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Ballooning, Enlightenment and the chemical revolution

Science Engagement at the Toronto Public Library

Hot air balloon pilots rest on their journey from France to Switzerland (all photos by Pierre Andrews via Flickr)

Professor Janis Langins is an expert in the history of engineering and particularly the history of engineering education, the professionalization of engineering, and the social history of engineering - with a particular focus on France during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Langins will share some of his expertise with visitors to the Runnymede branch of the Toronto Public Library November 6, in a free public talk: Enlightening Humanity: Ballooning during the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

The event is part of the University of Toronto's science engagement program organized by Professor Ray Jayawardhana, Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics and the U of T president’s senior advisor on science engagement, in partnership with the Toronto Public Library and Professor Craig Fraser of the Institute for the History & Philosophy of Science & Technology at the University of Toronto.

Tell us a bit about your work.

I am a historian of technology with a particular interest in the science and technology in France at the end of the eighteenth century and at the time of the French Revolution. More particularly I'm interested in the history of engineering during this period when France had a well-developed system of technical education and engineers were an important part of the administration both before and after the revolution.

What drew you to this field – and to U of T?

I started work as an engineer before taking a doctorate at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology here at the U of T. The Institute at the time was the leading place in Canada for studies in this field and still is.

Why should students today study this area?

Engineers are vital to solve the problems of the modern world and are needed more than ever before. They are facing new challenges because of a rapidly changing technology, equally challenging social and political changes, and globalization. Studying how they evolved as a profession will help illuminate the problems they face, how they've reacted to them in the past, and perhaps the possibilities of dealing with them.

What can people expect to hear on Tuesday?

I'll be speaking about a side interest of mine - ballooning, just before and during the French Revolution. 

Men taking to the skies caught people's imaginations and attracted enormous crowds of spectators at the time. But ballooning provided more than just an exciting show. It was related to fundamental research in chemistry that led to a so-called "chemical revolution," to the use of new technology in warfare, and was a symbol of scientific progress.

Why is science engagement important?

We live at a period where science has probably never been as important to our lives as ever before. At the same time it has become, on the one hand, an object of idolatry and, on the other, an object of fear and suspicion. Getting people to learn more about science and its history should help to dispel both unthinking idolatry and unthinking fears about it.