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The Story of Science and The Royal Society

edited by Bill Bryson

Pub Date: Nov. 2nd, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-06-199976-5
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

The Royal Society has been incubating and disseminating scientific illumination for 350 years, as Bryson (Shakespeare: The World as Stage, 2007, etc.) and his fellow contributors gracefully attest.

“The Royal Society has been doing interesting and heroic things…since 1660,” writes the author, and it is alive and well, still fulfilling its self-ordained mission “to assist and promote the accumulation of useful knowledge.” Or even just potentially useful knowledge, like Thomas Bayes’ theorem of inverse probabilities, which had no practical application at its creation but looked promising; the Society published and preserved it, much to the future gratitude of astrophysicists and stock-market analysts. The Society invented scientific publishing and peer review and demanded clarity in scientific expression, and it brought together great minds in a cosmopolitan milieu blind to class. A revolutionary institution, then, encouraging further revolutions, such as the seditions of Darwin (“Before Darwin,” writes Richard Dawkins, “it took a philosopher of the caliber of David Hume to rumble the illogic of ‘if a thing looks designed it must have been designed’ ”) and the metaphysics of Leibniz, whom Neal Stephenson notes “practised an ecumenicism that in a lesser mind would strike us as suspicious or even craven.” These essays from a gathering of bell-clear writers and thinkers—including, among others, Richard Fortey, Margaret Atwood and Martin Rees—cover a swath of the Society’s activities, from the mass appeal of ballooning to the rarefied precincts where mathematical rationalists duke it out with experimental empiricists. Throughout the book runs a sharp humanism, typified by the crystallographers, writes Georgina Ferry, with their interlocking stories about collegiality and women in science.

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