Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Professor, a President, and a Meteor by Cathryn J. Prince

A Professor, a President, and a Meteor, a book by Cathryn J. Prince, is a biography of Benjamin Silliman. Silliman helped to establish the United States as a scientific leader.

Silliman was part of the post-Revolutionary generation. His father, Gold Selleck Silliman, was a general in the Continental Army. Benjamin Silliman had hoped to make a name for himself in the law, but was persuaded by a family friend to pursue science, though it was not a career likely to lead to prominence in America.

American science was not well regarded in those days, especially in Europe. A falling star, and Silliman’s diligent and careful study, changed that.

In 1807, a large meteor fell over Weston, Connecticut. Silliman, a very young, new professor of chemistry at Yale, and his colleague James Kingsley, went as quickly as they could to the remote community. The carefully interviewed witnesses, surveyed the location of meteorites, and collected samples. Silliman took samples back to New Haven to analyze them in his lab.

Silliman helped to establish that meteors originated in outer space. Popular theories at the time were that they came for lunar or terrestrial volcanoes or somehow formed in the atmosphere. The notion that something from outer space could fall to Earth was radical.

Silliman other contributions to American science were his work as a popularizer and mentor. He was an able teacher and able to communicate science to a broad audience. His public lectures on science around the country were very popular. He also helped to train a generation of American scientists. At the beginning of his career, he had to go to Europe to study chemistry and geology, at the end of his career and budding scientist could be educated in the U.S.

Silliman’s ability to reach the people of his day was his devotion to his Christian faith. He saw no serious conflict between his religion and his science. He was able to stay out of debates with clergymen that would have brought opposition to his scientific views.

In spite of the title, I found little reason to drag the president into it. Thomas Jefferson was in office at the time of the Weston Fall. Silliman, like other New England Federalists, had little liking for his policies, nor did Jefferson much care for his adversaries in the region. In addition, the president did not highly esteem geology or astronomy, instead preferring biological sciences that he considered to have more practical application. Prince brings up these difference in the book, but they never seem to add up to a serious conflict between Silliman and Jefferson.

Prince, Cathryn J.  A Professor, a President, and a Meteor: The Birth of American Science. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2011.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in