Today's hallowed halls: the Institut de France.

Photographer: LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images

Science Is Elitist for a Reason

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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The Salle Henri II in the Louvre in Paris started out as the antechamber and dressing room of the French king. It was converted into a single room in 1660, during the reign of Louis XIV, and is now a quiet corner of what since 1793 has been an art museum. There are blue and white Georges Braque murals of birds (painted in 1953) on the ceiling and an assortment of ancient Greek and Roman knickknacks in the display cases.

One morning last week, I wandered around the room and tried to imagine it in the 1700s. That was when, right there in the Salle Henri II, the modern scientific enterprise was born. Not science itself -- that came earlier -- but its professionalization, its specialization and its quantification.

At the time the Louvre was still technically a royal palace, but the base of royal operations had shifted in 1682 to the gigantic new complex Louis XIV had constructed in the suburb of Versailles. So other uses were found for the old palace: Artists were allowed to set up studios and apartments there, and the Royal Academy of Sciences was given use of Salle Henri II and the adjacent Salle des Sept-Cheminées (seven chimneys).

The academy had been established in 1666 by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s brilliant finance minister. London’s Royal Society, founded six years earlier, was the inspiration and for decades the more accomplished elder sibling. But eventually the academy surpassed the society.

The Royal Society was a club dependent on membership dues for sustenance, and thus not all that discriminating about admissions. By the late 1700s, it had 500 members. That compared with about 50 active members of France's Royal Academy of Sciences, which was financed by the king and extremely selective. Here’s the late, great historian of science Charles Coulston Gillispie:

Their company was small and desirable enough to bring about intense competition for entry, and large enough to constitute a society involving a complex web of relations among its members, a set of worthy belongers. Perhaps it will not be far-fetched to compare its life to that of some single department comprising one of the major academic disciplines in a university of our own day.

There were gradations of academy membership, a bit like full, associate and assistant professors today. There was specialization, with members divided into six sections (geometry, astronomy, mechanics, anatomy, chemistry, botany), and then eight after experimental physics and minerology were added in 1785. And there was a high-powered early version of peer review, with committees appointed to examine new findings and even try to replicate experimental results.

And it worked! For the half century beginning in the early 1770s, Gillispie wrote, “the French community of science predominated in the world to a degree that no other national complex has since done or had ever done.” The two men (and academy stalwarts) responsible for the greatest breakthroughs were probably Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, and Pierre-Simon Laplace, the father of much of modern statistics, among other things. But the academy’s ranks in those days included lots of other still-remembered scientists -- among them Benjamin Franklin, who was an active member during his Paris years -- and the processes it followed may have been as important as any individual.

The academy met on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons in the Salle Henri II to discuss new research by members, correspondence from sister academies in other countries, and inventions and discoveries by outsiders who wanted the academy’s imprimatur. There was also apparently a lot of standing around and gossiping -- even when others were presenting papers -- but discussion of politics and theology were banned.

Rejecting quack science was a major function. The physicians Jean-Paul Marat and Franz Mesmer (from whom we get the word “mesmerize”) both famously tried and failed to convince the academy of major breakthroughs -- in physics and "animal magnetism," respectively -- in the late 1770s and early 1780s. History has judged the academy to have been right on both counts.

Marat later became a radical leader of the French Revolution, his anti-elitist ardor fueled in part by his treatment at the academy. As the revolution began to turn increasingly violent and populist in 1793, the academy was disbanded, only to be reconstituted in slightly different form (and in a different location) two years later. It lives on today, although universities have taken over most of its research role.

The academy of the 1700s definitely was elitist. It was also admirably oriented toward results. These days scientists are under near-constant attack for their elitism, but some kind of elitism seems essential to successful science. The key is to make sure, as the denizens of the Salle Henri II seem to have succeeded in doing, that it’s an elitism in the service of better science.

  1. From his book “Science and Polity in France: The End of the Old Regime,” which is a lot more fun to read than the title makes it sound.

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Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

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