Beki Grinter

350 years of the Royal Society

In discipline, women on October 28, 2010 at 8:37 pm

The Royal Society is celebrating 350 year anniversary. Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society was published in 1667, just five years after the Society received it’s Royal Charter. Sprat’s history, included a description of  Science as being driven by experimentation rather than the reading of historical texts. Practice not theory, perhaps.

[The Fellows] never affirm’d any thing, concerning the cause, till the trial was past… for whoever has fix’d on his Cause, before he has experimented; can hardly avoid fitting his Experiment, and his Observations, to his own Cause, which he had before imagin’d.

Francis Bacon’s novel, The New Atlantis (published posthumously in 1627) argued for research focused not just on the physical world, but on improving society. I am struck by how central that remains… not a day goes past where I don’t hear arguments that turn on how knowledge improves society, science is an economic driver (and economic drivers are the key to societal uplift), and more recently about how science should solve important global problems (the environment).

Something else that struck me reading these early histories was the differences in the practice of science then and how. We talk about interdisciplinary research a lot nowadays. One of the founding members of the Royal Society, was Christopher Wren (the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London). As a scientist, influenced by William Harvey who was a physician who challenged convention by arguing that blood flowed round the body, Wren decided to experiment with a transfusion on a dog. He was also a professor of Astronomy. Of course science has become more specialized, but this gives me a feel for how much more specialized science has become.

The Royal Society was a Gentlemen’s club, a rich gentlemen’s club. A woman asked to visit the Royal Society, and in 1667 she became the last woman to visit the Society’s meeting rooms until the 20th century. The Royal Society was a closed society.

There is so much more that could be written, but for me this anniversary has been a personal opportunity not just to learn more about something that is a part of my national heritage, but also something that is a part of the business I find myself in 350 years later.

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