Tag Archive: Royal Society

Nov 03 2010

Book review: The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science by John Henry

ScientificRevolution_JohnHenryThe book I review in this post is “The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science” by John Henry. In contrast to previous history books I have read this is neither popular history of science, nor original material but instead an academic text book. My first impressions are that it is a slim volume (100 pages) and contains no pictures! Since childhood I have tended towards the weightier volume, feeling it better value for money.

The Scientific Revolution is a period in European history during which the way in which science was done changed dramatically. The main action took place during the 17th century with lesser changes occurring in the 15th and 18th centuries. The Royal Society, on which I have blogged several times, plays a part in this Revolution and God’s Philosophers by James Hannam is one view of the preamble to the period.

The book starts with a brief introduction to historiography (methods of history research) of the Scientific Revolution, with a particular warning against “whiggish” behaviour: that’s to say looking back into the past and extracting from it that thread that leads to the future, ignoring all other things – the preferred alternative being to look at a period as a whole in its own terms. History as introduced by scientists is often highly whiggish.

Next up is a highlighting of the Renaissance, a period immediately prior to the Scientific Revolution wherein much renewed effort was made to learn from the Classics, the importance of the Renaissance appears to have been in initiating a break from the natural philosophy and theology taught in the universities of the time, which were teaching rather than research institutions.

The Scientific Revolution introduced two “methods of science” which differentiated it from the previous studies of natural philosophy: mathematisation and experiment. Mathematisation in that for sciences particularly relating to physics the aim became to develop a mathematical model for the physical behaviour observed. Prior to the Revolution mathematics was seen almost as a menial craft, inferior to both natural philosophy and theology which relied on logical chains of deduction to establish causes. These days mathematics has a far higher prestige, as illustrated in this xkcd comicstrip. The second element of experimentation means the use of controlled experimentation rather than pure thought to determine true facts.

One of the more surprising insights for me was the influence of magic on the developing science, very much in parallel to the influence of alchemy on the developing chemical sciences: magic was a physical equivalent. Magicians were intensely interested in the mysterious properties of physical objects and were early users of lenses and mirrors. The experience they developed in manipulating physical objects was the equivalent of the experience the alchemists gained in manipulating chemicals. Some of this thinking went forward into the new science the remaining rump of bonkers stuff left behind.

It’s very easy to glibly teach of forces and atoms to students, or perhaps blithely demonstrate the solution to an, on the face of it, tricky integral. However, we take a lot for granted: the great names of the past were at least as intelligent as more recent ones such as Einstein or Maxwell yet they struggled greatly with the idea of a force acting at a distance and so forth and that’s because these ideas are actually not obvious except in retrospect. Mechanical philosophies of Descartes and Hobbes were amongst the competing ideas for a “system of the world” ultimately supplanted by Newton.

Henry highlights that most of the participants in the Scientific Revolution were religiously devout, as were many in that time. An interesting idea taken up, but now apparently rejected, was that Puritanism was essential in driving the Scientific Revolution in Britain. Despite this, it was in this period that atheism started to appear.

A few times Henry refers to differences in emphasis between the developing new science in Britain when compared to the Continent. In Britain the emphasis was on an almost legalistic approach with purportedly bare facts presented to a jury in the form, for example, of the fellows of the Royal Society – theorising was in principle depreciated. This approach originates with Francis Bacon, a former Attorney General and experienced legal figure. On the Continent the emphasis was different, experiments were seen more as a demonstration of the correctness of a theory. The reason for this difference is laid at the door of the English Civil War, only briefly passed when the Royal Society was founded. It is argued that this largely non-confrontational style arose from a need for a bit of peace following the recent turmoil.

In sum I found this book an interesting experience: it’s very dense and heavily referenced. Popular history of science tends to revolve around individual biography and it’s nice to get some context for these lives. I’m particularly interested in following up some of the references to other European learned societies.

Further Reading

The book provides a list of handy links to online resources:

  1. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy
  2. Prof. Robert A. Hatch’s Scientific Revolution Website
  3. Prof. Paul Halsall’s Scientific Revolution Website
  4. SparkNotes Study Guide on the Scientific Revolution
  5. The Robert Boyle Project
  6. The Galileo Project
  7. The Newton Project
  8. The MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive

These all look interesting, and although not polished I’ve been using the MacTutor for many years.

Oct 11 2010

Early reports of the Royal Society

In an earlier post I wrote about Thomas Sprat’sHistory of the Royal Society of London, for the improving of Natural Knowledge“. Published in 1667, under the direction of the Royal Society which had first met in 1660, receiving their royal charter in 1662. In that post I deferred discussion of a selection of the early reports of the Society that were embedded in the History, for reasons of space.

The reports by title are these:

  • Answers returned by Sir Philberto Vernatti (Resident of Batavia in Java Major)
  • A Method for making a History of the Weather by Mr Hook
  • Directions for the Observations of the Eclipses of the Moon by Mr Rooke
  • A Proposal for Making Wine by Dr. Goddard
  • A Relation of the Pico Teneriffe
  • Experiments of the Weight of Bodies increased in the Fire by Lord Brouncker
  • Experiments of a Stone called Oculus Mundi by Dr Goddard
  • An account of a Dog dissected by Mr Hook
  • Experiments of the Recoiling of Guns by Lord Brouncker
  • The History of the Making of Salt-Peter and The History of Making Gunpowder by Mr Henshaw
  • An Apparatus to the History of the Common Practices of Dy[e]ing by Sir William Petty
  • The History of the Generation and ordering of Green Oysters Commonly called Colchester-Oysters

Interspersed amongst them Sprat adds in various brief comments on other work of the Society along with what amounts to a personal eulogy to Christopher Wren, who seems to have been involved in pretty much everything although Sprat seems to have been generous in attributing to Wren work which was largely done by other people.

Looking first at the authors: of Sir Philberto Vernatti I can find little, he appears to have been Governor of Batavia (now Jakarta) for the Dutch East India Company whilst most references I’ve found to him arise from this report to the Royal Society; Mr Hook was the first curator of experiments for the Royal Society and paid an important role in keeping the Society with interesting things to see, he was an outstanding scientist in his own right; Lord Brouncker was the first President of the Royal Society; Mr Rooke appears to have been Lawrence Rooke, who died in 1662; Dr Goddard is Dr Jonathan Goddard the early Society met in his lodgings at Gresham College, physician to Charles I and present at the death of Cromwell; Mr Henshaw is Thomas Henshaw an early Biological Sciences Secretary to the Royal Society; Sir William Petty was amongst other things an economist and a Parliamentarian in the Civil War. On the whole these reports look like they have been selected on political grounds, they are from the movers and shakers of the Society.

The contributions vary considerably in length and content, Dr Goddard’s proposal on making wine amounts to: “Do it in the West Indies using sugar cane”, similarly Mr Hooks account of dissecting a dog is very brief (it’s also pretty horrifying).

The reports on dyeing, oysters and the making of Salt-peter and gunpowder are quite detailed reviews of the current “state-of-the-art” in important trades, involving both references to previous literature and reports of current practice which read very much as if the authors had gone and observed the processes described. The answers returned by men in distant places: Sir Philoberto Vernatti in Batavia, Java and the report on the scaling of Pico Teneriffe are also very much directed to trade: does this wood grow well there? These are quite lengthy and range over quite a range of topics. From this it’s clear that the Royal Society wanted to be seen as contributing to the national wealth.

The reports by Hooke (on recording the weather), Rooke, Brouncker and Goddard (on Oculus mundi) are those which most closely resemble modern scientific papers. They report methods for conducting measurements, or the results of those measurements, unlike modern papers they do not draw strong conclusions from those measurements. In a sense they are following the scheme laid out by Sprat in which empirical measurement is important and theorising comes later. Oculus Mundi is a form of opal now known as hydrophane which goes transparent when it absorbs water, the OED reports that Sir Kenelme Digby had brought some of this material to the Society in 1661.

In sum it looks like the early Society was very busy. Much of what they wrote was very practical and aside from a comment on making insects from cheese and sack it largely looks quite sensible. In these reports I can see the origins of the primary scientific literature that I access as part of my work.

Oct 03 2010

Book review: The History of the Royal Society of London by Thomas Sprat

NPG D11592, Thomas Sprat; Thomas Sprat In which I venture into original material, in the form of Thomas Sprat’sHistory of the Royal Society of London, for the improving of Natural Knowledge“. Published in 1667, under the direction of the Royal Society which had first met in 1660, receiving their royal charter in 1662. I must admit to having attempted to read this book a couple of times before and failed; the copy I have is a facsimile of the original therefore written in early modern English with heavy use of the “long s” inevitably leading to an internal voice with a pronounced lisp! It’s probably useful to replace “History” with “Prospectus” in the title, to satisfy modern tastes. Despite it’s age the writing style is surprisingly readable to my modern eyes.

Unlike any other book I have read the book starts with a dedication to the King, followed by a poem praising Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Bacon’s presence recurs throughout the book, Sprat clearly sees him as the intellectual godfather of the organisation. The book is divided into three sections; the first is a prehistory describing the state of natural knowledge before the Royal Society, the second section details the founding of the Society and the final section discusses the value of the knowledge the Society seeks.

The tour of prehistory is rapid; starting with the ancient priests who held knowledge to themselves, followed by the Greek philosophers (described as the Ancients) who Sprat feels were too fond of rhetoric in determining questions of knowledge and who he accuses of “hastiness”. The Romans receive relatively short shrift. Following the Roman Empire, Sprat sees the rise of the Church of Rome and a relatively barren period dominated by war, he cites here William of Malmsbury (1080-1143), an early English historian in support of this. He then bemoans the time spent by the Scholastics in what he considers pointless theology in the later period, presumably 1000-1500, William of Ockham falls into this group. Finally he comes to the recent era where he lists five groups involved in natural philosophising. Francis Bacon is cited reverentially once again, those taking on the philosophy of the ancients – tidying it up after it’s release from the abbeys in the Reformation, are less venerated. “Chymists” receive a mixed review with the more pedestrian welcomed but the alchemists, often seeking eternal life or some other fancy, are scorned. Isaac Newton, a later president of the Royal Society was a keen alchemist but by this time it was seen as not quite proper. He also comments on the coming of specialisation to different areas of science.

The founding fathers of the Royal Society started meeting in Doctor Wilkins lodgings in Wadham College, Oxford – it’s not stated explicitly when this started but it ended in around 1638 when the meetings moved to Gresham College in London. Sprat skims over the Civil War (1642-1651), although this period was clearly much on his mind in writing the book, then happily reports: “For the Royal Society had its beginning in the wonderful pacifick year of 1660”, the year of the Restoration when Charles II returned to the English throne. Sprat goes on to describe in some detail the guiding principles of the society, explicitly ruling out a teaching organisation citing the time required to do this and the potentially unhealthy Master-pupil relationship as damaging to the purposes of the Society. It is a principle of the new organisation that men of all religions and nations are welcome. This internationalism is a hallmark of modern science. Also highlighted is the idea that the Royal Society becomes a central repository for written information, the first of its kind. The Royal Society was funded from the subscriptions of it’s fellows, although they were open to public funding.

Sprat then provides a rather detailed description of how the Royal Society is constituted including how they go about their business in terms of doing and reporting experiments, I must admit to finding this a bit dull. It has the air of an organisational fanatic describing his perfect organisation, it’s questionable how closely the Royal Society managed to keep to this ideal. However, in his description of the processes of the Society we can see the genesis of the still used scientific literature, with the primary literature comprised of relatively short papers containing experimental results and theoretical developments based on those results. Charles II makes several appearances here, unsurprising given the recent granting of the Royal charter, but he also seems to have been moderately involved in the Society and had his own chemistry laboratory.

A substantial portion of the middle of the book is taken by a compilation of reports by the early Royal Society, these include:

  • Answers returned by Sir Philberto Vernatti (Resident of Batavia in Java Major)
  • A Method for making a History of the Weather by Mr Hook
  • Directions for the Observations of the Eclipses of the Moon by Mr Rooke
  • A Proposal for Making Wine by Dr. Goddard
  • A Relation of the Pico Teneriffe
  • Experiments of the Weight of Bodies increased in the Fire by Lord Brouncker
  • Experiments of a Stone called Oculus Mundi by Dr Goddard
  • An account of a Dog dissected by Mr Hook
  • Experiments of the Recoiling of Guns by Lord Brouncker
  • The History of the Making of Salt-Peter by Mr Henshaw
  • The History of Making Gunpowder
  • An Apparatus to the History of the Common Practices of Dy[e]ing by Sir William Petty
  • The History of the Generation and ordering of Green Oysters Commonly called Colchester-Oysters

I shall write on these reports in a separate post.
The book ends with a lengthy rebuttal of various criticisms of the Royal Society, including how “experimenting” is entirely compatible with the Christian religion and specifically the Church of England; this is perhaps unsurprising given Sprat’s occupation as a churchman. In addition to this there is the appeal that experimental philosophy as demonstrated by the Royal Society can benefit the nation by improving its industry and trade, including such things as importing plants across the emire. It also defends the interest of the nobility in this area, claiming that their country estates are the ideal places to conduct such studies, whilst the lower orders go off to fight wars!

Reading this book was an unusual experience for me. In contrast to the modern histories I more usually read I felt much more obliged to ask questions like: Why is this person writing this book? Why was Bacon so important? Is this some reverence to a politically important forbearer? Why the need for the book at all? A book length defence of such an organisation only 5 years after its formation seems a bit odd.

Reading this has given me a taste for contemporary material, I think I might have to look into Pepys and some original scientific publications.

Further Reading

  1. Google Books version of the History of the Royal Society of London, for the improving of Natural Knowledge.
  2. My earlier blog posts on the Royal Society
  3. Image from the National Portrait Gallery

Sep 15 2010

Science is Vital – history repeating 1667

I’m reading Thomas Sprat’s “History of the Royal Society of London, for the improving of Natural Knowledge“* published in 1667. He’s just mentioned that following the return of Charles II much spending has been made on public works and goes on to say:

This general Temper being well weigh’d; it cannot be imagin’d that the Nation will withdraw its Assistance from the Royal Society alone; which does not intend to stop at some particular Benefit but goes to the Root of all noble Inventions, and proposes an infallible Course to make England the Glory of the Western World.

This seems terribly relevant to current circumstances, he does spoil it slightly by going on to say:

There is scarce any Thing has more hindered the true Philosophy than a Vain Opinion, that men have taken up, that Nothing could be done in it, to any purpose, but upon a vast Charge, and a mighty Revenue.

 Old Sprat had a fine way with words!

*Quotes are from p78-79

Sep 11 2010

Book Review: The Fellowship by John Gribbin

an_experiment_on_a_bird_in_an_air_pump_by_joseph_wright_of_derby_1768 I’ve written previously about the Royal Society via the medium of book reviews: Seeing Further, Joseph Banks and Age of Wonder, and also in a data mangling exercise. This post is about “The Fellowship: The Story of the Royal Society and a Scientific Revolution” by John Gribbin, it describes the scientific world before the Society and the founding of the Royal Society. As with many books about this period, the front cover of my copy features “An experiment on a bird in the Air pump” by Joseph Wright of Derby and so that is the image I use to decorate this post. Following my usual scheme this review is really an aide memoire as much as a review.

The book opens with a set of brief biographies, starting with William Gilbert of Colchester (1544-1603), and his scientific study of magnetism: de Magnete (1600). This work on magnetism was unusual for it’s time in that it was very explicitly based on experimental observation, rather than the “philosophising” of Aristotelian school which imputed that the world could be understood simply by thinking. William Gilbert is relatively little known (ok – I didn’t know about him!), perhaps because his work was in a relatively narrow field and was superseded in the 18th century by work of people like Michael Faraday furthermore Gilbert seems to have spent most of his life practicing as a doctor with his scientific work playing only a small part of his life.

Next step is Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). He continued in the tradition of William Gilbert, eschewing the philosophical approach for experiment. In contrast to Gilbert, Galileo made contributions across a wide range of science for a long period – promulgating technology such as telescopes, microscopes and computing devices. This likely explains his greater fame. A detail that caught my eye was that as a professor of mathematics at the University of Pisa he was paid 60 crowns per year, whilst the Professor of Medicine gained 2000 crowns. For many early scientists, medical training appears to be the major scientific training available.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was more important as a parliamentarian, lawyer and courtier than a scientist. I link reluctantly to wikipedia in this instance, since in the opening paragraph they seem to be repeating the myth that he met his end through stuffing snow into a chicken to see if this helped preservation. His fame as a founding father of modern science is based largely on a book he didn’t write in which he intended to describe how a scientist should work – a scientific method. Perhaps more notably he had a vision as to how science might function in society at a time when there was no such thing as a scientist. It is apparently from Bacon that Isaac Asimov got his “Foundation”; it is the name of an organisation of scientific Fellows found in Bacon’s fictional work New Atlantis. Finally we are introduced to William Harvey (1578-1657), who identified the circulatory system for blood in the human body by a process of observation and experiment (published in De Motu Cordis (1628)) he was primarily a physician.

The point of this preamble is to say that, as the founding of the Royal Society approached, a number of people had started doing or proposing to do a new kind of science (or rather natural philosophy as it would have been called). The new natural philosophy involved doing experiments, and thinking about them – it was experimental science in contrast to the “received wisdom” from the ancient Greeks which was certainly interpreted to mean at the time that thinking was all that was required to establish true facts about the physical world. It’s not really accurate to say that one person did this and everything changed: rather that a shift had started to take place in the middle years of the 16th century. The foundation of the Royal Society can be seen as the culmination of that shift.

The Royal Society was founded at Gresham College in London on 28th November 1660, although it’s origins lay in Oxford where many of the group that would go on to form the Society had been meeting since the 1640’s. The Royal charter of the Society was agreed a couple of years later. The central figure in the Oxford group was John Wilkins (~1614-1672). The original Society included Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke amongst others. What striking is the political astuteness of the founding fathers as the monarchy returned to England in the form of Charles II, the first President, Viscount Brouncker, was a Royalist and the Society clearly identified that a Royal seal of approval was what they required from the very beginning. The Society had an air of purposefulness about it, not of airy philosophising for the amusement of gentlemen. The Society started publishing the worlds first scientific journal, “Philosophical Transactions”, and commissioning a history of their founding by Thomas Sprat only a few years later.  As a scientist I have picked out those names that mean most to me, however it’s very clear that the Royal Society was more than a group of scientists meeting to talk about science and the other less scientifically feted Fellows were equally important in the success of the Society.

Gribbin’s book then goes on to consider three men important in the early life of the Royal Society. Firstly: Robert Hooke (1636-1703), originally scientific assistant to Robert Boyle (1627-1691) who became the Society’s first “Curator of Experiments”. Prior to his appointment the Fellows appeared to be poorly organised in terms of providing weekly demonstration experiments for the Society’s education. Hooke was a really outstanding scientist, a skilled draftsman and maker of scientific equipment. The reason Hooke is not better known is largely down to Isaac Newton, with whom he had a longstanding feud and who outlived him. Newton (1643-1727) does not need further introduction as a scientist, his role in the Royal Society was to provide scientific gravitas (after Hooke had died) he was also President of the Society for the period 1703-27. Edmond Halley (1656-1742) was more important to the Society on the administrative side, he is chiefly remembered from the scientific point of view for his prediction of the return of a comet calculated using Newton’s theory of gravitation. He also spent a great deal of time persuading Newton to publish and trying to extract data from Flamsteed (the Astronomer Royal). In addition to this he invented a diving bell, wrote the first article on life annuities, published on the trade winds and monsoons, made observations of the stars of the Southern hemisphere and went on several scientific expeditions.

Some miscellaneous thoughts that arose as I read:

  • Royal patronage, in this instance by Charles II, was important for the Society in this period and later by George III – as described a little in Age of Wonder.
  • On the face of it astronomy is blue-skies research, but at the time the precise measurement of the position of the stars was seen as a route to determining the longitude – an important practical problem.
  • It’s notable that the persistent anecdotes about the scientists mentioned here i.e. Francis Bacon and the frozen chicken, Newton and the apple falling from the tree and Galileo dropping things from towers, originate from the earliest biographies often written by people who knew them personally. These anecdotes have later been found to be rather fanciful, but nevertheless have persisted.
  • There was serious feuding going between scientists in the early years of the Society!

Overall I enjoyed this book, although it does sometimes have the air of a collection of short biographies of men who are already relatively well known. The most interesting part to me was the core part around the founding of the Society, bringing in some of the lesser known members and also highlighting the importance of the non-scientific aspects of the Society in it’s success.

In terms of scientific history reading, where next? “God’s Philosophers” by James Hannam seems relevant to understanding scientific activities prior to those covered in this book. A deeper investigation into Edmond Halley seems worthwhile, and I should also make another attempt at the Thomas Sprat history of the Royal Society.

Further reading

  1. Joseph Banks” by Patrick O’Brian.
  2. “Seeing Further” edited by Bill Bryson.
  3. God’s Philosophers” by James Hannam.
  4. Age of Wonder” by Richard Holmes.
  5. The Curious Life of Robert Hooke” by Lisa Jardine.
  6. Hostage to fortune” by Lisa Jardine and Alan Stewart, which is a biography of Francis Bacon.
  7. The History of the Royal Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge” by Thomas Sprat.
  8. Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer” by Michael White.

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