High Society

Joseph Banks.

Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society. Banks was friend to a king and one of the most powerful figures in science in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Image courtesy of The Fisher Collection, CHF Collections.

The Royal Society was born 351 years ago—though initially without the “royal.” Members of the society—which was created not long after the end of the English Civil War—were consumed by curiosity about the natural world and keenly aware of how much they did not know. They were equally conscious of the divisions that had contributed to civil war, and members firmly committed themselves to a religiously and politically noncontroversial study of the natural world.

Given that science as a profession did not exist for much of the Royal Society’s history, it is fitting that many of the contributors to Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society are not professional scientists. The authors range from Martin Rees, an astronomer and ex-president of the Royal Society, to science journalist Margaret Wertheim, and from historian of science Richard Holmes to Gregory Benford, a physicist and science-fiction author. The essays are accessible to general readers, though some delve more deeply into philosophy and science and require more effort than others.

Journalist and biographer James Gleick, the first contributor, starts at the very early days of the Royal Society. Clearly science had not settled into the form we know today: “Who could say what was strange and what was normal?” Gleick asks (p. 26). Was it remarkable fish, monsters, unusual tides, magnetical cures, spontaneous generation, venomous toads, or a new telescope invented by an unknown young man named Isaac Newton? The society’s world was magical in the best sense of the word, both unknown and open to exploration. Or, as Gleick puts it, “The Philosophical Transactions [of the Royal Society] served as a progenitor of Ripley’s Believe It or Not as well as the Physical Review” (p. 30).

Writer Margaret Atwood employs a novelist’s skills in tracing the genealogical origins of the mad scientist, long a Hollywood stock figure. She holds accountable 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels and creator of Laputa, the island of scientists who are bent on finding ends without considering means. While an entertaining exploration of fictional mad scientists—from Swift’s experimentalists who pumped air into dogs to cure them of colic (they exploded) to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll—Atwood is ultimately unconvincing, both in laying the blame at Swift’s feet and in her portrayal of science. Of the latter she writes, “We fear its . . . coldness, a coldness that is in fact real, for science as such does not have emotions or a system of morality built into it” (p. 56). While Atwood is right to call science a tool, she repeats the common mistake of abstracting science from the culture and context in which it is practiced, an abstraction created by scientists themselves in the second half of the 19th century as part of a developing professional discipline of science.

Simon Schaffer, a historian of science, links 18th-century politics to science in his own investigation of the Royal Society’s investigation of lightning strikes and the safety of Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rods. A seemingly open-and-shut case turns into a stew of conflicting evidence and questions about who could be trusted to provide an objective account, all salted with Franklin’s radical politics. Estimating risk, assessing expertise, and deciding who to trust was as fraught an issue then as it is now. Even such a public spectacle as ballooning could have political overtones, as Richard Holmes shows in his entertaining account of 18th-century aeronautical endeavors. In the 1780s massive crowds gathering in Paris to watch balloon ascents sparked Royal Society worries of “ballomania’s” rabble-rousing potential.

Biographer Georgina Ferry gives a highly readable narrative of the rise of X-ray crystallography, which allowed scientists to work out the shape of molecules, including complex biological ones such as penicillin, DNA, and insulin. By integrating the people, the science, and the politics into her story, Ferry shows why crystallography was such a welcoming field to women. William Bragg and J. D. Bernal proved themselves especially supportive at a time when it was still highly unusual for women not only to be part of high-level research but also to have families. In 1945 crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale became the first female fellow of the Royal Society. Colleague Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964. Rosalind Franklin, famously, did not win a Nobel, though her crystallography work proved important to the elucidation of DNA’s double-helix structure.

 In his essay paleontologist Richard Fortey emphasizes the importance of the history of science to scientists. Unfortunately, the historically oriented essays penned by some scientists in this volume make clear that they still view history as the march of progress. Unsurprisingly, this celebratory book avoids the troubles the Royal Society faced from time to time—for instance, the early 19th-century debates about the decline of British science, in which some pointed an accusatory finger at the Royal Society. Despite such minor quibbles, this volume provides a wonderful voyage through the Royal Society’s history, which given its long-term importance and worldwide connections is essentially a history of most of the major events in science.

Michal Meyer is the editor-in-chief of Chemical Heritage.