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In the pantheon of received ideas that persist in the scientific world, we find the separation of the fundamental and the applied. On the one hand, there would be fundamental research: solely guided by a taste for intellectual adventure, and thus pure, detached from historical contingencies, far from economic, military, political influences… On the other, applied research, at the service of the military-industrial industry, and thus soiled by money, power, the dream of power, the lure of profit… This distinction overlaps with the distinction between discovery and invention, which we saw (in a previous post) that it was unfounded.

This distinction is essential to the art-science debate. For the idea of pure research is also the idea of research that is independent of the cultural milieu in which it takes place. While the answers scientists provide may escape (to a certain extent) the hubbub that surrounds them, the questions they ask are still of their time, that is, they are deeply cultural.

Science historians have largely insisted on the context in which Albert Einstein made his first “discoveries”: the intellectual and artistic bubbling of the early years of the 20th century, in Europe in general, and especially in Germany. They spoke of the Olympia Academy, co-founded by Albert Einstein, Maurice Solovine and Conrad Habicht, where young people spoke of philosophy and literature as well as science. On the other hand, they rarely mentioned a fact that might seem anecdotal, but that I find exciting to understand. When Albert Einstein published the first in a series of four articles that would revolutionize physics in 1905, he had been working for three years at the Patent Office in Bern, Switzerland. At that time, many patents dealt with an apparently harmless problem, but of great practical importance: how to synchronize the time of the various railway stations in order to have a temporal coherence on the scale of a country? This question would have inspired Einstein to develop his own reflection on the possibility of concomitant phenomena. A reflection that we know has led to the theory of relativity.

This example shows us how a question from the cultural environment (in the broad sense) inspired one of the most fundamental theories of modern physics. This example is not isolated. The same situation occurred in England in 1838, when Charles Darwin developed the theory of evolution. At this time he was inspired by three things, two of which belonged to the cultural environment of his time. The first source of inspiration is the factual elements (observations, fossils, specimens…) that he collected during his trip around the world (831-1836). Of course, these elements are largely independent of English cultural life. However, the other two sources are linked to it. They are, on the one hand, the way English farmers select their animals for a better yield, and, on the other hand, the sixth edition of the book by economist Thomas Maltus entitled Essay on the Principle of Population. In fact, the greatest intellectual assertiveness is always linked to the cultural background of their time, that is: fashion, art, technical progress, industry, everything that affects people in their daily lives.

Can we go a little further than that? I believe that. I will distinguish two aspects to this link between culture and basic science. First, the questions scientists ask themselves are cultural. Second, the reception given to their responses is cultural.

1 | The questions scientists ask themselves are cultural

It is useful to distinguish two types of scientific questions. On the one hand, the questions that researchers ask themselves within a given field of research and, on the other, the questions that lead to the opening of a new field of research.

The first type of question is specific to the research field concerned. They have nothing (or so little) to do with the air of the times, and everything to do with the state of knowledge in this field. This is the equivalent of incremental innovation in economics.

On the other hand, the questions that lead to the opening of a new field of research are rarely completely independent of what is happening in society and in culture in particular. This is the equivalent of breakthrough innovation in economics. A fine example is provided by the discovery of the first principle of thermodynamics.

Many occurrences of a candle carousel have been found in Roman ruins. In its most common version, it is a metal propeller (about ten centimetres in size) placed on an axis of rotation (about fifteen centimetres high). In practice, these propellers are decorated with patterns so that they look more like an ornate merry-go-round than a propeller. The Romans placed the propeller on the axis, and the axis on a table. They were lighting some candles underneath. Under the effect of the rising heat, the propeller starts to turn, driving the decorations. There are many modern equivalents in homes in all countries.


Fig. 1: A modern example of a candle carousel.

This object shows us that the heat (from the candles) causes a displacement (from the propeller). It is a direct illustration of what scientists call the first principle of thermodynamics: heat is a form of work.

For two thousand five hundred years, everyone has before their eyes one of the most fundamental principles of physics and yet it remains fun. No one sees any food for thought here. It’s a pleasure to see. It’s not a serious thing.

Then, at the very beginning of the 19th century, the question of the relationship between heat and work awakened in the minds of scientists. It becomes a matter of interest. Then, a question of importance. Many very serious people wonder what heat is and how it relates to work. It’s not Christmas night fun anymore. It’s a matter of fundamental physics. Among these people, four will stand out. They are the French Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot (called Sadi Carnot) and Marc Séguin, the English James Prescott Joule and the German Julius Robert von Mayer.

Everything opposes these men, except a passionate interest in physics. Carnot was a ranking military aristocrat. Séguin was an engineer specialized in engineering structures. Joule was an industrial beer brewer. Von Mayer was a doctor.

These four people come from very different backgrounds. They live in remote places. They don’t know each other. And yet, they will be the protagonists of an extraordinary scientific race. This race will lead to the official formulation of the first principle of thermodynamics as we know it.

If we except Carnot, who never published the notes where he explained the principle, the three other protagonists will arrive at the same discovery, in the space of only four years, in ignorance of the progress of the others. Historians give the following order: Carnot (1830), Séguin (1839), Joule (1840), Von Mayer (1842).

Such races are far more numerous than we think in basic science. In 1922, Ogburn and Thomas published a note in the journal Political Science Quaterly (volume 37) entitled “Are inventions inevitable? A note on social change”.

In this note, the two researchers compile a list of 148 concomitant inventions. The differential calculus discovered simultaneously by Newton and Leibnitz; the theory of natural selection, by Wallace and Darwin; the plane, by Langley and Wright; the telephone, by Gray and Bell; oxygen, by Scheele and Priestley; molecular theory, by Ampère and Avogadro…

In most cases, the pattern of these discoveries is the same. A question that could have been asked, and even resolved, long before it came to life at the same time in the minds of a handful of men who suddenly sensed its importance. Very often, these men are scattered around the world. In many cases, they do not talk to each other and even ignore each other. All take part in a competition that does not say its name, whose history will remember, most of the time, only one winner.

Each time, something mysteriously connects these men and women who will approach separately to discover. This thing that haunts them in the same way without them knowing it does not belong to them in their own right. It belongs to the society in which they live, from which they think. It is the cultural environment in which they bathe.

Why did the question of the link between heat and work only arise in intellectual terms at the beginning of the 19th century? The answer is obvious: because the industrial revolution was born! The industry needed to master the combustion engines to optimize the operation of the huge machines it wanted to develop.

Suddenly, this question was important to society. That is why Sadi Carnot, Marc Séguin, James Prescott Joule, Julius Robert von Mayer and others, certainly forgotten, have put their intelligence on the road. That is why they opened up a new field of research at that time, not before.


2 | The reception that is given to scientific answers is cultural.

The previous analysis showed us that the curiosity of scientists is polarized by the culture in which they bathe. The questions they ask do not fully belong to them. But wouldn’t there still be exceptions? Can we not find isolated thinkers who can ask themselves a question independent of their world and their time? And who could solve it? Yeah, we find some. But then, it is the problem of receiving their work that arises. We see that there is a second filter: society hears only what it wants to hear. A very fine historical example is provided by the invention of the mechanical clock by Su Sung. I take up here a text I wrote in Le théâtre des désirs asymétriques:

“In 1077 CE, the Emperor of China sent one of his scholars, Su Sung, to represent him at a ceremony in honor of a barbarian ruler reigning over an empire further north. This ceremony falls precisely on the day of the winter solstice.

But when the emissary arrived, he was shocked to learn that he was one day earlier than the date of the ceremony, contrary to what he had calculated according to the official calendar in force in China.

Upon hearing the news that his calendar was imperfect, the Chinese emperor punished the astronomy office officials, then ordered Su Sung to immediately build a clock that was “the most useful and beautiful of all those ever seen.

Su Sung’s mechanical calendar was born thirteen years later. It took the form of a five-storey pagoda, ten metres high. On the top floor was a bronze armillary sphere inside which a globe turned. Outside each floor, a parade of characters wearing bells and gongs rang the hours. The mechanism was powered by a stream.

The first mechanical clock recorded in the history of the world was thus invented in China, in 1090, for the use of the emperor. It functioned perfectly during the four years it was maintained. Then it was abandoned. She was looted. The principle of its operation was forgotten. Finally, the memory of his existence was lost.

Chinese society did not want this invention. She didn’t care. Just as a desireer does not make a love story, the inventor alone is not enough to make an innovation.

For those who like numbers: 1090 is two hundred and forty years before the first clock in the West. It is also five hundred and eleven years before the first meeting between a European and the emperor of China. It was 1601. The traveller was a Jesuit priest from Rome. His name was Matteo Ricci.

The story goes that he narrowly escaped death at the gates of the Forbidden City. He had to save his life only by bringing the clock as a present to the emperor. He was curious about such a machine, having never seen or even heard of it!”

Su Sung’s story is amazing for at least two reasons. First, it is a surprise that this story is documented. Indeed, it is very rare to know that someone has invented something that has never been broadcast. Precisely because his invention was never released, his name should have disappeared, like so many other forgotten geniuses.

Second, the very subject of this invention is amazing. For the appearance of the mechanical clock is a decisive moment in the history of the Western world. Before the invention of the mechanical clock, we could not measure the longitude of a boat on the ocean with good accuracy. After the invention of the mechanical clock, we were able to do it. So this is a major invention we’re talking about. An invention that has not aroused the interest of the society in which was first born.


3 | Conclusion

This analysis shows us how the most fundamental scientific work is doubly polarized by the cultural environment in which researchers evolve. It is the cultural environment that determines the “right questions” to ask, those whose answers will count for centuries. It is also the cultural environment that determines which of all the delirious responses (in the etymological sense: coming out of the furrow) produced by fundamental research will be amplified to become commonly accepted truths.

I would like to say it again differently, with children’s words.

In our societies, we have developed the habit of representing the innovator (or the researcher or the discoverer) as a solitary hero. Like a story character, he is on a quest, and this quest involves a struggle. For one, it’s about fighting dragons, giants, witches, sirens… For the other, the enemies are conservatives, reactionaries, established corporations, stereotypes, decorum… In this representation, the innovator is alone against all. If he triumphs, it is in spite of the others. If he fails, it’s because of the others. In its quest, society has the role of a set.

But to believe that the hero is lonely is to ignore tales. What makes a hero a hero is his ability to summon fairies, to question toads, to listen attentively to old women, the sick, children, madmen, all the marginal characters of the world. These symbolic characters embody society in its desire to help the hero accomplish his will. They will help him either by giving him weapons, or by showing him the way, or by showing him the weakness of the enemy.

To say or just to think that basic research is pure is to say that the researcher is alone. It’s preventing him from finding fairies to fulfill his destiny. It’s taking away his right to question toads.

Perhaps the link between the most esoteric science and the most contemporary art is this: in our world, art is the name we give to the moor of toads and fairies. This is why the researcher who ignores art deprives himself of the possibility of achieving the impossible.

Miguel Aubouy

Photo credit: John Robert Marasigan (


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