II. Seventeenth-Century Experiments with Glass Drops: Jacques Rohault and his Cartesian experimentalism

In the previous post, I’ve only introduced glass drops as objects of philosophical study in the early modern Europe. I argued that they have become popular in the late 1650s and early 1660s, at the same time with the spread of a more extensive experimental attitude in the investigation of nature. In this post, I shall give a brief account of Jacques Rohault’s empirical investigation of these objects.

Rohault (1618-1672) was one of the leading Cartesian philosophers of his time. He hosted a famous salon in Paris, where he jointly discussed problems of natural philosophy in connection with experiments. Moreover, his book on physics – the Traité de physique (1671) – was quickly adopted as a textbook on natural philosophy in various universities. As I argue in a forthcoming article, much of Rohault’s experimental work has been done in the late 1650s and early 1660s (see Dobre, Mihnea. “Rohault’s Cartesian Physics.” In Cartesian Empiricisms, eds. Dobre, Mihnea and Nyden, Tammy. Springer Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. Springer). Among his experiments, Rohault performed some with “larmes de verre” (see Christiaan Huygens’s report from March 17, 1660: “Rohaut [sic], qui fit l’experience d’une larme de verre” in Huygens, Oeuvres XXII, p. 562).


Jacques Rohault. Traité de physique (1671), p. 173.

For Rohault, glass drops (“larmes de verre”) are wonders of nature, which means that they challenge natural philosophy. Stating the extraordinary character of the object from the very beginning allows him to test the explanatory power of his own natural philosophy. This comes with both a theoretical and experimental dimension. First, Rohault draws the boundaries of his explanation in terms of what is theoretically acceptable; in other words, a general description of how motion works. Then, Rohault performs several observations, showing: (1) the quick cooling of glass; (2) that glass-surface becomes cooler, which he already explains by the fact that it closes its pores; (3) matter inside is still agitated producing both glass powder and larger pores; and finally, (4) the question: why is not breaking?

All sorts of experimental trials accompany the first three steps of this investigation. Rohault applies various operations to the larme de verre (e.g., attempts to break the drop in other points than D or to immerse the object in different substances and observe changes in the properties of the glass), which can be considered variations in the experimental procedure. He concludes his empirical investigations by answering the fourth point from above. Glass drops are difficult to break on point D, because of the arrangement of matter: the inner part of the drop is formed by a mixture of air and glass – with some sort of arch-structures – while the external part is very dense. This is easily explained by the process of fabrication: when melted glass is left to plunge into a flask of cold water, it quickly cools, such that glass particles that are in contact with water will solidify immediately, while the inner parts will continue their motion.

Using jointly the principles of Cartesian natural philosophy and an experimental method, Rohault is forced at this point to delve into the hidden structure of bodies. He appeals to Cartesian theory of matter (body is identical with matter and space; void space is not possible) and mechanical modeling of interacting bodies. Yet, this is done in a similar manner with his contemporaries, the so-called experimental philosophers.

In the next post, I shall discuss the cases of Henricus Regius and Nicolas Poisson. That will conclude my overview of Cartesian natural philosophers dealing with the problem of glass drops.

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About mihnea

Mihnea Dobre is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bucharest. He is working in The Center for the Logic, History and Philosophy of Science (CELFIS) from the Faculty of Philosophy, studying the disciplinary shifts in the early modern period. In his dissertation – Metaphysics and Physics in Cartesian Natural Philosophy: Descartes and Early French Cartesians on the Foundation of Natural Philosophy (2010, Nijmegen) – Mihnea Dobre discussed the problems connected with seventeenth-century possibilities of framing a new physics based on Cartesian philosophy. Dobre participated in numerous international conferences and published various articles on topics such as history of philosophy, history of science, and history and philosophy of science. Together with Tammy Nyden (Grinnell College), he is currently co-editing the volume Cartesian Empiricisms (Springer: Studies in History and Philosophy of Science).

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  1. Pingback: III. Seventeenth-Century Experiments with Glass Drops: Henricus Regius and Nicolas Poisson on glass drops | From natural history to science

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