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The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846-1876 by Robert V. Bruce (Knopf: $30; 434 pp.)

August 09, 1987|Lee Dembart | Dembart is a Times editorial writer.

Those who call this the "American century" usually have international affairs in mind, though they might just as well be thinking of American domination of science. It is incontrovertibly true that this country has come into its own in this century in intellectual and scientific matters as well as in economic and political ones. That history is well known.

Less well known is the enormous breadth and depth of science in this country in the 19th Century, which laid the groundwork for more recent achievements. Robert V. Bruce, a historian at Boston University, has written a spellbinding account of the crucial 30 years of this development. His book, "The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846-1876," is a tour de force in the history of science and in American intellectual history.

This is a book to be sampled and savored. It is chockablock with details and stories of experimenters and scientists whose long-forgotten contributions deserve to be recalled. What's more, Bruce puts all of this together in a coherent picture that underscores the uniquely American flavor of the scientific work.

From Colonial times to the present day, Americans have been impatient with theory and comfortable with results. This pragmatic turn of mind has infused every aspect of our collective lives, including our scientific endeavors. It is no accident, Bruce writes, that pragmatism, "that most American of formal philosophies," came "not from American political thinkers, as a casual observer might have expected, but from the American scientific community." Two of the earliest exponents of pragmatism were Charles Sanders Peirce, a mathematician and chemist, and William James, a psychologist.

James, who is arguably the foremost of all American philosophers, studied biology at Harvard under Louis Agassiz, the Swiss scientist whose arrival in Boston in 1846 began the modern era of American science, according to Bruce. Agassiz was a prominent figure in 19th-Century America despite his staunch opposition to Darwinism, which embroiled him in controversy with Asa Gray, one of Darwin's foremost supporters.

(The story of the Agassiz-Gray disputes, which Bruce recounts with care and understanding, shows how basic shifts in science occur. According to the theoretical model, new and better ideas eventually win out over weaker ideas by the force of reason. In reality, however, this is not the way it happens. Better ideas replace weaker ideas when the older generation of scientists dies.)

But let us not digress. Bruce's book is a pleasure to read because it is a marvelous social history that weaves the story of science into the stories of many other things. Bruce's basic point is that in the middle of the 19th Century, science in this country changed from being the province of wealthy amateurs to being the collective, well-funded endeavor it is today.

Between 1846 and 1876, he writes, "Americans established national patterns and institutions in science and technology that still prevail. By 1876, modern American science and technology were fully formed and rising to their cloud-wrapped destiny."

He shows that many disparate strands led in the same direction, not least of which was the Civil War. Joseph Henry, the head of the Smithsonian Institution (which was founded in 1846), wrote in 1863, "The art of destroying life, as well as that of preserving it, calls for the application of scientific principles, and the institution of scientific experiments on a scale of magnitude which would never be attempted in time of peace."

Bruce's approach to history in many ways resembles that of Daniel Boorstin, who, like Bruce, has written about America and science and ideas. Bruce writes with great sweep and control of his material, but many of his examples are based on ordinary people doing everyday things. From these small details, he builds a large picture, and the effect is convincing as well as scintillating.

He is also a superb writer, a quality that I admire more and more with each passing year. The cadence of Bruce's sentences adds to their power, and his prose bespeaks erudition and judgment. Not many writers take such care with the language. When is the last time you saw the word westering in print?

Bruce's scope is enormous. Chemistry, biology, geology, physics and medicine are all represented, as are astronomy, agriculture and a host of other fields. Technology also gets its due.

All the while, Bruce shows the relationship of these developing sciences to the country as a whole and to its people. He traces the development of the idea of science in addition to the development of the sciences.

We could use more books like this one.

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