Ben Singleton

Ben Singleton.

At a 1661 meeting in London, Sir Robert Southwell was said to have produced something remarkable: the horn of a unicorn. The attendees drew a circle with the powder made from the horn and placed a spider in the middle. The arachnid quickly scurried away.

Such were the experiments carried out by the oldest scientific society in the world, the Royal Society of London. The organization has counted as its members Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and nearly 300 Nobel laureates. Adrian Tiniswood tells of the growing pains, internal conflicts and competing visions of the esteemed organization in “The Royal Society & The Invention of Modern Science.”

We’re immediately put in the mindset of 17th-century Europeans with Tiniswood’s opening words: “Imagine a universe in which the sun revolved around the Earth.”

That universe is what most people imagined when the Royal Society was founded in 1660. That century had seen Galileo’s condemnation by the Inquisition for teaching the heliocentric theory of the solar system. Protestant and Catholic theologians alike blasted the new experimental learning championed by Copernicus and Bacon.

The early members of the Royal Society, or “fellows” as they’re officially called, inhabited the two worlds of the popular religiosity of their day and the rigorous empiricism they pioneered. The questions the society’s curator of experiments, Robert Hooke, sent to a correspondent in Iceland show the mindset of the early fellows: “Would quicksilver congeal in the cold? What kind of substances were cast out of the burning mountain? How did whales breathe? Were there spirits, and if so what shape were they, and what did they say or do?”

But “The Royal Society” isn’t primarily an intellectual history. Tiniswood doesn’t dwell much on the scientific advances made by the organization’s luminaries. It’s not a pop science book. It rather elaborates on the internal politics of the organization. Much of the work recounts how the society’s scientists tried to maintain the balancing act of retaining the interest of the fellows while admitting a large number of aristocrats with little or no scientific training so the society could get the money and prestige to continue.

Tiniswood touches a little on the present day. The formerly insular organization has recently decided to have a more active engagement with the public by handing out numerous awards and grants, tackling issues such as climate change, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and diversity within the science community. The book does, however, stick mostly to the early fellows and an expanded work would have been interesting to read.

“The Royal Society” shows the institutional foundation made by some of history’s greatest scientists. Given the radical mission of the society in its early days and its long internal struggles, the fellows have lived their own motto, nullius in verba: take no one’s word for it.

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