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The Big Question: What Is The Legacy Of The Enlightenment?

Updated Wednesday 1st December 2004

Emma Joseph visits Paris to consider the legacy of the enlightenment.

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Notre Dame cathedral, Paris: A church in the crucible of the Enlightenment Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

It has undoubtedly revolutionised our lives, but recently, the reputation of science - and its purpose - have been called into question: from worries about genetically modified foods, to fears about the development of biological weapons....


Yet just over two centuries ago, scientists were seen in a very different light - thinkers across Europe began to put reason at the heart of all debate, and to see experience and experimentation, not received wisdom, as the key to knowledge. The age was called the Enlightenment: so what was its legacy?

For this week's Big Question, Emma Joseph travels to Paris and looks back more than two hundred years to an age that changed the way we see our world. At the Palace of Versailles, Emma takes part in an experiment herself - re-enacting the flight that sent the first mammals into the air, in the footsteps of the Montgolfier Brothers.

The development of the Sciences as distinct disciplines during the Enlightenment saw the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church undermined by new discoveries. This was what came to be known as the Age of Enlightenment

Emma meets a science historian from the Sorbonne, Dr Pietro Corsi, at Le Jardin des Plantes, the most important European botanical garden of its time. They explore the role of the early naturalists and the development of political arguments based on these new ways of thinking.

Emma joins Enlightenment expert, Frederic Castel, at the Pantheon, the final resting place of the great and the good of France - including the philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau, whose thoughts and beliefs were fundamental in influencing Modern French history.

So, how has the public perception of science and scientists changed in France since the Enlightenment? To discuss this, Emma talks to Paul Tapponnier - Professor Of Geology at the University Pierre and Marie Curie.

This edition of The Big Question was first broadcast on 1st May, 2004

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