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
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas