(Roughly) Daily

“What I should have been, you see, is a neurologist”*…

Franz Anton Mesmer; drawing by David Levine

It was in a mood of irritable skepticism that the Scottish surgeon James Braid attended a public demonstration of Animal Magnetism—in which people were said to fall into trances—on the night of November 13, 1841. From everything he had read and heard about the trances that occurred at the bidding of the operator—the person who induced the trances—he reports that he was “fully inclined to join with those who considered the whole thing to be a system of collusion and delusion, or an excited imagination, sympathy, or imitation.” After observing the demonstration, he considered that the trances were quite genuine, but at the same time he felt satisfied “that they were not dependent on any special agency or emanation passing from the body of the operator to that of the patient as animal magnetizers allege.” He returned to the demonstration when it was repeated by popular demand a week later, and on this occasion he felt that he had identified the cause of these mysteriously punctual onsets of “nervous sleep.” He was to devote the last eighteen years of his life to the topic, and under the proprietary title of Hypnotism he explained and redescribed the process in terms which would have been unrecognizable to its eighteenth-century discoverer, Franz Anton Mesmer…

With its intriguing combination of occult powers, clairvoyant trances, and invisible weightless fluids, animal magnetism seemed to guarantee the existence of a reality beyond the world of the senses, and many people saw it as an irresistible alternative to an increasingly mechanized picture of the universe.

The remarkable Jonathan Miller— remembered as a partner of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Allan Bennett in Beyond the Fringe and for his later career as a distinguished stage and opera director, but trained as a doctor– explains how Mesmer’s “animal magnetism” was wrangled by doctors and scientists into “hypnotism,” and how it birthed an understanding of the Unconscious that pre-dates Freud… and that’s undergoing a renaissance, as it’s proving more useful than the psychoanalytic version that obscured it for a century: “Going Unconscious” (an unlocked essay from The New York Review of Books archive).

* Jonathan Miller


As we go deep, we might send polymathic birthday greetings to William Whewell; he was born on this date in 1794. A scientist, Anglican priest, philosopher, theologian, and historian of science, he was Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.

At a time when specialization was increasing, Whewell was renown for the breadth of his work: he published the disciplines of mechanics, physics, geology, astronomy, and economics, while also finding the time to compose poetry, author a Bridgewater Treatise, translate the works of Goethe, and write sermons and theological tracts. In mathematics, Whewell introduced what is now called the Whewell equation, defining the shape of a curve without reference to an arbitrarily chosen coordinate system. He founded mathematical crystallography and developed a revision of  Friedrich Mohs’s classification of minerals. And he organized thousands of volunteers internationally to study ocean tides, in what is now considered one of the first citizen science projects.

But some argue that Whewell’s greatest gift to science was his wordsmithing: He created the words scientist and physicist by analogy with the word artist; they soon replaced the older term natural philosopher. He also named linguisticsconsiliencecatastrophismuniformitarianism, and astigmatism.

Other useful words were coined to help his friends: biometry for John Lubbock; Eocine, Miocene and Pliocene for Charles Lyell; and for Michael Faraday, electrode, anode, cathode, diamagnetic, paramagnetic, and ion (whence the sundry other particle names ending -ion).


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