The Blagger's Guide to: The Royal Society
The cultural event where science and literature converge
Sunday 11 November 2012
The 25th annual Royal Society Young People's Book Prize will be awarded this Thursday. This year's shortlist comprises: How the Weather Works, by Christiane Dorion, illustrated by Beverley Young (Templar); Out of This World: All the Cool Bits About Space, by Clive Gifford (Buster Books); Plagues, Pox and Pestilence, by Richard Platt, illustrated by John Kelly (Kingfisher); Science Experiments, by Robert Winston and Ian Graham (Dorling Kindersley); See Inside Inventions: An Usborne Flap Book, by Alex Frith, illustrated by Colin King (Usborne); and The Magic of Reality, by Richard Dawkins, illustrated by Dave McKean (Bantam). The Young People's Book Prize is for books aimed at readers up to 14. The Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books (for adults) will be awarded on 26 November.
The Royal Society, founded in 1660, has an illustrious history in both literature and science, and the prizes have helped to continue that: Margaret Drabble's The Sea Lady was inspired by her experience of chairing the judging panel in 2003. The book opens with a first-person narrative from the chair of a natural history book prize speaking at the award event.
The Royal Society's literary connections emerged soon after its founding, although not always to the organisation's advantage. When Thomas Shadwell's play The Virtuoso was first performed in 1676, audiences recognised that the character of Sir Nicholas Gimcrack was based upon Robert Hooke, the Royal Society's first paid experimental scientist. "Damned dogs ... People almost pointed," the mortified philosopher noted.
Shadwell and his fellow satirist Jonathan Swift found rich pickings in the society's published accounts of experiments. The organisation's materialistic means of progressing knowledge was lampooned mercilessly in Gulliver's Travels, in which the Academy of Laputa (aka the Royal Society) attempts to extract sunshine from cucumbers.
The later 18th century saw several literary figures becoming fellows of the Royal Society themselves, notably the geologist Rudolf Erich Raspe, better known for the tall tales told by his fictitious Baron Munchausen. Regrettably, Raspe proved just as unreliable as his creation and was kicked out of the society once it was discovered that he had embezzled from the collections of his former employer. The novelist John Cleland presented books to the Royal Society – alas, not the racy Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, popularly known as Fanny Hill, but his treatises on the Celtic languages.
Alfred Tennyson was also a fellow of the Royal Society. He presented "In Memoriam" to the society's librarian, by whose account Tennyson would climb out of the Royal Society library window to smoke his pipe on the roof.
Several of H G Wells' literary creations are fictional fellows of the Royal Society, most notably the Time Traveller in his 1895 book, The Time Machine. Following Wells, versions of the Royal Society and its fellows have prospered in science fiction, historical novels and alternative histories. Well-known examples are Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, featuring the psychiatric work of W H R Rivers with Siegfried Sassoon and others; Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle, reimagining Samuel Pepys, Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin; and Susan Sontag's The Volcano Lover, telling the story of Sir William Hamilton.
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