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The First Scientific American: Benjamin…

The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius

by Joyce Chaplin

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Benjamin Franklin has always been a fascinating figure to me. Of course, that was just the created folk-hero persona of the man flying his kite in the rainstorm, napping during the Continental Congress and waking to shout one-liners he created during his period as a printer of Poor Richard's Almanac. Seeing this book, I hoped to get more on the scientific side of Mr. Franklin, and that's exactly what I got.

This book goes through Franklin's entire history from the viewpoint of his scientific observations. He was a man of learning, though he never went to college (lack of funds). That didn't stop him from pursuing knowledge in all forms for his entire life, though. Benjamin Franklin was a visionary, an observer of natural phenomenon, a man in search of answers. He helped shape many of the major theories of the day, especially those relating to electricity and the study of the Gulf Stream.

What I found fascinating is how little he wanted to be involved in politics, even though that is primarily what he is remembered for now. He was forced by circumstance (and the power of the positions in society he worked his way into) to often set aside his experimental mind in order to help his fledgling nation make its way in the world. Imagine how much more he could have done if politics hadn't gotten in the way. ( )
  regularguy5mb | Apr 25, 2014 |
Franklin had at least five successful careers: writer, businessman, scientist, civic leader, international statesman. Biographers could probably write book length accounts on each of them as if they were separate people. I’ve been looking for something about Franklin the scientist.

I just finished The First Scientific American by Harvard professor Joyce Chaplin. It billed itself as a biography that uniquely examined his science career. Most Franklin bios run the course I laid out in the middle of my last blog, so I was hoping Chaplin’s book would dwell on his scientific period. It didn’t. At first. The first seven chapters, although enjoyable to a Franklinophile like myself, followed the normal outline of most Franklin biographies.

In one of the last chapters, however, Chaplin managed to tie up many little threads she had been quietly weaving into the narrative all along. She accomplished it by presenting Franklin nearing the end of his life and longing for time to answer questions he had posed years earlier; to finish projects he started to research but got called away; to investigate theories he had toyed with.

Americans think of him as a Founding Father. Chaplin maintained that he was first and foremost a scientist. He was on par with Newton among the greats, but all his other “successful distractions” pulled him away from accomplishing even more. He never completely stopped doing science, but it was limited to times when it was convenient. His charting of the gulf stream, for instance, and the world’s first deep sea temperature studies were done while en route to handling pesky international conflicts like the American Revolution.

There’s even a passage Chaplin quotes from 1782, where Franklin — steeped in thoughts of fluid dynamics, the circulation of heat, and the choppy landscape of England — imagines the earth’s interior to be a dense liquid churning about an iron core with the surface “swimming in or on that liquid.” The surface, therefore, was a “shell, capable of being broken and disordered.” It was just conjecture “given loose to imagination,” for which Franklin regretted observation was “out of my power.” But what he wrote is a fair description of modern plate tectonics — almost 150 years before Alfred Wegener’s continental drift theory was laughed at, and almost 200 years before it became established fact.

How can you not be amazed by this guy when book after book reveals something new like that?

Find more of my reviews at Mostly NF.
  benjfrank | Aug 4, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0465009557, Hardcover)

Famous, fascinating Benjamin Franklin--he would be neither without his accomplishments in science. Joyce Chaplin's authoritative biography considers all of Franklin's work in the sciences, showing how, during the rise and fall of the first British empire, science became central to public culture and therefore to Franklin's success. Having demonstrated in his earliest experiments and observations that he could master nature, Franklin showed the world that he was uniquely suited to solve problems in every realm. In the famous adage, Franklin "snatched lightning from the sky and the scepter from the tyrants"--in that order. The famous kite and other experiments with electricity were only part of Franklin's accomplishments. He charted the Gulf Stream, made important observations on meteorology, and used the burgeoning science of "political arithmetic" to make unprecedented statements about America's power. Even as he stepped onto the world stage as an illustrious statesman and diplomat in the years leading up to the American Revolution, his fascination with nature was unrelenting. Franklin was the first American whose "genius" for science qualified him as a genius in political affairs. It is only through understanding Franklin's full engagement with the sciences that we can understand this great Founding Father and the world he shaped.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:49 -0400)

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