Glorious Shoulders: Celebrating 350 Years of the Royal Society

Isaac Newton said “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  The strength of that acknowledgement began formally 350 years ago, as the giants began to gather physically and through direct communications to explore the world around them.  The result was – and remains – the Royal Society, a uniquely British but worldwide-influencing academy of most every great scientist since the 17th century.  The anniversary is well celebrated in Seeing Further: The story of science , discovery & the genius of the Royal Society, edited by Bill Bryson (The Royal Society, 2010).

Imagine yourself, for a moment, as a gentleman in a dark, cold London in November 1660.  Having just walked through a cold rain to a 5-story building in what is now central London, to a place known as Gresham College.  It is only 6 months after the end of the unpopular Cromwell government and the return to the restored British throne by Charles II.  After nearly 12 years of upheaval, the repression of the Puritans, and the uncertainty of the future, the atmosphere had now changed radically.  Charles was very nearly the antithesis of a Puritan:  something of a hedonist, with strong interests in learning and discovery.  Color was making a comeback in fashion and other parts of culture.  It would not be difficult to imagine a general public expectation of hope, particularly among educated men, who considered themselves students of exploration and discover.  Like how it feels to emerge from a dark scary cave into the bright sunlight of home and comfort.

In this mood, you are standing in a small dimly lit room, fire burning for warmth, with 10 or 12 other gentlemen, chatting about daily life and questions that interest you.   Most everyone you see is an established  investigator of the natural world.

Someone taps a glass and the group quiets and directs its attention to one end of the room.  Some snag a seat, some stand.  The host , Lawrence Rooke, a faculty member of the college, welcomes the group to his rooms, and introduces a 28-year-old Londoner named Christopher Wren to give a lecture about his interest in astronomy.  Besides Wren  (who will become one of the most influential architects in England), other attendees include Robert Boyle (who was and would grow in recognition for his chemical and physics experiments and findings)  and Robert Hooke (a foundation thinker in theory and the philosophy of science).

Following the talk, there is general group discussion about scientific issues of the day.  It is suggested that this group meet again – on a regular, weekly basis.  Someone volunteers to inform the King and solicit his approval – if not support – for the group to continue.  The idea is very positively received.  The group, over time, will take the idea very seriously indeed.

The rest of the visitors this night, and for hundreds of years to come, would lay the foundations for scientific research, and make the discoveries that give us our current understanding of our world and the ways in which we can shape it.

These men – and those who followed – are the pyramid of shoulders on which virtually all of today’s science and scientists stand.

The Royal Society began in an era of the curious enthusiast, the gentleman with the education and the income that enabled him to spend time on probing mysteries of interest to him.  But it continued and thrived through the most aggressive age of scientific definition, organization and discovery in human history.  Members of the society invented the very scientific method used to advance scientific exploration, created a discipline that enabled scientists to evaluate each other’s work on terms that made for a level playing field, enabling literally the comparison of apples and oranges, and to evaluate the best facts from the bogus, and move towards an ever-evolving truth.

Seeing Further is an exploration in essays by some of the cleverest and most astute observers of our day: James Gleick, Paul Davies, Richard Dawkins, Henry Petroski, John D. Barrow, Neal Stephenson, and Margaret Atwood among a host of others (22 in all).  Virtually all the essays contain surprising insights and fresh information as they profile many key members of the Society over the centuries.  One of the best moments was by Stephen Schneider (late chairman of the IPCC committee that kicked off our current concern about global climate change and its causes).   I have read no finer description of the interconnectedness of phenomena and disciplines and the urgency with which we must look beyond our artificial boundaries to determine the real truth of our current climate situation.

And, of course, Bill Bryson has made a successful career of explaining complicated things in easy-to-understand terms.  His love of science and knowledge in general seems to shine through with his own chapter and interjections, along with the range of selected contributors.

Seeing Further is a worthy popular and accessible work to showcase the genius of the Royal Society’s membership.  It is a unique institution with a unique impact on the world.  The book is well worth the time to revel and absorb and incorporate this history into our own world views.

— Rich Bowers

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