joseph nicollet and his mapby martha coleman bray

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  • Joseph Nicollet and His Map by Martha Coleman BrayReview by: Stephen PyneIsis, Vol. 72, No. 4 (Dec., 1981), pp. 686-687Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science SocietyStable URL: .Accessed: 10/06/2014 10:02

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  • 686 BOOK REVIEWS-ISIS, 72: 4: 264 (1981)

    tive rather than rational, conventionalist rather than realist, provokes two sorts of reflection. First, it should stimulate reas- sessment of eighteenth-century develop- ments in the epistemology of natural sci- ence. Second, it should strike a contem- porary note. Smith's distinctive combination of history and epistemology often evokes, from those aware of it, comparison with Kuhn; and the late Imre Lakatos traced the lineage of his enterprise back to Smith. In studying Smith's essay, history-and-philos- ophy-of-science (say it quickly) may be studying a key to its own genesis.


    * Nineteenth Century

    Martha Coleman Bray. Joseph Nicollet and His Map. (Memoirs of the American Philo- sophical Society, 140.) xv + 300 pp., 13 illus., 2 separate maps, index. Philadel- phia: American Philosophical Society, 1980. $15.

    Charmingly written, methodically devel- oped, nimbly researched in primary docu- ments-this biography of Joseph Nicollet tells the symbiotic story of a man, an emi- nent French astronomer, and his even more celebrated map, a topographical summary of the upper Mississippi River basin. Fol- lowing upon two earlier books about Nicol- let-editions of his journals-author Bray reproduces both the man and his map on an equally large scale.

    Nicollet was born in the Savoy region of France in 1786. His brilliance led him to the scientific salons of Paris, to the direc- torship of the Paris Observatory, and to a role as protege to the aging Laplace. The decay of the observatory, the changing emphasis of French science from observa-

    tion to theory and laboratory, a quarrel with Arago, the death of his patron La- place, and the more serious collapse of his credit on the stock market during the up- heaval of 1830-all conspired to ruin Ni- collet's career in France and send him, somewhat unexpectedly, to America. There he escaped his financial embarrassments and found an arena suitable for his skills as an astronomical observer. Nicollet thus be- came part of the nineteenth century's intel- lectual migration to America, perhaps the most significant means by which scientific technology was transferred to the United States and probably the most interesting topic in this biography.

    Nicollet toured America, especially French America, as an honored savant, and he dreamed of reducing the Mississippi Basin to scientific cartography, though his map became less a testimony to early French explorers of Louisiana than of the intellectual assimilation of the trans-Missi- ssippi West by their American successors. Nicollet undertook researches on a variety of topics dealing with the history of French America and ultimately began a series of expeditions to explore the upper Missis- sippi. When the Army Corps of Topo- graphical Engineers was organized, he was quickly retained for his knowledge and technical skills, launching the first explor- ing survey of the new Corps and training its most celebrated emissary, John Charles Fremont. Unhappy with printing proposals for the project, Nicollet lived just long enough to see his map reduced in scale and compiled under the hand of William Emory of the Corps and to have his own adven- tures in the West superseded by those of his flamboyant protege, Fremont. Broken in health and disappointed over his results, Nicollet died in 1843.

    At great personal cost Nicollet sought to


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  • BOOK REVIEWS-ISIS, 72: 4: 264 (1981) 687

    bring a Cartesian order to a wild landscape, and Bray tends to see his triumph as a melancholy one. But Nicollet read Lahon- tan as well as Laplace, and he obviously thrilled to the history of French adventurers in the American interior. Later in life he attempted the transition from geodesy to geology, but never really mastered the earth beneath its surface.

    Curiously a similar problem afflicts this otherwise admirable biography. The book lacks organizing concepts or personalities. Consulting such works as those of William Goetzmann in the history of exploration or of Carl Wheat in cartography might have helped with the former, and a different literary style with the latter. The book does not proceed as a narrative, but as though it were a series of surveying points from which Nicollet's story is progressively tri- angulated. Every event, every personality, every locale Nicollet comes into contact with is carefully identified and measured. But when these points are ready for inte- gration, the product is, alas, like Nicollet's map, a record of surfaces and a story per- haps better distilled in the lines of the re- produced map than in the lines of the text.


    G. L. Herries Davies; R. Charles Mollan (Editors). Richard Griffith, 1784-1878: Papers Presented at the Centenary Sympo- sium Organised by the Royal Dublin Society, 21 and 22 September 1978. (Royal Dublin Society, Historical Studies in Irish Science and Technology, 1.) v + 221 pp., illus., bibl., index. Dublin: The Royal Society, 1980. IR?12.

    Historians of science are becoming aware that the true value of their contribution to learning lies more and more in recognizing the so-called nonscientific factors that once molded the endeavors of any individual. Richard Griffith was an "earth scientist"- an engineer, a road-builder, a land-valuer, a tenant-valuer, a cartographer, a stratig- raphist, and a mining consultant. Above all, he was certainly an entrepreneur!

    This book should go a long way towards demonstrating that nineteenth-century ge- ology was maintained at a working level by individuals who have only belatedly re- ceived recognition. The period was not the exclusive preserve of a few well-known fig- ures. This volume might at first appear patchy and uncoordinated because several people have contributed to it. But when

    was Ireland's history so tidy as to fit facile synthesis? One is frequently told that the history of science in general has been neglected in favor of political analysis or other interests. Here is a chance to com- bine common knowledge with a more spe- cialized viewpoint. By not only piecing to- gether the individual approaches of these nine authors, but also taking a fresh look at Ireland's history, one is afforded an oppor- tunity to extend research and review histor- iographical methods.

    Furthermore, we are told by the Science Officer of the Royal Dublin Society that "this volume will be the first of a series of publications by the Society . . . which will aim to restore the contribution of Irish sci- entists and technologists to their proper place in the history of the country" (p. iv). Aside from any appeal to jingoist ambi- tions, the prospect of such an enterprise can only raise hopes that reference to more archival material, combined with current appraisal from those using it, will go a long way towards broadening the outlook of anyone concerned with a comprehensive history of science. Might not the publica- tion of named sources extend the confines of what some historians of science consider to be their own private domain?


    Halina Nelken. Alexander von Humboldt: His Portraits and Their Artists; A Docu- mentary Iconography. 179 pp., illus., bibl., index. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1980. DM 78 (cloth); DM 68 (paper).

    As befits a man whom his contempor- aries called the greatest scholar of the cen- tury, the modem Aristotle, and the Democ- ritus of the New World, Alexander von Humboldt was protrayed in numerous art media throughout his long life. The A. v. Humboldt Foundation of West Germany deserves high praise for having supported the research that culminated in this hand- some volume. What comes across most readily in the portraits assembled here and in Halina Nelken's commentary is Hum- boldt's humanity and his selfless dedication to knowledge-not as an esoteric pursuit, but for the enlightenment and betterment of the peoples of the world he studied and explained. Of course, the reader is awed by Humboldt's prodigious achievements as an explorer, writer, and founder of scientific disciplines, his artistic gifts, his impeccable command of several languages, and the

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