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Catching Nature in the Act: Réaumur and the Practice of Natural History in the Eighteenth Century Hardcover – April 16, 2014

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Editorial Reviews


Eminently readable. . . . Mary Terrall strikes a fine balance between description and explanation, enriching compelling analyses with fascinating anecdotes.
(Times Literary Supplement)

"Should be considered essential reading for historians of science, but Terrall’s narrative style and storytelling ability will make it appeal to a much broader audience."

"A meticulously researched and beautifully written account of the observational and experimental practice of natural history during the first half of the eighteenth century in France. . . . just as Réaumur gave his readers the means to see nature differently, Terrall transforms our picture of natural history with this superb and thoroughly absorbing book."
(Joanna Stalnaker, Columbia University American Historical Review)

“In this beautifully crafted study of francophone natural history in the Enlightenment, Terrall draws back the curtain on the intertwined lives and practices of the naturalists, much as they drew the curtain on the intimate lives of the insects, birds, and other animals they observed so obsessively. She ingeniously exploits every scrap of evidence to show us how science was conducted in field and foyer, with magnifying glass and sketchbook, in domestic circles and in endless exchanges of letters and specimens. The book is packed with examples of the exquisitely detailed observations at which the naturalists excelled, both in word and image. But Terrall also illuminates the grander themes of Enlightenment science, provocatively blurring the boundaries between observation and experiment, home and academy, natural philosophy and natural history.”
(Lorraine Daston, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science)

Catching Nature in the Act offers a fascinating and compelling account of what it meant to practice natural history in the eighteenth century. Réaumur was one of the most disciplined and tireless advocates of the spirit of observation in the age of the French Enlightenment, and this vividly rendered study brings to life the world of this important mathematician turned naturalist, whose contributions help to explain why the eighteenth century was the age in which natural history became a science for society.”
(Paula Findlen, Stanford University)

“In this wonderful book, Terrall captures the skill, invention, and obsessive passion of the eighteenth-century naturalists, uncovering their world with the same attention that they used in exploring the unexpected corners of nature. The result is a new picture of the boundaries of knowledge in the Enlightenment and a fresh appreciation of the challenges of close observation in science.”
(James A . Secord, University of Cambridge)

“In this insightful study of the French naturalist René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur and his circle, Terrall restores natural history to its proper place in the history of early eighteenth-century science. For Réaumur and his collaborators, natural history was not opposed to physics; rather, both were inspired by the same problem-solving spirit. Terrall offers an exemplary reconstruction of the techniques that naturalists devised to carefully observe insects, polyps, chickens, and other forms of animal life, and shows us how those observations, in turn, helped address big questions about generation, instinct, and the nature of life.”
(Brian W. Ogilvie, University of Massachusetts Amherst)

About the Author

Mary Terrall is professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of The Man Who Flattened the Earth: Maupertuis and the Sciences in the Enlightenment, also published by the University of Chicago Press. She lives in Altadena, CA.

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Catching Nature in the Act: Réaumur and the Practice of Natural History in the Eighteenth Century
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