Books: Schools for scandal

Ambition and skullduggery dogged the early days of modern science. Ingenious Pursuits: building the scientific revolution by Lisa Jardine Little, Brown, pounds 20, 444pp
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In 1675 the foundation stone of the Greenwich Observatory was laid. The observatory was to house telescopes and clocks to make an accurate record of the night skies. The place was equipped, at his own expense, by Sir Jonas Moore, a brick wall with a painted line built to represent zero meridian, and John Flamsteed appointed as royal astronomer. Everyone waited for the revolutionary astronomy charts which Flamsteed would produce.

And waited. Flamsteed said that "it might be better to forbear till the spring that I might have more time to consider them". That was in 1675. Everyone waited. In 1677 Flamsteed was still not ready. In 1679 the charts were promised for the press but all that emerged from Flamsteed at Greenwich was a single copy which was kept private.

Sir Jonas Moore died, still waiting for the tables that he had sponsored, and it took Sir Isaac Newton to insist that the charts should be produced and published. But Newton was the last man that Flamsteed would oblige.

Newton might be the incoming president of the Royal Society, but he was a scientific rival. He wanted the tables to prove his own theory of planetary movements, and Flamsteed doubted that Newton would give him the credit for years of meticulous observation and measurements. He trusted Newton with a single copy of the manuscript charts, and Newton legged with it to the printers without the author's consent.

Newton argued that, since Flamsteed's salary was paid for by the public purse, his work must be in the public domain. Flamsteed replied that the equipment used to make the observations was his own, and he recalled and destroyed the unsold remaining 300 copies of his charts.

This story - of rivalry, theft, and trickery on projects which, ostensibly scientific, are in fact driven by national expansion and commercial profits - is typical of the history of science as told by Lisa Jardine in this lively account. She traces the rise of the Royal Society, with its squabbles and rivalries, the science that its members worked on, the money that they made, their blind spots and their moments of stunning creativity. In Jardine's version the 17th and 18th-century world is a bustling rich exchange, a continuous trade of ideas and information and secrets, not just in the coffee shops of London where people are learning how to drink Sir John Sloane's new import of chocolate, but across national boundaries - even across the boundaries of countries at war. More than one scientist in this story has his data impounded and is accused of espionage as the scientific community insists on writing and travelling across a Europe at war.

The background of warring and deeply rivalrous emerging European nations is the spur for many of these scientific discoveries. The importance of learning how to measure longitude was vital to an expansionist Europe, which was seeking new markets beyond the limits of the known world. Accurate surveying and map-making was essential for countries which were preparing for war, and to those hoping to map the new world.

Also, there was an obsessive fascination with new things: whether drawn from inside the body like the gravel seen with the newly invented microscope in the scientist's own urine, or collected from faraway Virginia, China or the Far East.

And there was a theme, perhaps less understandable for the modern reader, which survived from the earlier experiments in alchemy. Serious scientists were still looking for the Philosopher's Stone which might turn everything into gold, or for the secret of eternal life. But why not? If the dust of black pepper dissolved in water might yield little wriggling animaculae, who knows what else might be found?

It is this excitement and sense of wonder which Jardine describes with such sympathy. She is detailed and delightfully partisan on the heroes and villains of the scientific community, retelling the gossip of the day and the wild accusations of chicanery as if they were now.

But perhaps the greatest charm for the reader is the richness of the detail of this account. The history of women scientists, for example: the entrepreneurial explorer Maria Merian, who supported herself and her two daughters by drawing plants and insects and ventured to Surinam. to collect specimens, or Maria Winkelmann, who worked as an astronomer alongside her husband at the Berlin Royal Academy of Sciences but failed to be appointed in her own right because of the precedent that would be set. These are stories which could make histories in their own right, and Jardine tells just enough to inspire curiosity.

Delightful, too, are the unexpected connections. Two amateur astronomers, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, were sent by the Royal Society as part of a large project to observe a transit of Venus from widely spaced points around the globe.

Charles and Jeremiah were to go to Sumatra but came under fire from a French frigate which left 11 men dead and their ship damaged. They offered to observe the planet from the comfortingly closer country of Turkey, but the Royal Society was uncompromising: "Your declining... at this critical juncture, when it is too late to supply your Places, cannot fail to bring an indelible scandal upon your character and probably end in your utter ruin".

With this encouragement, the two nervous astronomers were driven on; but at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa they finally rebelled. They learned that the French had captured Bencoolen in Sumatra and so they scrambled ashore and defiantly announced that they would make their observations from there.

Despite this initial reluctance to complete the job, the two men went on to survey in North America and drew the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, perhaps the most significant in all America: the Mason-Dixon line, north of which American slaves became free.

This is a beautifully illustrated book. The early microscope drawings were enjoyed as works of art at the time of their first publication, and we can still admire them for their miniaturist delights 300 years on. There has been a small muddle in that many of the colour illustrations are duplicates of the monochrome versions, and there are moments where the narrative also is repetitive. But for any reader with an interest in the period, or in science, this accessible history is a genuine delight which completely justifies Jardine's thesis that " the scientist, like the artist is one of us".

Philippa Gregory's latest novel is "Virgin Earth" (HarperCollins)