Royal Society, in full Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, the oldest national scientific society in the world and the leading national organization for the promotion of scientific research in Britain.
The Royal Society originated on November 28, 1660, when 12 men met after a lecture at Gresham College, London, by Christopher Wren (then professor of astronomy at the college) and resolved to set up “a Colledge for the promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning.” Those present included the scientists Robert Boyle and Bishop John Wilkins and the courtiers Sir Robert Moray and William, 2nd Viscount Brouncker. (Brouncker was to become the Royal Society’s first president.) The initiative had various more or less close precursors, including a group that met in London in 1645, the Oxford “Experimental Philosophy Club” in the 1650s, and correspondence networks such as that of the reformer and philanthropist Samuel Hartlib; but the body set up in 1660 was consciously new, with ambitions to become a truly national society devoted to the promotion of science. These ambitions were put into effect over the next few years, particularly through a charter of incorporation granted by Charles II in 1662 and revised in 1663. The royal charter provided an institutional structure for the society, with president, treasurer, secretaries, and council. Though it had royal patronage almost from the start, the society has always remained a voluntary organization, independent of the British state.
From the outset the society aspired to combine the role of research institute with that of clearinghouse for knowledge and forum for arbitration, though the latter function became dominant after the society’s earliest years. A key development was the establishment in 1665 of a periodical that acted as the society’s mouthpiece (though it was actually published by the secretary, initially Henry Oldenburg, and was only officially adopted by the society in 1753): this was the Philosophical Transactions, which still flourishes today as the oldest scientific journal in continuous publication.
In the subsequent history of the society, various episodes are of particular significance. The presidency of Sir Isaac Newton from 1703 to 1727 saw this great mathematician and physicist asserting the society’s dominant role in science in Britain and farther afield. (Earlier, Newton’s Principia had been published with the society’s imprimatur.) Endowments from the 18th century onward made possible prizes for various aspects of science that are still awarded today—most notably the Copley Medal, which, stemming from a bequest by Sir Godfrey Copley in 1709, became the most prestigious scientific award in Britain. In the late 18th century the society played an active role in encouraging scientific exploration, particularly under its longest-serving president, Sir Joseph Banks, who earlier had accompanied James Cook on his great voyage of discovery of 1768–71. However, in general the 18th and early 19th centuries saw the society tending to rest on its laurels and become slightly amateurish. This was rectified in the 1830s by a reform program that reinvigorated the society and restored it to a prominence that it has retained ever since. In 1919 the society sent expeditions to photograph the solar eclipse of May 29 from Príncipe Island in the Gulf of Guinea and from Sobral in Brazil, verifying Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity and helping to make Einstein famous.
Election to the Royal Society’s Fellowship is a coveted accolade for scientists; since 1945 women as well as men have been eligible for this honour. Today there are approximately 1,300 fellows and 130 foreign members. Since 1967 the society has occupied premises in Carlton House Terrace, London, where meetings are held and the society’s extensive archival and other resources are housed. The society’s role now includes the provision of independent advice on issues of current concern, and it also administers large sums of public money through grants aimed to support innovative research, foster international scientific cooperation, and encourage better communication between scientists and the public.
On a damp weeknight in late November in 1660, a dozen men gathered in rooms at Gresham College in London to listen to a lecture, on astronomy, by a 28-year-old whizz kid called Christopher Wren. The talk clearly went well, for the group decided to formalise future meetings and to continue to pursue common interests – in experiments, in natural philosophy and in the gathering of "useful knowledge". Thus the Royal Society – "the most venerable learned society in the world and its finest club," according to Bryson – was born, mainly out of the desire of a few affluent dilettantes to hobnob with one another.
The idea of the society met with the approval of Charles II, who granted it a royal charter, though the society might still have ended in obscurity had not its first members insisted on some strikingly rigorous and far-sighted rules. They made English, not Latin, their primary language; they insisted on carrying out careful, systemised experiments; and – most important of all – they checked out one another's work, thus inventing peer review, the keystone of modern scientific endeavour.
The long-term impact of these guidelines, which brought clarity and transparency to science, has been extraordinary. Over its 350-year history, a total of 8,200 individuals have been members of the society; they include Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, James Watt, Alexander Fleming and John Locke. If you want proof that Britain's got talent, the Royal Society is truly the place to look. At present, it has 1,400 fellows, selected from the best scientists and engineers in the UK and Commonwealth. Of these, 69 are Nobel prize winners. When the society utters, we should listen.
Yet this was not always the case. For much of its history, the Royal Society was concerned less with the impact of science than it was with the minutiae of academic procedure. Indeed, only in the past few decades has it demonstrated real political clout, particularly with the election of Bob May as president in 2000. An Australian-born mathematician, his robust pronouncements on GM crops, climate change and natural selection helped bring rationality to debates that could otherwise have become lost scientific causes. Today, the Royal Society is as influential an organisation as it has ever been. Hence the anniversary celebrations planned for 2010, Bryson's book being a foretaste.
Made up of 21 essays, plus a Bryson introduction, the book contains a glittering array of scientific writing talent. These include an analysis by Margaret Atwood of the myth of the mad scientist; geologist Richard Fortey on the virtues of good specimen collecting; Richard Dawkins outlining Darwin's precise contribution to the development of the theory of natural selection; and Steve Jones expounding on the mysteries of biodiversity.
So why does Seeing Further turn out to be a bit of a disappointment? It has certainly been put together with care. It should be a page-turner. Yet it is hobbled by major flaws. For a start, there is no discernible pace or structure to the assembling of its essays. The book is also low, to the point of non-appearance, in human interest and is just a little bit too smug for its own good.
Then there is the creeping feeling of worthiness that slowly envelops the reader, as you encounter, again and again, noble minds revealing the wonders of nature. It is like reading a piece of upmarket vanity publishing. I wanted to like it more but couldn't. It is not that Seeing Further is bad. It is just that it is not good enough. The Royal Society, in keeping with its remarkable origins, needs something more special than this.