What Was James Smithson Doing in the Kitchen & Classroom?
Wednesday, December 1st at 5 pm ET
James Smithson was an 18th century English chemist, geologist, and mineralogist – and also the founder of the Smithsonian Institution. Most of what we know about Smithson’s science comes from his twenty-six published articles, which Steven Turner studied in his recent book, The Science of James Smithson (Smithsonian Books, 2020). Turner argues persuasively that Smithson was much more accomplished than previously thought. And he shows that Smithson made important contributions to a wide range of scientific fields, including: chemistry, mineralogy, geology, botany, electricity, and even meteorology.
One of the surprises of Turner’s study was the extent to which Smithson’s scientific writings also offer clues about his personal interests and beliefs. In this year’s Dibner Library Lecture, Turner will dig deeper into some of the lesser-known tales of Smithson’s work, like how Smithson’s interest in cooking helped him solve a scientific puzzle. He’ll also discuss the unexpected story of Smithson’s interest in scientific education – a lifelong interest that may have led to the founding of the Smithsonian.
About the Speaker:
Steven Turner is a historian of science and for 32 years was curator of Physical Sciences at the Smithsonian Institution. His research interests include the history of physics, the history of chemistry, and the uses of scientific instruments. For many years he edited the science history journal Rittenhouse, and he contributed to numerous exhibits and web projects. Towards the end of his career, he became interested in the English chemist, James Smithson, the founder of the Smithsonian Institution. Because Smithson’s scientific writings are famously difficult to follow, in addition to conventional historical research, Turner made extensive use of replications of Smithson’s experiments, many of them with the same tools and natural materials that Smithson would have used – which sometimes yielded surprising insights. Turner’s book, The Science of James Smithson, was published in the fall of 2020.
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This program is part of the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives' commemoration of the 175th anniversary of the Institution’s founding.