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Atomism, Lynceus, and the Fate of Seventeenth-Century Microscopy

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Recent scholarship, focusing on the rapid decline of microscopy after the late 1680's, has shown that the limitations of microscopy and the ambivalent meaning of its findings led to a wide-spread sense of frustration with the new instrument. The present article tries to connect this fall from favor with the microscope's equally surprising but hitherto little noticed late rise to prominence. The crucial point is that when the microscope, more than a decade after the telescope, finally managed to arouse the interest of natural philosophers, it did so as a corpuscularian tool, and as such it came to share the difficult fate of seventeenth-century corpuscularianism. The essay ends with the claim that the fall of microscopy was not only due to the failure of microscopy to corroborate corpuscularianism, but also to the changing definition of natural philosophy in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and to the separation of the domains of living matter (to which the microscope found itself confined) from a physica whose recent mathematical framework excluded the organic world.

Affiliations: 1: Harvard University


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