Natural Philosophy in the 1830s

By Neha Anil Kumar ’21

Class planning as a Princeton undergraduate today can be difficult to say the least. With a huge variety of distribution requirements I have to take, alongside the major requirements of a STEM concentration, the life of an AB Physics student can get quite busy. So, you can imagine my excitement when I found lecture notes for a class on “Natural Philosophy” taught by Joseh Henry in 1830s that covered topics on modern day physics, mechanical engineering, epistemology, and philosophy along with material science, belonging to a time when students’ classes were definitively decided ahead of time because each entering class was small enough to take all of its courses together.

As I dived right in, not knowing the vast array of topics I was going to be reeled into, I was caught by surprise just across the first two lectures of the series. Contrary to what I expected of an introductory science class, that I considered closely related to physics, the first few lectures delve into much more epistemology than I expected; though the structure of introduction does make intuitional sense. The series begins with an explanation of what science really is and its categorization into the physical (modern day natural science) and the metaphysical (modern day philosophy). Interestingly, to introduce science as a mix of philosophy and quantitative and experimental analysis of phenomena, there does occur a strange attribution of nature’s laws to “tendency of the human mind” alongside a descriptions of various laws simply attributed to divinity. For example, the term “law of nature” is defined as the human “conception of the mode in which Divine wisdom operates in producing the changes of nature.” Moreover, the physical aspect of science is further split into Somatology, defined as “constitution and properties of bodies,” and Mechanics, which deals with the static and dynamic physical systems, creating a blurry line between the physical laws that govern movement of bodies and the hypotheses surrounding the constituents of matter and atoms.

Somatology, today considered a branch of anthropology, was then defined as the constituents and properties of bodies. (Click to enlarge.)

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This Week in Princeton History for October 9-15

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a professor wins the Nobel Prize for Medicine, the Princetonian complains about taking lecture notes, and more.

October 10, 1995—Molecular biology professor Eric Wieschaus has won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his genetic research with Drosophila melanogaster (fruit flies). Seeming overwhelmed, Wieschaus tells reporters at a press conference, “The knowledge that I can go into a lab and do (experiments) and still have a reasonable success rate—that’s the greater pleasure for me than getting the award. It’s just being a scientist. …You will know something nobody else has ever known before, and that’s a great feeling.”

Eric Wieschaus at a press conference the day after winning the Nobel Prize in Medicine, October 10, 1995. Historical Photograph Collection, Individuals Series (AC067), Box AD15, Folder 52.

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