The story of a 19th-century scientific society that exerted wide-ranging influence throughout Britain and beyond.
In 1819, naturalists Adam Sedgwick, newly appointed professor of geology at Cambridge, and his friend John Stevens Henslow, a recent graduate, proposed to establish a scientific society for Cambridge, a place where “gentlemen of science” could share their research. As Gibson (History and Philosophy of Science/Univ. of Cambridge; Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?: How Eighteenth-Century Science Disrupted the Natural Order, 2015) reveals in a vivid, deeply researched intellectual history, the Cambridge Philosophical Society changed both the university and the larger scientific community. At the time the society was founded, Cambridge “was an intellectually cautious place” devoted to teaching the classics, the Bible, and the mathematics of Isaac Newton. Yet science was burgeoning, and the society was one among many that arose across Britain in the late 18th and early 19th century. Some were specialized (focused, for example, on astronomy or mineralogy), others intended as gatherings for the scientific elite. The society was unique because of its connection to the university, which both supported its efforts and allowed for its reach beyond the confines of its meeting rooms. Since its original members were members of the university, their own research and the ideas they gleaned at forums—letters from Charles Darwin from his trip on the Beagle, for example—made their ways into undergraduate teaching. Its two enthusiastic founders saw the society as “a place where things got done: if Cambridge lacked a decent scientific library, they would assemble one; if the town didn’t have a natural history museum, they would create one; if the press failed to produce a natural philosophical journal, they would write one themselves.” All these resources shaped Cambridge curriculum, which by the 1850s allowed students to be examined for a degree in the Natural Sciences. Over the years, students increasingly took up that option, and the university attracted major scientists—Niels Bohr, J.J. Thomson, Ernest Rutherford, among others—from all over the world.
A colorful, detailed history of scientific passions and the hunger for knowledge.