The Royal Society: And the Invention of Modern Science, by Adrian Tinniswood, Head of Zeus, RRP£18.99, 256 pages

Nullius in Verba. On no man’s word.

The motto of the Royal Society

In science, it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds, and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should because scientists are human, and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) — Carl Sagan

August 29, 1662. The council and fellows of the Royal Society went in a body to Whitehall to acknowledge his Majesty’s royal grace to granting our charter and vouchsafing to be himself our founder; then the president gave an eloquent speech, to which his Majesty gave a gracious reply, and we all kissed his hand. Next day, we went in like manner with our address to my Lord Chancellor, who had much prompted our patent.

— John Evelyn

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

Isaac Newton 1675

Adrian Tinniswood’s new book is a superb introduction to the origins of the Royal Society. His book part of the Landmark Library series is well written and finely researched. Tinniswood is a historian with no previous track record in science history, so this is a remarkably good book. It is a compact and highly accessible.

The Society resulted from the huge intellectual and political ferment that was created by the English bourgeois revolution. Tinniswood shows that before the Royal Society became a recognised body, it comprised a collection of discussion groups.

Many of these groups were inspired by Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Bacon was part of the massive growth of intellectual ideas that proceeded in the seventeenth century. Bacon is an important figure because he was the first to reject traditional Aristotelian thinking and proposed an experimental investigation to find truths about nature. As Karl Marx wrote, “The real progenitor of English materialism is Francis Bacon. Natural science is to him the true science, and sensuous physics the foremost part of science. Anaxagoras with his ‘homoimeries’ and Democritus with his atoms are often his authorities. According to Bacon, the senses arc unerring and the source of all knowledge. Science is experimental and consists in the application of a rational method to sensuous data. Observation, experiment, induction, analysis are the main conditions of a rational method. Of the qualities inherent in matter, the foremost is motion, not only as mechanical and mathematical motion, but more as impulse, vital force, tension, or as Jacob Boehme said, pain of matter. The primitive forms of the latter are living, individualising, inherent, and essential forces, which produce specific variations”.

However, not everyone saw as clear and precise as Bacon according to the Marxist writer David North ” until the seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt a death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it was well underway”.

Historians have largely accepted that the English bourgeois revolution created the conditions for establishing the Royal Society. Many of the practices adopted by the Society, according to Tinniswood, were “far ahead of its time”. Probably one of the most important activities was the publishing of Philosophical Transactions, launched in 1665. It is the world longest-running scientific journal.

One of the more gruesome facts uncovered by Tinniswood was that live experiments were done on the premises at Gresham College. In 1664, Robert Hooke inserted a pipe into the trachea of a dog and pumped in the air with bellows saying, “I was able to preserve it alive as long as I could desire after I had wholly opened the thorax and cut off all the ribs, and opened the belly,”.

Tinniswood convincingly argues that the Royal Societies methodology, scholarship, and activities laid the foundations for developing modern science. Tinniswood book does not examine the class background of the founders of the Society, but it is clear that many of its founding members were from sections of the lower middle class and gentry class.As Neil Humphrey writes, “The nature of the Society’s membership evolved over the following centuries, but from its beginning, it was a multifarious organisation. Members of the British gentry that used the Society as a means for social advancement (while injecting it with much-needed capital) were plentiful alongside studious researchers. This diversity created a tension between science and privilege that finally exploded in 1830 when fellow Charles Babbage lambasted the glut of unproductive members. In 1847 the Duke of Sussex took the Society’s reins, and scientific fellows seized control and amended its constitution in 1847 to stymie further influence from the gentry. This power-grab forever transformed the nature of the Society from that of a scientific, social club into a scholarly society”.

It is not easy to cover over three centuries of scientific developments in such a short book, but Tinniswood does well. One mild criticism is his lack of interest in what is happening recently in the Royal Society. It would appear that the Society’s recent history is not as glorious as its past. In 2008 the Royal Society’s education director, Professor Michael Reiss, was forced to resign for advocating the teaching of creationism in schools and evolution studies. He said, “Creationism is best seen by science teachers not as a misconception but as a world view.”

His comments provoked anger and opposition from many members. Nobel Prize winners Richard Roberts, John Sulston and Harry Kroto, sent a letter demanding Reiss step down.

Conclusion

Tinniswood’s history of The Royal Society is an accessible account of the formation of modern science. His writing style and explaining complex historical matters in a simple manner means the book is accessible to the general reader without losing its academic rigour. I would highly recommend it.

About the Author:
Adrian Tinniswood many books include Behind the Throne and The Long Weekend. He writes for many publications such as The New York Times and BBC History Magazine. He is a senior research fellow in history at the University of Buckingham, and he lives in Bath, England.

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