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Cabinet physics in 18th-century France: the case of the Iceland spar, 1710–1788

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We know a lot about natural history, and about experimental physics, as they were practiced in eighteenth-century France. We know much less about the role of natural history in the emergence and quantification of experimental physics in this period. This talk focuses on studies of double refraction carried out by successive directors of the Jardin du Roi in Paris. Charles Dufay is most well-known for his papers on electricity, but his experimental research on both electricity and double refraction owed much to his involvement with fashionable mineral collectors in 1730s Paris. At the other end of the century, Georges Buffon used double refraction to classify minerals in his Histoire Naturelle des Minéraux (1783-88). Finally, Buffon’s research fed back into la physique expérimentale through his assistant, the astronomer and instrument-maker Alexis-Marie de Rochon.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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