a meteor"

Back in January 2011, I posted a review of Cathryn Prince's book, A professor, a president and a meteor. Up until recently, there have been few, if any, scholarly reviews of the work. The situation has changed with the publication, or upcoming publication, of three new reviews.

Ursula B. Marvin, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has written a detailed nine page review with references which is well worth the read.  It appears in the current issue of Meteoritics & Planetary Science 46, Nr 10, 1608-1616 (2011). For those who are not members of the Meteoritical Society and who do not receive the journal, the article can be previewed and purchased at I found Marvin's discussion of Nathaniel Bowditch's study on the Weston meteor and his relationship with President Jefferson to be particularly insightful in responding to Prince's comment that Jefferson asked Bowditch to "dispute Silliman's work on the Weston Fall."  As Marvin points out, Prince's comment is found on page 234 of the index to book, but the theme runs through the text.

Kristine C. Harper, Florida State University, has written a short two page book review, which offers some  some interesting comments disputing Prince's references to the work of Johannes Kepler. The review appears in the journal History: Reviews of New Books, 39:4, 112-113 (2011). The article can be previewed and purchased at

And lastly, I was honored to be invited to submit a shortened version of my Meteorite Manuscripts book review to Ambix, the scholarly journal of Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry, which should appear in the November issue.  More information on Ambix can be obtained at

As I mentioned in my first review, contrary to Prince, Silliman was not the first American scientist to have his work published in the French journal Annales de Chimie.  Robert Hare, his associate, had his paper on the oxygen-hydrogen blowpipe published in the journal five years before the Weston meteorite fall, and he received an international reputation as a result of his work. In her review, Marvin does not emphasize the importance of this point, initially stating that Silliman's report "was the first scientific paper in America (since Benjamin Franklin’s time) to win the admiration of the learned societies of Europe", but a few paragraphs later describing Hare as "a chemist who had gained international fame in 1801 as the inventor of the oxyhydrogen blowpipe."

In my opinion, all three reviews reach a consensus that Prince has overstated Silliman's contributions in the field of meteoritics.  An earlier biographer of Silliman, Chandros Michael Brown, had no such misconceptions about Silliman's accomplishments, stating at the beginning of his work, “but the bald truth is that Silliman’s contributions to science, as such, were negligible.” Although Prince used Brown's work as a reference, this fundamental perspective on the scientists life was completely ignored (see C. M. Brown, Benjamin Silliman. A Life in the Young Republic. Princeton, 1989, xiv). 

Prince is a well-intentioned author who is on firmer ground when discussing Silliman's real, long-lasting accomplishments. Silliman established the American Journal of Science and a school of chemistry at Yale, and he was an educator and promoter of science in the young American nation.

In the end, there is indeed a very real difference between capturing the imagination of the public and making fundamental scientific discoveries.  

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