Philippa Thomas Online

Occasional thoughts about life, books and news.

“No Need for Geniuses”. A rather surprising book about history and science.

Leave a comment

I interviewed Steve Jones at the Write on Kew literary festival on Sunday. He is Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London and from the evidence of his books a very curious author.  

He’s written extensively on evolution and genetics – how did we come to be who we are? – and this book No Need For Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine  – sweeps through a series of fantastic stories about an extraordinary moment in history, a time and a place, revolutionary France, when a host of academic explorers made tremendous strides – across scientific fields from biology, chemistry and physics to astronomy, meteorology, and ologies I didn’t know existed (like metrology, which has literally changed our world).

When we think about Paris we often think about the arts. That is literally only half the story. As Jones put it, “The scientific landscape of the French capital is, without doubt, the richest in the world”.

NNFG is an alternative history and a detective story. And it delivers more than it promises. We do learn about the extraordinary achievements of a band of scientists in the Age of the Guillotine – but chapter by chapter Steve Jones unfolds the stories they started –  the progress of the scientific quests they began.

He takes us to some very unexpected places.  I didn’t expect to read about …  how to make diamonds disappear (p27), the politics of poo (p86), the sex lives of potato blight, the very unlikely first tinned food, the hot air balloon attacked by pitchfork (p189), radioactive cookery books (p211), and the damage done to the streets of Paris by The Da Vinci Code. (p267). [References are to the Little Brown paperback edition.]

All shedding light on what Steve Jones terms – with a touch of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – just a medium sized planet in a suburban part of the cosmos.

Reading through, I was so struck by so many examples of what I’d call Renaissance men, in revolutionary France. Here’s just one example. Pierre-Simon LaPlace became a maths professor at 18, later Minister of the Interior, and in between studied the speed of sound, investigated the nature of tides and predicted the existence of black holes. Women don’t seem to figure – with the honorable exception of Marie Curie – because they didn’t? or they haven’t been recorded? 


No Need For Geniuses pays tribute to that eclectic spirit in something of the same style: Steve Jones pulling many threads together to bring us a tapestry of things we didn’t know we didn’t know… making for a very enjoyable read.



[My notes on the book, with liberal quotes, below]

Steve Jones argues that the scientific advances of the age had more lasting impact than the revolutionary politics.

“Benjamin Franklin worked at a period when science had entered the public arena and there seemed to be almost no limit to what it could do” . His epigram (p14) “He snatched lightning from the heavens and the sceptre from tyrants.”

At first, the spirits of science and revolutionary politics make easy bedfellows*. The characters that embody both – even the wildest, Marat, Robespierre.  A royalist (p23) expressing contempt for the scientists that occupy “the savage heart of society”.

But then we see the Reign of Terror turning on the intellectuals. Robespierre frustrated by academic opposition to his absolutist ambitions. Denouncing so called “experts”. Declaring that the common sense of the average citizen should prevail.

(Didn’t we hear that argument during the Brexit debate? Doesn’t it have echoes in the “post-factual” rallying calls of Donald Trump’s push for the White House?)

… So when Lavoisier was hauled before the courts, the presiding judge supposedly pronounced “La Republique n’a pas besoin de savants”.  Off with his head.



As a symbol of the book at the times … The Eiffel Tower. La Dame de Fer. Built as a temporary entrance for the World Fair 1889. Marvel of construction. But derided and demonised. “The deflowering of Paris” and “an insult to the eternal”. One of the alternative proposals was to build a 300 metre tall model of a gullotine! (P208)


[Chapter by chapter]

A Flash of Inspiration. The science of lightning strikes. Fifty strikes a second across the globe. Churches used to ring bells during storms. Benjamin Franklin.

Antoine Lavoisier, the founder of modern chemistry. Disappearing diamonds: his flamboyant demonstration of the same element existing in different forms.

The Wall of the Farmers-General. The roots of revolution. The tax farm, the wall around Paris built in 1788 by the Farmers-General, the tax gathering arm of the state. Which massively enriched one Antoine Lavoisier.  Putting paid to the smugglers’ tricks like a house with the front door outside the old cordon, and the back door inside.

Drought. Famine. Protests. The Estates-General. The National Assembly. The wall was attacked on 13 July 1789, the Bastille the next day. A civic convulsion began. A brave new world that as he puts it then fed upon itself.

The people’s revolt was – at least in its first days  – itself a celebration of reason over passion.” A hunger for order that reached absurd lengths with attempts even to reset the clock – a ten hour day, a hundred minute hour (p58).  But the book does go on to describe  the many different ways in which immense progress was made in creating scientific order.  

What followed:  many of the fellows of the Royal Academy of Sciences forced to run – locked up – and executed – in the time of the Terror.

Ashes to Ashes. Stories of explosives, soil, pollution. Antoine Lavoisier and the discovery of nitrogen. War as a catalyst for technology (reminded me of the work by Ian Morris “War! What is it good for?” ) French arms supporting the American battle for independence. Church bells – described as “this brazen source of noise, hanging so uselessly in the air for centuries” – melted down for guns. The invention of nitroglycerine, dynamite, gelignite, semtex.

“Nitrogen is a two faced element. First used as an agent of death it has become essential to the world of life”. Fertiliser. Human dung, discarded in England, employed in France. Guano piracy and land grabs. (p88). Using legumes for soil fertility. But in the face of our demands for more food – nitrogen run off and environmental pollution.

Let Them Eat Chips. The work of Antoine-August Parmentier, France’s proselytiser of the potato. “With it he rescued his fellow citizens from starvation, fuelled their radical zeal, and helped to feed the Napoleonic armies as they raced across Europe.”

Great stories about spreading the taste for potatoes – the edible stone. A scheme to tempt local citizens to steal them at night (by ostentatiously guarding them by day).

Rave reviews of the tuber’s nutritional benefits. Everywhere it arrived, population, and stature, grew.

But – its fragile nature. The impact of blight – and famine – in Ireland and across Europe. The Year of Revolutions in 1848.

Steve Jones writes in praise of GM foods today – arguing that they face waves of “dishonest propaganda” in Europe. “The battle between crops and their pests has parallels with that between bacteria and antibiotics. There, the situation is dire, with almost nothing left in the medical armoury.” (p118)

Plus “the modern age of food preservation was born in that hotbed of innovation, 18th C Paris”. (p121) Nicolas Appert invented tinned food. His first experiments used garden peas in champagne bottles! Problem: the first can opener wasn’t invented for another 50 years.

And  Jones points to the huge challenge of food waste. The very topic of this week’s Evening Standard campaign.

He warns that nowadays, crop diversity is falling. A new age of disease may be just around the corner. Supplies may fall well below demand. “The task calls for a new Parmentier”.

Fire and Ice. Extending the powers of the body. Sport. Drugs. Genetics.

The insalubrious history of drugs and the Tour de France.

Cyclists and marathon runners as guinea pigs for experiments on the human body’s capacities when pushed to the edge.

The first research on metabolism dating back to 1780…Antoine Lavoisier and Pierre-Simon Laplace.

“From its earliest days the Tour has been an uncontrolled experiment in pharmacology”. The ways in which Lance Armstrong and his colleagues pushed themselves beyond the “burn”.

But it’s now giving way to genetics. Acclimatisation. Bone structure. Thinner skin. Africans are champion runners not swimmers. The champion cyclists of the future?

Einstein’s pendulum. Physics. Relativity. Motion. Weather. Sea flows. Air flows. Floods. Balloons. Chaos. So much more that can be traced to the academicians of 18th and 19th C France.

Again, the vigorous French pursuit of applied science in contrast to what’s portrayed as a rather snooty British approach. “The first chart of its flow (the Gulf Stream) was made in the 1770s by Benjamin Franklin himself, who consulted Mariners about their experiences on transatlantic voyages. The French saw the importance of his discovery but the British ignored it. Their Gallic rivals were able as a result to gain as much as two weeks in each direction when they crossed to their North American colonies.”

And in 1783 Frenchmen Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier took to the air. The fantastic courage and spectacle of the first hot air balloons. The sheer joy recorded by one of the pioneers the physicist Jacques Alexander Cesar Charles – “It was a sort of physical rapture. I could hear myself living, so to speak” – though one of his craft was attacked by peasants with stones and a pitchfork until it “died”… Franklin was asked “what’s the use of a balloon?” He recorded his reply: “what’s the use of a new-born baby?”

Chaos and weather. Why Michael Fish got it so wrong.

The Empire of Anarchy. From “Celestial Mechanics” to chaos theory. Space. Satellites. Cosmic rays. God beyond it all – or altogether absent?

When Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radioactivity, it was “a fatal blow for the idea of an ordered cosmos”.  At great harm to themselves. Her notebooks – even her cookery books  – are still so radioactive that they are kept on lead-lined boxes”.

Overturning the assumptions of Pierre Simon Laplace who published his “Celestial Mechanics” between 1799 and 1825. He saw the universe as a gigantic machine, with a permanent, universal and fundamental pattern. (P213). The triumph of rationalism in a logical universe.

But measurements from the top of the Eiffel Tower sparked the suggestion of another source of energy streaming in from space. Cosmic rays. And relative anarchy. The cosmos is “a realm ruled by anarchy, that resonates to the echoes of accidents and explosions far away”.

Jones raises the awful possibilities of Earth shifting in its orbit, colliding with Mars, many many random cosmic accidents. Carpe Diem indeed…

The discoveries of Edwin Hubble in the 1920s. Stories of supernovas, stardust, black holes. Self destruction.

A degree of latitude. Maps, weights and measures. Unsolvable inaccuracies. And the damage done by the Da Vinci Code (p267).

The academics in Paris took the first steps in metrology, the science of measurement. Fascinating to read how very varied it all was for so long!  And why the kilogram is still inaccurate, the platinum standard picking up pollutants.

President Jefferson’s Moose. Biological beliefs. Old world v new. DNA. Darwin.

The different doctrines of inbuilt decline v the inevitability of improvement put forward by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. The claim that the inhabitants of the New World – from mice to men – were degenerate compared to those of the Old. Hence Jefferson’s dispatch of a mighty moose.

Handing it on. Inheritance. Genes and the environment. The impact of the Origin of Species.

Lamarck’s ideas of the inheritance of acquired characteristics – having something of an academic revival? “Epigenetics” – which Jones describes as “when Nature yields to the outside world under severe pressure”. “A change in the environment revealing a store of hidden genetic variations”.

Steve Jones stands at the opposite end of the debate to Oliver James, as he remarked pretty sharply during his presentation. My understanding of the science here just isn’t good enough.  Time to read more! Recommendations?

After the Deluge. Legacy. Achievements of applied science. Industrial enthusiasm and pollution. The redesign of Paris – in the end, I guess, the scientists’ legacy both delighted and blighted…

From its earliest days, the French Royal Academy of Sciences had enthusiastic government support. Unlike the Royal Society in London, it was seen as “an arm of government”. And its members were immensely practical. Its charter enjoined them not to waste their time only on “curious researches” or “chemists amusements” but to applied work.

French researchers unlike their more fastidious British equivalents were happy to be involved in industry”. “Some scientists made fortunes (a phenomenon almost unheard of across the Channel)”. Science and politics seemed to make a natural match, in contrast to the attitude of Winston Churchill WH said (p338)scientists should be on tap not on top.  A message being sent here?

The revolutionary government modernised the patent system. Cared – before it turned to the Terror – about intellectual property.

But by 1801 the French capital contained more than 3000 factories. They poisoned the land, the water and the air.

And since the 1850s central Paris – unlike London – has been transformed.

But what came before was in the words of Steve Jones, “perhaps the most productive episode in the history of science”.



Author: philippathomas

I've been a BBC newswoman for 28 years: reporting from around the world. Currently to be seen anchoring BBC World News TV. Main interests - politics, diplomacy, tech, media, arts and all things American. I began this personal blog as a 2011 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard. You can also find me talking daily news on Twitter at @PhilippaBBC, and sharing anything from travel photos to my year in books on Instagram at @philippanews. Thanks for reading!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s