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Seeing Further, Edited by Bill Bryson

This year the Royal Society celebrates its 350th birthday. The "Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge" was founded on 28 November 1660, when a dozen "ingenious and curious gentlemen" met at Gresham College, London, after a lecture by Christopher Wren, the 28-year-old Professor of Astronomy, and decided to found "a Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning." Among the signatories of that historic memorandum were Wren, chemist Robert Boyle, clergyman and polymath John Wilkins, Sir Robert Moray, and mathematician William, Viscount Brouncker.

Today it is the longest-lived scientific society in the world and this superb collection of essays, extensively illustrated, is a fitting tribute. It has had 8,200 members, including Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Ernest Rutherford and Francis Crick: people who radically transformed the way we see the world. As Bill Bryson rightly says, "this isn't just the most venerable learned society in the world, it is the finest club."

There had been earlier scientific societies such as Prince Federico Cesi's Academy of Linceans in Italy. But the Royal Society is without doubt the most influential. In 1665 it began the tradition of publishing scientific research. Its Philosophical Transactions is the oldest scientific journal in continuous publication. From the outset, under its German-born editor Henry Oldenburg, the journal was truly international, as was the Society itself. As Bryson puts it, the Society "created modern science". The original members gathered on Wednesday afternoons in Gresham College where they would observe experiments – conducted by Robert Hooke – and engage in debates. "They loved to talk", says James Gleick in his essay on their limitless curiosity. Anything could be discussed apart from God or politics.

Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society (1667) describes how the Fellows used "a close, naked, natural way of speaking". Exactitude ("Mathematical plainness") was their goal. During one meeting, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, produced the horn of a unicorn. Reputedly, a circle drawn with such a treasure would trap a spider until it died. True to the Society's motto "Nullius in verba" (take nobody's word for it), this had to be tested: "A circle was made with powder of a unicorn's horn, and a spider set in the middle of it, but it immediately ran out."

Seeing Further is a weighty tome (although regrettably with no index), but its scale is appropriate for a book celebrating the giants of science across 350 years. CP Snow would be pleased to see that the contributors include both scientists (Richard Dawkins, John Barrow, Steve Jones, Richard Fortey) and novelists (Neal Stephenson, Rebbecca Goldstein, Maggie Gee).

Margaret Atwood somewhat cheekily suggests that the esteemed Fellows may have inspired the archetype of the mad scientist. She traces its origins back to Swift's Gulliver's Travels, in which the researchers of the Grand Academy of Lagado engage in hare-brained quests to, among other things, extract sunbeams from cucumbers. In a fascinating essay on the 18th-century controversy over lightning rods, Simon Schaffer reveals parallels with today's scientific debates (MMR, global warming) in which dissent among scientists has provoked consternation among the public. He concludes that "we should not fear if Fellows fight".

It is disappointing that it took the Royal Society some 285 years to elect the first women Fellows. As Georgina Ferry points out, the "tiny, courageous and independent" Kathleen Lonsdale "dealt with glass ceilings by refusing to see them". Ian Stewart explores two mathematical Fellows – Newton and George Boole – and argues that our culture continues to undervalue the contribution of mathematicians: "Take the hidden mathematics away, and today's world would fall to pieces."

This volume is a timely reminder of the vital role played by the sciences, and particularly by the Royal Society, in our lives. It is, as Bryson says, "the scientific conscience of the nation".

PD Smith's 'Doomsday Men' is published by Penguin