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

A celebration of 350 years of our academy of learning
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The Independent Culture

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