HarperPress £25

Seeing Further: The Story of Science & The Royal Society, ed Bill Bryson

A celebration of 350 years of our academy of learning

This beautifully produced and sumptuously illustrated book is published to mark the 350th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Society. It is designed to be "a lively, learned celebration of the Royal Society's long legacy of expanding our horizons and those of science itself". And so it is. Assembled here are some gem-like contributions, from a heady mix of FRSs (Fellow of the Royal Society), celebrity authors of fiction and non-fiction, historians of science and scientific popularisers, from Britain and the US. Richard Dawkins FRS gives a brilliantly lucid account of the steps towards a full theory of natural selection, from before Darwin to modern genetics. Ian Stewart FRS explains to us why the world in all its simplicity and complexity is fundamentally mathematical.

Richard Fortey FRS uses what can be learnt from the rarest of fossil specimens to focus our attention on the importance of collections and museums. Georgina Ferry vividly captures the scientific life-worlds of the pioneers in biology Dorothy Hodgkin, JD Bernal and the Braggs, father and son.

Margaret Atwood and Maggie Gee explore what they would call the "neurotic" face of science – drawing on our vivid imaginings and apocalyptic fears to argue that science fiction can, "by daring to look into the void", warn us against extreme interventions and help us to grapple with disturbing warnings for the future. Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and president of the RS, goes beyond these fictional explorations, and boldly proposes an intergalactic future which barely resembles the present at all, and in which human beings may not figure.

There are contributions which engage with the early history of the Royal Society, and the emergence of modern science. Bill Bryson's introduction, and James Gleick's and Neal Stephenson's encounters with the wonderfully rich resources of the society's archives may not increase the store of knowledge about those early years, but they are wonderfully revealing of those authors' idiosyncratic interests and preoccupations. With three such explorers, why worry whether the story is quite right? (I confess that my own admiration for Stephenson's novel Quicksilver, which captures the 17th-century scientific world of Hooke, Wren and Boyle as vividly as any historical work I know of, made me long for his fictional voice here.)

There are also some gloriously eccentric excursions into the history of science by celebrated historians, who are allowed to pursue a curious episode of their own choosing. Simon Schaffer gives us a riveting account of the Royal Society's attempts to decide on the efficacy and design of lightning conductors, after lightning struck a workhouse for the rural poor near Norwich in 1781, causing severe damage in spite of its state-of-the-art lightning-rods. Residents gave vivid accounts of fireballs, sheets of flame, explosions and smashed windows, but were they to be trusted? Richard Holmes, winner of the Royal Society's prize for Science Books in 2009, looks at "ballomania" in the 1780s – the craze for hot-air balloons, and the flirting with danger by those who embarked in such non-dirigible craft – and reveals that the then president of the society, Joseph Banks, took a closer interest in them than might be expected, given his public expressions of disapproval.

As a fitting memorial to the Royal Society and all it stands for, it seems presumptuous even to consider asking whether this motley collection adds up to more than the sum of its parts. This beautiful book showcases distinguished scientists making difficult concepts exciting and accessible, and eloquent narrators diverting us with page-turning tales, all in their own distinctive ways. That, I think, is probably quite enough.

'Going Dutch' (HarperCollins), by Lisa Jardine, won the 2009 Cundill International Prize in History

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?