First on my list of books to enjoy during the winter holidays is Cathryn Prince’s December 2010 release: A Professor, A President, and a Meteor: The Birth of American Science.
Looking into the night sky, one is filled with wonder. The stars and moon fascinate us as they have across all time. Many shared my disappointment at the cloud cover for the near simultaneous lunar eclipse with the equinox this past week.
Just in time I found a wonderful book to curl up on the couch and read to cure my curiousity about the sky. A Professor, A President, and a Meteor: The Birth of American Science tells the story of a meteor that landed in Weston, Connecticut, in 1807 and the young college professor, Benjamin Silliman, who investigated the event from a scientific perspective only to invoke the partisan ire of Thomas Jefferson. The Weston Fall served to drive a political wedge between the southern gentleman President and most of New England.
Benjamin Silliman struggled to build a department of chemistry at Yale College at the turn of the 19th century with the most rudimentary tools and materials. The Weston Fall proved an intellectual windfall for young Silliman. He presented his scientific findings to the French Academy and raised the prestige of American science.
Author Cathryn Prince traces how our scientific literacy and public understanding of science stem from the root stock planted in our new nation by Benjamin Silliman. And she tells the story in a way that reads like fiction: a strong storyline with deep characters, context, and creative tensions. It’s not fiction. It’s the best kind of writing; based in facts that can be ascertained and corroborated.
Cathryn Prince is a journalist whose meticulous reporting skills served her very well in piecing together the documentary evidence and artifacts from 200 years ago. Prince makes this history fresh and relevant.
In full disclosure, I worked with Cathryn Prince as her advocate, editor and coach. When I picked up the hardcopy in my hands and opened up the book, it was like reading it anew. As a compulsive copyeditor, I sat down and read it all over again. It’s really really good. Cathryn Prince did not ask me to review her book nor is she paying me for this review. This is her third book and it’s the best. So far. She’s working on another set during WWII.
I encourage you to read this book because it’s worth reading for its compelling story. It will reshape your understanding of the origins of science in our nation and resonate with lessons for contemporary scientific and political tensions our nation now faces. And it is a pleasure to read, pure and simple.