Jan Golinski: “Humphry Davy’s Consolations in Travel: Last Thoughts of a Chemical Philosopher”

Jan Golinski

Jan Golinski

On November 8, 2012, Jan Golinski presented “Humphry Davy’s Consolations in Travel: Last Thoughts of a Chemical Philosopher.” 

Sir Humphry Davy (1778–1829) was the foremost chemist of his day and one of the most distinguished British men of science of the 19th century. He was the first to isolate the elements sodium, potassium, barium, strontium, calcium, boron, and magnesium—the largest number credited to any individual discoverer. He achieved fame as a popular lecturer at the Royal Institution in London in the first decade of the 19th century, and he may well have been the inspiration for the portrait of Victor Frankenstein’s teacher in Mary Shelley’s novel of 1818. His other contributions to science include inventing the miners’ safety lamp and writing an influential text on agricultural chemistry.

Davy’s last book, Consolations in Travel, published posthumously in 1830, presented an enigma to its readers and has subsequently been regarded as something of an embarrassment. Written and dictated during the author’s final illness and travels, the book includes fragments of autobiography, narratives of dreams, philosophical dialogues concerning religion and immortality, visions of spectral beings and travel to other planets, and disquisitions on chemistry and geology. When the book is read sympathetically, and placed in the context of Davy's whole career, we can interpret it as both a deeply personal work and a sweeping philosophical vision. Davy proposes that chemistry is the key that unlocks the geological past and the indefinite future. It is a “sublime” science of cosmic significance, which gives assurance of both human progress and personal immortality. It is this vision of a comprehensive philosophy based on chemistry that is Davy’s legacy in his strange final work.

About the Speaker

Jan Golinski is a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire and the Beckman Center’s first Distinguished Fellow. Golinski is widely known for his scholarship on the history of Enlightenment chemistry and science, and he has recently published on the history of climate science as well. The high regard in which his scholarship is held is evidenced by his recent awards and fellowships. In 2012 Golinski won the Lindberg Award for Excellence in Teaching and Research, College of Liberal Arts, at the University of New Hampshire, having previously claimed the Faculty Scholars Award (2003–2004) and the Outstanding Faculty Award (1998). He has held fellowships at the Huntington Library (including as the Inaugural Dibner Distinguished Fellowship in the History of Science and Technology), the Dibner Institute for History of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of California, Los Angeles, among others. His books include Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760–1820; Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science; The Sciences in Enlightened Europe (edited with William Clark and Simon Schaffer); and British Weather and the Climate of Enlightenment.

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