Thursday, March 26, 2009

Father René-Just Haüy

Father René-Just Haüy was the founder of scientific Crystallography - he was a simple professor in a school at Paris, conducted by priests. You may not have heard of him, so I will give you Father Kneller's report:
René Juste Haüy was born on Feb. 28, 1743 in a little village of the Departement of Oise. His father was a poor linenweaver, who found it very hard to earn his bread; and, despite the talent shown by his eldest son, there seemed to be no other prospect before the boy except to earn his bread by the work of his hands.

Happily there was in Haüy's native place a house of the Premonstratensians, and the lad early gave tokens of a vocation to the religious life. His devout demeanour brought him under the notice of the Prior, and the latter, discovering his remarkable talents, undertook to procure him a place at Paris. This proved somewhat difficult, and young Haüy was for some time employed as a choir boy, but he eventually secured a place at the College of Navarra. Here he showed such ability that on the completion of his course he was appointed on the teaching staff. He taught for many years at the College of Navarra, and afterwards at the College of Cardinal Lemoine, absolutely content with his humble position, careless of advancement, and so far very superficially versed in physical science.

It was solely to oblige a fellow-professor that he began to study Botany. In the College Lemoine there was a Father Lhomond, a very learned man and capable writer, who, however, devoted his brilliant powers solely to the education of the young, and wrote elementary books which enjoyed a wide circulation. Haüy chose Lhomond as his confessor, accompanied him on excursions, and cared for him when he was ill. Lhomond studied Botany in his walks, and Haüy during his vacation determined to master at home enough of the science to surprise and delight his friend on his return. He carried out his plan, and on his first walk with Lhomond was able to give the Linnaean names of nearly all the plants they met with.

This was his first step in a field which was soon to become more and more attractive. He began to frequent eagerly the botanical gardens which lay near his college; but one day, seeing the mineralogist Daubenton enter with his class, he joined them and discovered a subject which ousted even Botany from his affections.

He was already a mature man when he took up this study, but in a short time he showed himself as thoroughly at home with it as if he had been a mineralogist all his life. One property of minerals struck and surprised him particularly. While in plants every single part however complicated, always appears of identically the same character, in minerals this constancy seems to be absent. The same mineral appears now in one, now in another crystal-form. One day as Haüy was meditating on this peculiarity he had the misfortune to let fall a beautiful group of prismatic crystals of calcareous spar and a crystal was broken off.

The fracture exhibited surfaces as smooth as the outside of the prism, and a new crystal emerged as it were from the broken one, the conformation of which was not prismatic. Haüy examined it and found to his surprise that it was the same crystal-formation as Iceland spar,[the clear form of calcite] that is to say, it was rhomboidal. An idea flashed across his mind. Had he not here the solution of the problem which had so long perplexed him? Might it not be that the various crystal formations in which the same mineral appeared were simply different arrangements of the same ultimate crystal? Haüy was by this happy accident put on the right track; he followed up his idea resolutely, and laid the foundation of the modern science of Crystallography.

Although his discoveries gave him a European reputation Haüy remained always an humble and faithful priest. When he first began to attend the sittings of the Academy, he appeared in a clerical dress of somewhat antiquated cut. His friends fearing that invincible prejudices might be aroused aginst him, tried to persuade him to lay aside his clerical costume on these occasions, but Haüy refused to do so until the opinion of a Doctor of the Sorbonne had been taken on the matter. When in 1792 those religious who refused allegiance to the Revolution were thrown into prison, Haüy was among the number. His papers were seized, his crystals bundled away, and he himself, with his fellow-professors, was confined in the Seminary of Saint-Firmin which had been turned into a prison.

Influential friends interested themselves on his behalf, and secured an order for his release. Haüy at first refused to accept his liberty. His crystals and instruments had been brought to his cell, and he was working away at them as contentedly as if he were in his own laboratory. It was only with difficulty that he was persuaded to leave on the following day.

He suffered no more under the Revolution. "While Lavoisier was under arrest, and Borda and Delambre were dismissed, it is a remarkable fact that Haüy, a priest who had refused the oath and who continued to exercise the religious duties of his office, was actually presenting memorials for the release of his lay colleagues. This he did without hesitation, and without incurring any penalty for it." It was during the Revolution that he finished his great work:
"Possessed of a vast collection", says Cuvier, "which constantly received fresh accessions of all known minerals and aided by the co-operation of those ardent and capable students whom the École Polytechnique placed at his disposition, many of whom stand to-day in the front rank of mineralogists, he soon made up for the time which he had spent on less valuable work, and raised in a few years that striking monument which we may say has done for France what the peculiar circumstances of his life did for M. Haüy, and has lifted her, after centuries of neglect, to the head of this department of natural history. This book possesses in effect two qualities rarely found in union: on the one hand it is founded on a discovery completely original and due solely to the genius of its author; on the other this discovery is applied with inconceivable minuteness and perseverance to every known species of mineral. The plan of the book is spacious, the detail rigorously accurate; the whole is as perfect as the theory of which it is the formulation."
On the death of Dolomieu, Haüy was appointed Professor of Mineralogy at the Museum of Natural History. His appointment infused new life into the place. The collections increased fourfold, and "Europe, or at least that part of it which was interested in mineralogy, streamed thither, partly to study so exhaustive and wellordered a collection, partly to hear a lecturer so lucid, elegant and courteous" The most noticeable trait of Haüy's character was his courtesy and willingness to oblige. "The most ordinary students were received as amiably as the most distinguished savants; for he had pupils of all classes.... He brought his École-Normale classes to his own house, and initiated them in all his secrets He was on these occasions the old college-professor, he took part in all the fun of the young people, and never let them go without a merry meal."
Amid all the honours that were showered on him Haüy preserved the simplicity of life which had marked his earlier days. He made no alteration in his hours of dining or of rising; and he continued his walk, employing it as in old times as much for the pleasure of others as for his own. He showed strangers the way, procured them tickets of admission to his museum, explained the collections and rendered all sorts of services; and few indeed, of those whom he was so ready to oblige, recognised the great savant. He was hidden away under old fashioned clothes, and an almost exaggerated modesty of speech and manner. One day he encountered two ax-soldiers, who were preparing to fight a duel. He ascertained the cause of the quarrel, reconciled them, and brought them into a café to seal the peace with a bottle of wine. On external splendour he set no value. He had free access to the finest collections of precious stones in Europe, he wrote a memoir on jewels, but to him they were no more than interesting crystals. A variation of half a degree in the angle of a familiar crystal would have stirred his attention more acutely than all the treasures of India. In his declining years Haüy had reason to congratulate himself on the modest habits of life which he had cultivated. Circumstances led to a considerable reduction of his salary, and he had to live out his days on crippled resources. He lived to the ripe age of seventy-nine. A fracture of the knee, resulting from a fall in his room, marked the beginning of the end. Throughout the whole course of his illness he never altered in benevolence towards others, in cheerful submission to Providence, or in zeal for science. He divided his time between prayer, supervision of the new edition of his book, and labour to secure the future of the students who had worked in collaboration with him. He died on June 3 1822. He had been a living proof that a man may be the pioneer of a new era in science, without for that reason contemning God and His Church. "As loyal to his religion as to his science", says Cuvieri, "he never suffered the loftiest speculations to draw him away from the minutes" discharge of the observances prescribed by his Church."
[Kneller, Christianity and the Leaders of Modern Science]
Also see here. Father Haüy has a mineral named after him: Dana's Manual of Mineralogy reports that Haüynite is rare feldspathoid (a rock-forming mineral chemically similar to the feldspars): (Na,Ca)4-8 (AlSiO4)6 (SO4)1-2.


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