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The Dream of Scientific Brotherhood

Growing up as a child in England, I absorbed at an early age the notion that different countries had different skills. The Germans had Bach and Beethoven, the Spanish had Velázquez and El Greco, the French had Monet and Gauguin, and we had Newton and Darwin. Science was the thing the English were good at. This notion was reinforced when I began to read children’s books of that period, glorifying the achievements of our national heroes, Faraday and Maxwell and Rutherford.

Ernest Rutherford, the New Zealander who had discovered the atomic nucleus and created the science that came to be called nuclear physics, was then at the height of his fame. Although he had immigrated from New Zealand, Rutherford became more English than the English. He spoke for England in a famous statement contrasting the Continental European style with the English style in science: they “play games with their symbols, but we, in the Cavendish, turn out the real solid facts of Nature.” The French and Germans were doing calculations with the abstract mathematical equations of quantum theory, while Rutherford was banging one nucleus against another and transmuting nitrogen into oxygen. English children learned to be proud of Rutherford, just as we were proud of our military heroes Nelson and Wellington who had beaten Napoleon. Patriotic pride of this sort is in some ways healthy. It encourages children to be ambitious and to tackle big problems. But it is harmful when it leads them to believe that they have a natural right to rule the world.

I still remember some of the patriotic poems that I had to learn by heart and recite as a seven-year-old:

Of Nelson and the North
Sing the glorious day’s renown,
When to battle fierce came forth
All the might of Denmark’s crown.

The battle that Nelson fought in the harbor of Copenhagen was specially famous because his commanding officer put up a flag signal ordering him to cease fire. Nelson pointed his telescope at the flag signal and looked through it with his blind eye. Since he did not see the flag, he continued the battle and won a glorious victory. But even a seven-year-old understands that Nelson’s defeat of the Danes at Copenhagen was not as glorious as his defeat of the French fleet at Trafalgar four years later. Even a seven-year-old may feel some sympathy for the defeated Danes, and may question whether Nelson’s undoubted bravery and brilliance gave him the right to bombard their homes. I recently visited a tavern in Copenhagen where the tourist is proudly informed that this is one of the few buildings along the waterfront that were not demolished by Nelson’s guns. The collateral damage resulting from his victory is not forgotten.

John Gribbin’s book The Fellowship belongs to the harmless kind of patriotic literature. It is a portrait gallery displaying a group of remarkable characters who made important contributions to the rise of modern science in the seventeenth century. Each of the biographies is dramatic. Those characters lived through turbulent times, and their personal lives were as exciting as their ideas. Almost all of them are English. Gribbin is not writing a history of science but only a history of a particular institution, the Royal Society of London. “The Fellowship” means the group of men who founded the society in 1660 and devoted their time and energy to its activities. Although they were English, their aims and purposes were international, and they welcomed distinguished scholars from many countries as fellows of the society. From the beginning, one of the main activities of the society was the exchange of information and the improvement of contact between England and the rest of the world. The founding of the society was not the beginning of modern science, but it was a unique event with great consequences, well worth studying in detail. Gribbin’s book gives a lively and readable account of it.

The story begins a hundred years earlier with William Gilbert, a medical doctor who practiced in Colchester and London and became president of the Royal College of Physicians in 1600. He was one of the royal physicians responsible for keeping Queen Elizabeth in good health. In his spare time he did experiments on magnetism and published his conclusions in a book with the Latin title De Magnete. The full title in English is On the Magnet, Magnetic Bodies, and the Great Magnet the Earth: A New Physiology Demonstrated by Arguments and Experiments. The book is written in a remarkably modern style, putting the science of magnetism on a firm experimental foundation. Gilbert did careful measurements, mostly using as his experimental material little spheres of natural lodestone (magnetic oxide of iron) which he called “terrellae,” or in English “little earths.” He was aware from the beginning that these little magnets were models for the earth. He suspended them in water and measured their attractions and repulsions in detail. He cleared up a great deal of confusion by demonstrating that the use of the words “North Pole,” to mean the end of a magnet that pointed north, was wrong. He demonstrated that north and south poles attract each other, and therefore, if the magnet were taken to be a model of the earth, the end of the magnet that pointed north would correspond to the south pole of the earth. He says in his book:

All who hitherto have written about the poles of the loadstone, all instrument-makers, and navigators, are egregiously mistaken in taking for the north pole of the loadstone the part of the stone that inclines to the north, and for the south pole the part that looks to the south: this we will hereafter prove to be an error.

Roughly speaking, Gilbert did for the science of magnetism the same job that Benjamin Franklin did for the science of electricity two hundred years later, establishing the basic facts by means of experiments that anyone who doubted his conclusions could repeat. But Gilbert, since he lived two hundred years earlier, was in some ways the greater pioneer. In the course of his study of magnets, he also did a number of experiments on electricity, demonstrating that electric and magnetic materials were different and should be studied separately. Gilbert was aware that he was pioneering a new style of experimental philosophy that could be extended to many other subjects besides magnetism. He writes in the preface to De Magnete:

To you alone, true philosophers, ingenuous minds, who not only in books but in things themselves look for knowledge, have I dedicated these foundations of magnetic science—a new style of philosophizing.

One of the people who read De Magnete, probably soon after it appeared in 1600, was Galileo. Galileo was twenty years younger than Gilbert, but already well started in his studies of dynamics, using pendulums and balls rolling down inclined planes as his experimental tools. Galileo in his correspondence with friends wrote warmly of Gilbert, “I greatly praise, admire and envy this author, that a conception so stupendous should have come to his mind.” Galileo later did experiments himself with magnets and confirmed Gilbert’s results. Fortunately, the friendly relations between Galileo and his English admirers were not disturbed by disputes over priority of the kind that arose between Newton and Leibniz a century later. Gilbert was given some share of the glory that Galileo earned as the father of modern experimental science.

After Gilbert and Galileo comes Francis Bacon, who, unlike the other characters in the story, never did an experiment. He was a man of many talents, so gifted that he was seriously proposed in later centuries as the author of Shakespeare’s plays. At the age of fifteen he was helping the English ambassador in Paris with diplomatic correspondence, and developed a serious interest in codes and cryptography. He later became a successful writer, lawyer, and politician. He was lord chancellor in 1618 and was disgraced for taking bribes in 1621. After his disgrace, he spent five years in retirement writing fragments of a great work that remained unfinished, The Great Instauration. By “instauration” he meant an organization for acquiring knowledge from all over the world and putting it to practical use.

The essential feature of his vision was that the increase of knowledge should be a collective activity, with organized groups of people observing in detail how nature works. After the observations were collected, another group of people, scholars and philosophers, would interpret the results and deduce the laws that nature follows. Finally, a third group of people, inventors and manufacturers, would use their knowledge of nature’s laws for the advancement of human wealth and welfare. This blueprint for the building of a knowledge-based society was very far ahead of its time. In many ways, Bacon’s scheme resembles the institutions of science and technology in the twenty-first century more than it resembles the Royal Society in the seventeenth. Nevertheless, the founders of the Royal Society were strongly influenced by Bacon’s writings and believed that they were helping to make his dreams come true. And now, 350 years later, it turns out that they were right.

Bacon was master of a literary form which he called the essay. Bacon’s essays are brief, usually a couple of pages summarizing his views about a big subject. Many of his essays have become classics, distilling much wisdom into a few words. Here are a few of his memorable statements about the pursuit of knowledge:

All depends on keeping the eye steadily fixed on the facts of nature, and so receiving their images as they are. For God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world.

Man is the helper and interpreter of Nature. He can only act and understand in so far as by working upon her or observing her he has come to perceive her order. Beyond this he has neither knowledge nor power.

Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion.

The true and lawful goal of the sciences is simply this, that human life be endowed with new discoveries and powers.

After his death in 1626, his most imaginative work was published, a story with the title New Atlantis, describing a utopian society living on an island in the South Pacific and directed by an organization called the Foundation. The Foundation is a group of philosophers dedicated to scientific research and human improvement:

The End of our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.

Bacon died amid a chaos of unpaid debts and unfinished manuscripts. He never knew which of the many seeds that he planted would bear fruit. The New Atlantis turned out to be one of the most fertile. Thirty years after his death, the name “Fellows,” which he gave to the members of his Foundation, was borrowed by the founders of the Royal Society for the members of theirs. And three hundred years later, the writer Isaac Asimov borrowed the name “Foundation” for one of the most popular series of science-fiction stories ever written.

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