Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Nullius in verba

THEY say that 90% of all of the scientists that have ever lived are still alive. This is, to some extent, not surprising, seeing as we live in an information age with science so pivotal to industry, healthcare and natural human curiosity and endeavour. Science is now an acceptable career, no longer a pastime of the wealthy or an occupation of serendipity. Many of the great names of scientific history are no longer with us - Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein are long gone of course – but relatively speaking 90% of all the scientists who have ever lived are still alive.

So imagine the scene. It is the 28th of November, 1660, and twelve prominent natural philosophers are gathering at Gresham College after a lecture by Christopher Wren. Little do they know how important they, and the body they are to form, will be for the future of science. So oblivious are they – for how can they know of the future of science when the subject of ‘science’ has yet to be properly defined – that the opening minutes of this meeting discuss only that they shall meet every Wednesday at “three on the clock” and shall each pay an attendance fee of one shilling.

The Royal Society

The body they formed was initially entitled ’a Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning’ but just one year later, with the approval of Charles II, it was renamed The Royal Society, and this it has remained. Present at his meeting, in addition to the astronomer and architect Christopher Wren (knighted in 1673), were Robert Boyle – alchemist, chemist, physicist and author of Boyle’s law – Sir Robert Moray- first president of the Society – renowned mathematician Second Viscount William Brouncker and astronomer and mathematician John Wilkins. Quite some crowd, I am sure you will agree.

For two whole weeks this summer, I got to pretend that I too worked for the Royal Society. I was doing work experience in editorial for the journal Biology Letters, and every morning I got to walk through Trafalgar Square, part way along the Mall and into the Society’s current home in Carlton House Terrace with its marble floors and DNA-etched glass door handles. The Society has been based here since 1967, and boy, what a home. The view from the toilets, for example, takes in Westminster, Buckingham Palace, The Mall, St James' Park and the London Eye. During the second week, while the public were swarming around the Summer Science Exhibition on the lower floors, I was given the privilege of a guided tour, first around the libraries and then the archives. It was on this tour where I got to read the hand-written minutes of that fateful meeting in 1660, in one of many leather-bound books of minutes leading up to the present day.

President's Staircase

With over 70,000 titles, occupying temperature-controlled basement vaults and an entirely hidden low-ceiling floor, the Royal Society archive really is the most mesmerizing place. Firstly there are it’s own publications – the journal Philosphical Transactions of the Royal Society is the world’s oldest English-language journal, begun in 1665 as both a record of scientific achievement and to stop people bickering over who discovered what.

Further into the archives I was shown more and more fascinating documents: Flinders’ Voyage to Terra Australis, complete with maps of Van Diemen’s Land dating from 1801-03; Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, the first observation of the microscopic world, complete with highly detailed copperplate engravings and drawings of insects, cells and the eye of the fly; the first star map drawn by the first Astronomer Royal, complete with constellations. I am told that somewhere in the archive, no doubt locked up and protected by magic, is a 12th century short document on the transition between Roman numerals and Arabic characters.

Such is the surreal nature of this vast collection of scientific memorabilia that when another worker passed my guide, Joanna, and asked what was in the box she was carrying, she replied “Christopher Wren’s tongs” as if that were something normal.

Marble, Marble, Everywhere

Before having to rush off, Joanna allowed me to see the Charter book, the book that outlines the Royal Charter and the Statutes by which the Society attains them. It is a large, red leather bound clasp-sealed book of great weight, the first page containing the Royal seal and the signature of Charles II. Kept in it’s own locked box, this book contains the signature of every Royal since, non-Monarchs included, and also every fellow of the Society. Nigh on every famous British scientist has signed. Controversially, Robert Hooke defied every subsequent history book to bear his name, and signed it “Rob”.

There is so much more I could talk about – the archives are so extensive and the history of the Society so important – but I was only there for two weeks, and only in the archives for about an hour. In my element though I may have been, people had work to do, including myself, so I returned upstairs, past the exhibition visitors up to editorial on the staff-only floors. These visitors were getting to hear of the best of current scientific research, being inspired to pursue an interest in natural philosophy, but I had just stepped back in time and seen something they’d never get to see. They probably don’t even know it’s there.


Many thanks to all at the Royal Society, for the staff of Biology Letters, Proceedings A and B and everyone else in the editorial office, especially Louise, Aysha, Jen, Helen and Fiona (I know you run Google searches for Biology Letters, so you’re gonna find this eventually!). You work in an amazing place, you do a great job, and frankly, I’m jealous!

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