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Northern Laboratories of Nature and the Quest for Scientific Honour in Early Modern Sweden

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This article studies the role of climate and geography in the scientific networks which were taking form in Europe in the early modern period. It seeks to contribute to an analysis of the meanings attributed to the North as a scientific environment or an object of study and, in particular, show the wider contextual motivations behind the research of the northern lights as well as phenomena related to physical cold. The analysis will concentrate on the learned discussions taking place between scholars in the Kingdom of Sweden and the Académie des Sciences in Paris. The great scholarly interest in the aurora borealis starting in the early eighteenth century emerged rapidly after the sudden appearance of this striking and enigmatic phenomenon across a large part of Europe during the first decades of the eighteenth century. In a similar manner, cold winters experienced all over Europe during the late seventeenth century had inspired the first scientific societies in Europe to carry out experiments that under ordinary circumstances could not have been pursued. These events underlined the dependency of early empiricists on nature's help when extending the scope of their scientific inquiries. The awareness of the constraints of empirical study, combined with a new ideological view of scientific societies as seats of a collective scientific effort, prompted a new kind of specialization in science. The idea was introduced that each scholar or country should take care of producing experiments and observations that were best attainable in their particular environment. The need became most obvious in research topics such as the cold which – unlike heat – could not be produced artificially. As a demand for observations that were specific to northern tracts emerged in Europe, northern scholars discovered in their expertise on the northern issues a niche to negotiate a new prestige in the European scientific networks. Traditional views had maintained that only the warm, southern climates offered a natural environment for civilisation and arts to flourish. New empirical sciences practised by the scientific societies seemed to provide a convenient break with this assumption.
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Keywords: Aurora Borealis; Eighteenth Century; History of Science; North; Sweden

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Philosophy, History, Cultural and Arts Studies,University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland

Publication date: 01 December 2012

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