A Book Review for The Royal Society of Tasmania by John Williamson
Adrian Tinniswood, The Royal Society and the Invention of Modern Science, New York: Basic Books, 2019, pp. 129
This small gem of a book (129 pp.) provides an approachable examination of how the Royal Society came to exist during the 17th century and what factors allowed it to continue. Tinniswood makes it clear that two factors – the storm of fascination at this time in science and experimentation in Europe and the UK, as well as the patronage of King Charles II – were both vital in the foundation of the Society. The author is both an academic historian and a writer of general and popular history works who has a gift for making clear what, in the hands of others, could become confusing.
The early chapters show how the 1600s were a period during which medieval ideas of science and reality were being overthrown. Developments in Mathematics, Astronomy, Biology and Physics changed the way in which society viewed nature and how new experimental methods challenged earlier concepts and ideas. The Society, Tinniswood explains, grew out of two separate movements – the first was the ‘Great Club’ at Wadham College, Oxford which developed into a haven for ‘experimental philosophy’. A club was set up there that would attract some of the great minds of the age: members from Oxford University included Robert Hooke (microscopist, architect), Christopher Wren (architect, astronomer), Seth Ward (astronomer), Robert Wood (mathematician), and John Wallis.
The second movement that initiated the Society, as outlined by Tinniswood, was a series of informal weekly meetings of academics from both Cambridge and Oxford in the unsettled years before and during the English Civil War. With the revival of monarchy in 1660, these meetings began to take on a more formal structure: held at Gresham College, London, their discussions centred on the newest ideas in science and reviewed the most recent experiments. This revolution in science – ‘advancement through experimentation and ocular inspection’ – was all the more remarkable as most people in Europe at that time, believed in witchcraft and magic. According to Tinniswood, the Royal Society actually created the Scientific Revolution. Although this may be too large a claim, it is true that these scientists were absolutely vital in that 17th century revolution of ideas.
The author explains that the new King, Charles II, a supporter, provided them with a Royal Charter in 1662. John Evelyn, another early member, provided the now, ‘Royal’, Society’s motto Nullius in verba — ‘Take no-one’s word for it’. This was an indication that the Society’s Fellows were determined to withstand the domination of (ecclesiastical) authority and to ‘verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment’.
What did the Royal Society do? Tinniswood is at pains to answer this. Initially suggestions of possible experiments were made by members, many of which were actually carried out and then they were written up formally and accurately so that they became a permanent record. By 1665 this record had developed into the Philosophical Transactions, the world’s first and longest continuously published scientific journal. Of this in 1870, the English biologist, T.H. Huxley said, “if all the books in the world, except the [Royal Society’s] Philosophical Transactions were destroyed, it is safe to say that the foundations of the physical science would remain unshaken”.
Later chapters describe the changing location of the Royal Society, the problems that the Society encountered in attempting to choose high quality members and Fellows, and the difficulties the Royal Society faced in dealing with critics at Universities and in the Church. But, Tinniswood assures us, “by the end of the 19th century the Society, after overcoming much opposition and indifference, had realised the aims of its founders, and at last had become an institution for promoting natural science”.
The author objectively outlines the problems faced by the Society over the centuries and how their handling of these issues was not always perfect. There are several references made to the role of foreign members and Fellows, as well as to the women who have been involved in the Society. Although these sections do seem a bit cursory – in a book of this diminutive size this is understandable – they constitute a very affirmative step.
Tinniswood’s explanations of even very complex issues are lucid and enlightening. The end notes for each chapter are accurate and thorough, the index is clear and the bibliography provides an excellent guide to the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. This small monograph charts the evolution of one of the world’s great institutions for the advancement of knowledge and the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.
Tinniswood, A (2019) The Royal Society and the Invention of Modern Science, New York: Basic Books, pp.129
National Museum of Australia, ‘The Royal Society of London’, https://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/exploration-and-endeavour/royal-society-london
Wilton, P (2 February, 2010), ‘Oxford and the Royal Society’s Origins’, https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/science-blog/oxford-and-royal-society%E2%80%99s-origins