Turning superstition into science. Atmospheric tides science and the transformation of astrology in Enlightenment Continental Europe

Start - End 
2020 - 2024 (ongoing)
Department of History
Other institution(s) 
Ca' Foscari University of Venice



The period 1700-1840 witnessed the flowering of a new ‘atmospheric tides’ science. The basic assumption of this science was that the moon and the sun not only generate significant tidal effects in the earth’s seas, but in its atmosphere as well. These atmospheric tides (henceforth AT) were held responsible for weather changes, which in turn influenced humans, animals, and plants. By observing and theorizing about the weather, AT scientists were looking for a way to make these changes in living beings predictable and manageable. AT science’s practitioners, audiences and critics all saw considerable continuities between the ‘pseudo-science’ of astrology and the new science on the conceptual, methodological, social, and cultural levels.

This PhD research investigates the processes of appropriation and demarcation through which Italian and French AT scientists used elements from ‘pseudo-science’, that is, astrology, in the period 1750-1830 for their purposes of scientific discipline-building. Rather than determining whether Enlightenment studies of lunar and solar influences on the atmosphere can be considered astrology, this project assumes that astrology was an essential resource for AT science. This assumption permits me to trace the disciplinary work that AT scientists carried out through their discursive relation to ‘non-science’. Four main elements of meteorological discipline-building will be studied: discursive self-fashioning, bio-political interests, re-use of astrological resources, and building institutional alliances. The research adds to discussions on the Enlightenment’s relation to superstition by showing how resources from ‘pseudo-sciences’ were recruited in projects of medical (France) and agricultural (Italy) bio-politics.



Phd Student(s)


Craig Edwin Martin