One of the most central aspects of the Royal Society is its science journal, Philosophical Transactions, which was first published in 1665. Head of Library and Information Services at the Royal Society, Keith Moore says, “It is amazing what is in there. There is not a part of the world or a part of Britain that hasn’t been touched. If you look up your home county you’ll probably find a paper from the Philosophical Transactions.”
The early days of the Royal Society coincided with the fading days of alchemy – transforming lead into gold
Natural philosophy in those days is what we refer to now as science. In the 19th century, science and its categorizations as we know them today became more defined. In the 17th and 18th centuries the remit for natural philosophy included anything that took the scientists fancy. The first volume of Philosophical Transactions includes topics as wide ranging as observing Jupiter to an account of a swarm of strange insects in the New World.
Moore says, “They would have been interested in everything, not just maths, physics, chemistry etc but also language and literature. You find papers about painting, customs of peoples around the world and their medicines, how they lived, pretty much everything you can think of appeared in Philosophic Transactions at one time or another. By the 18th century it got a reputation for being slightly antiquarian but by the 19th century, when science became more professional, so did Philosophical Transactions.”
The introduction of referees and peer review of papers in the 19th Century was one important step in bringing more of a professional air to proceedings.
It is astonishing to think of the experiments that have taken place at the Royal Society over the ages, which now presides at Carlton House on Pall Mall. Moore says, “In the library there is a reconstructed model of an instrument made by Francis Hauksbee in 1709, it was simple glass bowl which is vacuumed. You revolve it, stick your hands against it and it lights it up. At the royal society at that period they read the first letters by electric light. This is just one example but throughout the society’s history we’ve had innovative technologists working on site.”
Other notable innovators were Robert Hooke with his microscopic observations, Dennis Pane, a pioneer of the steam engine and the great polymath and a founding father of America, Benjamin Franklin, who lived in London for 20 years. To become a fellow today you need to be either British or a member of the Commonwealth, except for about 8 foreign scientists elected each year who are usually world leaders in their field and quite often Nobel Prize winners.
Interestingly, science is not usually affected by international jealousies and historically, even in times of war, scientists were still keen to correspond internationally. Moore says, “When Benjamin Franklin was writing to Joseph Banks in the 18th Century from Paris about scientific activity there, we were at war. Franklin was raising money against the British so he could fight them but he still wrote about science. A little thing like a war didn’t get in the way of the business of gentlemanly international interests in natural philosophy.”
Despite the desire for scientists to communicate over national boundaries the state were less keen. In fact, Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, spent some time in the Tower of London – the authorities were concerned his communications with foreign scientists was a cover for espionage.
Rupert Baker, Library Manager of the Royal Society, takes me on a tour of the warren of air conditioned vaults in the basement that house some of the oldest and most important extant texts in science including the first volume of Philosophical Transactions, subsequently rebound by the Victorians.
Isaac Newton must be one of the most famous presidents of the Royal Society and in a vault fitted with canisters that push oxygen out of the room in the case of fire, can be found his ‘Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica’, which Baker tells me, along with the Origins of the Species, was voted the most important science book ever written.
Baker says, “The early days of the Royal Society coincided with the fading days of alchemy – transforming lead into gold, searching for the philosophers stone etc – and years later Newton’s Principia is published. Even Newton himself dabbled in alchemy.”
It is amazing what is in there. There is not a part of the world or a part of Britain that hasn’t been touched
Today the Royal Society is as relevant as ever, including among its fellows the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Timothy Berners-Lee. Though it receives a Parliamentary Grant-in-Aid, money which they are charged with giving to relevant scientists to fund research, most of their money is raised through donation including £50 million recently bequeathed by an Australian businessman.
One of the main purposes of the Royal Society is to act as a resource for members of the public and to spread new and exciting ideas being proposed by scientists. Anybody can join the library and along with talks throughout the year they also hold the Summer Science Exhibition, free to anyone, where the most progressive scientific innovations are exhibited.
Held every July, this year the exhibition will have stalls on Epigenetics, nano-scale motors and robots that play football, which should keep people of all ages stimulated and entertained.