8 October 2015

Mirage, by Nina Burleigh

Posted by Callan Bentley

mirageMy latest audiobook consumed during my commute was the story of Napoleon Bonaparte’s (why do we always call him by his first name?) ill-fated expedition to Egypt in 1798. Napoleon brought with him a corps of “savants,” natural historians, engineers, artists, and musicians, charged with documenting the history and natural history of Egypt, and helping built structures and solve problems to make the colony work well. This was the expedition that found the Rosetta Stone, and laid down the foundations of what would become the science of archaeology, as well as its faddish subdiscipline, Egyptology. The book is about the men in this Egyptian version of the famed Parisian predecessor Institut de France, and their trials, travails, and discoveries while in the Nile Valley. Some were killed, some caught plague, but many survived and returned to France to author a 24 volume book on Egypt, copies of which survive to this day. Their story is full of zeal, patriotism, intrigue, spite, depression, and ingenuity – plenty of character elements and emotions to create a dramatic story. Burleigh tells it well. I was delighted to “make the acquaintance” of a bunch of important scientists of whom I was previously ignorant. The man who figured out the composition of ammonia was among their ranks, as was Joseph Fourier, the first person to propose a greenhouse effect for the Earth as well as a mathematician of great fame. The inventor of descriptive geometry (which makes technical drawing possible) was one of their leaders, indeed almost a lapdog of Napoleon.

Another of the savants was Dieudonné Dolomieu, a geologist and Knight of Malta. It is for Dolomieu that dolomite is named. As Napoleon’s expedition stopped and annexed Malta en route to Egypt, Dolomieu was pressed into service as a negotiator, and essentially sold out his fellow Knights as Napoleon’s inside man, a position he resented. Later, on his attempt to return to France, he was recaptured by the Knights and put into prison, where he used his forced downtime to write Sur la Philosophie Minéralogique (“The Philosophy of Mineralogy”), published in 1801 after his return to France and coincident within months with his death.

Another was Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, a naturalist who presaged Darwin’s insight into natural selection driving evolution. He came very close, it sounds like. In one portion of the book, Burleigh describes Saint-Hilaire’s dissection of a fish from the Nile, and observation that it has bronchii similar to air-breathing organisms. From this, Saint-Hilaire hypothesized an “Ur” form of life behind all of modern species. He formulated this idea as the Unity of Life, later dialed back to a more palatable Unity of Composition. He put in front of his colleagues the question of why an ostrich should have wings, considering it wasn’t obviously able to fly. Could it really fly after all? The French Army laughed at this ludicrous question, but Saint-Hilaire was on to something – what Darwin would later formalize as the idea of imperfections and vestigial structures. Nature never advances by leaps, Saint-Hilaire quipped – a statement that would be fully at home between the covers of On The Origin of Species.

So: this book is worth reading as an example of what a failed colonization attempt looks like, and how the egos of political leaders result directly in the deaths of thousands of lower-class people (French troops, Egyptian citizens), and also as an introduction to some accomplished intellectuals and erstwhile adventurers who you might not be familiar with (as I wasn’t). I enjoyed it.