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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.

The next of the English pioneers was William Harvey, the physician who revolutionized the practice of medicine by discovering the circulation of the blood. The title of his great work published in 1628 was Anatomical Exercises on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals. He was trained in Padua, where he was a student of Fabricius, a famous anatomist who made careful dissections of animals and identified the valves in veins. Fabricius did not understand the function of the valves, since he believed the prevailing dogma that veins and arteries both carried blood away from the heart. After Harvey returned to England he did careful experiments, tying bandages around the arms of his patients and observing how the flow of the blood in the veins responded. He found that the function of the valves was to block flow away from the heart and allow flow toward the heart. These simple observations proved that the blood circulates through the body, away from the heart through the arteries and back to the heart through the veins. Harvey also showed that a separate circulation takes blood from the heart to the lungs and back again.

After Harvey came the “great generation,” the group of about twenty people who came together in 1660 to launch the Royal Society. The main purpose of Gribbin’s book is to explain how and why this happened. How did it happen that so many people with wealth and education became seriously interested in science? And why did they concentrate their attention on experiments and observations of nature rather than on philosophical theorizing? Gribbin answers these questions by examining the historical circumstances out of which this group of people arose.

The central fact about the founding of the Royal Society is that it coincided with the restoration of the English monarchy under King Charles II. England had been torn apart by civil war for nine years, from 1642 to 1651. Parliamentary forces led by Oliver Cromwell defeated royal forces led by Charles I. Charles I was beheaded in 1649 and England became a republic, governed by Cromwell as lord protector. Charles II spent nine years in humiliating exile, wandering between France and Holland and Spain. When Cromwell died in 1658, his second-in-command, General George Monck, started to talk with the defeated Royalist leaders and quickly negotiated a deal. Charles II would be invited back as king, and only a few ringleaders of the gang that had killed his father would be punished. Most English people were tired of religious squabbles. They had no wish to fight the civil war over again. So Charles II came back and successfully reunited the country, governing with a light hand and making whatever compromises were needed to stay on his throne. He reigned for twenty-five years, more or less peacefully, and before he died somebody composed a poem for his tombstone:

Here lies our sovereign lord King Charles, whose word no man relies on,
Who never said a foolish thing and never did a wise one.

Charles II had learned from his father’s mistakes not to take himself or his job too seriously. That was the background against which the Royal Society came into being.

During the nine years of civil war and the years of Cromwell’s rule that followed, upper-class Englishmen found themselves divided, isolated, and insecure. These were the landowners and merchants and men-about-town who were accustomed to running their estates and businesses and also to running the country. Many of them had been friends of the King, others were friends of Cromwell. Gribbin gives us a vignette of William Harvey, who was a friend of Charles I in the year 1642 when the war began. Charles was busy leading his troops in the first serious battle of the war at Edgehill, which ended in a draw. He left his two sons in the care of Harvey. So Harvey sat under a hedge on the battlefield with the two future kings, Charles, then aged twelve, and James, aged nine. All of them survived the battle, and it is possible that young Charles acquired from Harvey some of the interest in science that he put to good use when he became king eighteen years later. But Harvey had to pay dearly for his service to the royals. When Charles I was defeated and imprisoned, the Parliamentary government stripped Harvey of all his honors and privileges.

For others besides Harvey, science provided an escape from turmoil and insecurity. It provided a way for men possessing property and wealth to put their leisure to good use. It also provided a way for them to forget their differences, to come together and talk about questions having nothing to do with politics and theology. The group that eventually gave birth to the Royal Society started in Oxford in 1648 under the leadership of John Wilkins. Wilkins was an amateur astronomer and engineer with a secure base of operations as warden of Wadham College in Oxford. He was a personal friend of Cromwell and afterward married Cromwell’s sister.

He had published in 1641 a book with the title Mercury, or the Secret and Swift Messenger: Shewing, how a Man may with Privacy and Speed communicate his Thoughts to a Friend at any Distance. This book described a system of rapid long-range communication based on bells. Using a series of relay stations, each station containing a human bell-ringer with two bells of different pitch, messages could be coded and encrypted and transmitted over long distances at the speed of sound. In Oxford he started an “experimental philosophical club,” with emphasis on actually doing experiments rather than merely talking and writing. His own experiments were done with transparent beehives which he constructed so that he could observe in detail how the bees organized their activities. The two most important members of the club were Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke. Boyle built a chemical laboratory in Oxford, and worked hard to separate the kernel of truth from the encrustations of myth in the processes studied by alchemists. He described his experiments in The Sceptical Chymist, the first account of chemistry written from a modern point of view. Robert Hooke came to Oxford as Boyle’s paid assistant, and was enormously helpful to the group, as he had a genius for building experimental apparatus that worked. He improved the performance and reliability of air pumps, pendulum clocks, and microscopes, the tools that made experimental science possible.

While the members of Wilkins’s club were actively engaged in doing science in Oxford, another group of gentlemen were talking about science at Gresham College in London. The Oxford group were mostly Parliamentarians, the London group mostly Royalists. The London group did not contain scientists of the caliber of Boyle and Hooke, but it contained serious amateurs who had good personal contact with Charles II. One of them was Sir Robert Moray, an expert in chemistry who had spent some time with the King during his exile. After the King returned, Moray helped him to build a chemical laboratory at his palace in Whitehall, where the two of them worked together doing experiments. The diarist Samuel Pepys records that he once went with Moray, “into the King’s laboratory under his closet; a pretty place; and there saw a great many chymical glasses and things but understood none of them.” Unfortunately, history does not record which of his chemical toys the King liked to play with.

In November 1660 the time was ripe to heal the wounds of the civil war, to use the King’s genuine interest in science to bring Parliamentarians and Royalists together. A meeting was called at Gresham College in London to establish a new society combining the London and Oxford groups, with John Wilkins as chairman. The society was duly established, “for the Promoting of Experimentall Philosophy.” At a second meeting a week later, Robert Moray brought a message from the King officially approving the foundation. One year later, the King accepted his election as a fellow of the society. And in 1663 the society received the royal charter naming it “The Royal Society of London for Promoting Natural Knowledge.” Together with the charter came the Latin motto Nullius in Verba, which Gribbin unfortunately mistranslates as “Nothing in Words.” As any educated person in the seventeenth century would have known, the word nullius does not mean “nothing.” It is a genitive form meaning “of no one.” The motto is an abbreviated version of a well-known line from the Latin poet Horace: “Nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri,” or in English, “Sworn to follow the words of no master.” It is a radical statement, a declaration of intellectual independence. It means that the society will pay attention to facts and not to scholastic or political or ecclesiastical authorities. The King was in his personal life a libertarian, sharing the subversive spirit that the motto expressed.

Once the Royal Society was established with the King’s blessing, it quickly came under enormous pressure to admit noblemen and other wealthy people with no particular competence in science. The founders resisted this pressure as best they could. They were determined to maintain the core of the society as an active group of experimental scientists, while accepting a wide periphery of inactive fellows who only came to listen to lectures and provide financial support. The core of the society survived, largely due to the exertions of Robert Hooke, who served as curator of experiments for the society for more than twenty years, and kept experimental programs going in many fields. After Hooke, Halley and Newton in turn took responsibility for keeping the society active. Newton served as president for more than twenty years and missed only three of the weekly meetings. Gribbin’s account ends in 1759 when Charles Messier, an astronomer at the Paris Observatory, observed Halley’s comet return as Halley had predicted fifty-four years earlier. This event was recognized all over Europe as the final triumph of Newtonian physics.

Was the founding of the Royal Society a major turning point in the world-wide history of science, or was it only a local event in the parochial history of England? This is the question that Gribbin’s book does not answer. He mentions that the French Academy of Sciences was founded four years after the Royal Society and performs many of the same functions. In 1660 the time was evidently ripe for science to become organized on a national scale. But the French Academy was different from the Royal Society in many ways. The French Academy was a government institution, financed and controlled by the state. The scientists who belonged to it were paid civil servants. The motto Nullius in Verba was not for them. The academies of science that arose later in Berlin and St. Petersburg followed the French rather than the English model. The unique feature of the Royal Society was that it attempted to perpetuate the tradition of the seventeenth-century philosophical club, accepting the King’s blessing but maintaining freedom from his control. The Royal Society aimed to keep science in private hands, hoping that there would always be enough talented individuals with wealth and leisure, willing to devote their lives and material resources to experimental philosophy.

Inevitably, the dream that science could remain forever a Baconian brotherhood of philanthropic explorers failed. In England, as in France and other countries, science grew rapidly and soon outgrew the resources of wealthy amateurs. In England as elsewhere, most scientists became professionals and worked in universities or government laboratories. But still, the Royal Society survived and maintained its independence, and the tradition of independent amateurs making serious contributions to knowledge also survived. In the nineteenth century, Lord Rosse, who discovered spiral galaxies at his private observatory in Ireland, and Lord Rayleigh, who discovered the inert gas argon in his private laboratory in Essex, were both amateurs, and so was Charles Darwin.

The tradition set by the Royal Society has also survived in America. When Benjamin Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society at Philadelphia in 1743, he did not apply for a royal charter, but in other respects he followed the pattern set by the Royal Society. As the main business of his society he proposed, “All philosophical Experiments that let Light into the Nature of Things, tend to increase the power of Man over Matter, and multiply the Conveniencies or Pleasures of Life.” His members, like the early fellows of the Royal Society, would contribute cash to share the costs of experiments. When the US National Academy of Sciences was founded in 1863, it was given a statutory duty to advise the federal government concerning scientific questions, but it remained an independent institution with its own finances and its own administration.

Finally, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the spirit of the early Royal Society is being revived by a new breed of technocratic billionaires in America. The most famous of the new followers of Francis Bacon is Craig Venter, the biological entrepreneur who set up his own privately funded project to sequence the human genome in competition with the government human genome project, and beat the government team at their own game. After that, he equipped his private yacht with apparatus to collect microbes from the ocean and sequence their genomes in bulk, so that he can now sail around the globe and begin the sequencing of the entire biosphere of the planet. Venter calculates that if the technologies of collection and sequencing continue to improve as expected, it should be possible within thirty years to obtain a digital blueprint of all existing forms of life. Other members of the billionnaires’ club are Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of the Google Corporation, who have set out to reorganize all human knowledge so that it will be accessible to everybody. They have been so successful that it is now difficult to remember how we used to live a few years ago without Google to answer our questions.

Other young billionaires are starting private enterprises to explore and exploit space, with the aim of beating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at its own game, just as Craig Venter beat the National Institutes of Health. These private space ventures may fail totally. They have enormous obstacles to overcome, and they are unable to agree on any clearly defined objectives. But it is still possible that one or more of them will succeed. Then a new era of exploration will begin, similar to the era of exploration that brought ships from Europe to all parts of the world in the sixteenth century. The improvement of the art of navigation was one of the central concerns of the founders of the Royal Society. Their leader, John Wilkins, wrote a book in 1638 with the title The Discovery of a World in the Moone, raising the question whether a voyage to the moon might one day be feasible. If our new space venturers should ever succeed in establishing a private moon base, the founders of the Royal Society will be there with them in spirit to share the glory.


Francis Bacon & the Frozen Chicken May 31, 2007

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