ALLEN LANE £20 £18 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

The Fellowship: the story of a revolution by John Gribbin

But the greatest of these revolutions was the one that occurred in science. Its story has often and well been told to general readerships before, not least by John Gribbin, whose lucid pen and narrative skill make him a leader in the field of popular science writing. Here he tells the story again in a different way: by describing the lives of the men (they were all men, a fact familiarly to be explained by historical sexism, not brain physiology) who made that revolution happen - and principally, the men who variously inspired, founded and were early Fellows of the Royal Society.

Science did not come into existence when the Royal Society was given its charter by Charles II in the first flush of the Restoration. The method of true scientific enquiry, observation and experiment, had begun to be applied in the preceding century, and it had a great exponent in William Gilbert (1544-1603) who discovered why compass needles always align north-south, a great advocate in Francis Bacon (1561-1626), whose writings about scientific method were quoted as the inspiration for the Royal Society by its founders, and great exemplars in Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the first all-round scientist and mathematician of the modern era, and William Harvey (1578-1657), discoverer of the circulation of the blood.

The flowering of the influence and example of these men came in the generation after their time, in the astonishing decades following the Royal Society's founding. It resides principally in the work of three scientists of giant stature: Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke and Edmond Halley. Gribbin devotes most attention to these three, providing short biographies of each with a sketch of their scientific achievements, in his highly readable trademark style.

But of course neither the heralds of the revolution - Gilbert, Bacon, Galileo and Harvey - nor the giants of the early Royal Society just named, operated in a vacuum. Accordingly Gribbin gives us an Aubrey-like Brief Lives of a number of the savants and enthusiasts who were involved in the founding of the Royal Society, some of them enthusiasts of science whose contributions did not consist in actual discoveries but in subventions of funds and influence at Court. Gribbin rescues their forgotten names and does them justice.

A theme throughout the book is that the keys to scientific advance were the application of mathematics, and above all the experimental method, in which predictions are deduced from hypotheses and then subjected to rigorous experimental testing. The prevailing orthodoxy beforehand had rested on an unhappy marriage between the "a priori" technique of speculating about the world by reason alone, and the constraints of theology and revelation. The admixture of theology meant that when empirical evidence controverted the deliverances of Aristotelian and Catholic orthodoxy, it was the empirical evidence which was rejected. The truly revolutionary thing about the rise of science was its revolt against this intellectually lunatic dispensation, by asserting the priority of observable facts over antique superstitions.

Gribbin is rightly insistent about the importance of the experimental method in the scientific revolution, but this leads him to make one mistake, common now among some contemporary scientists (Lewis Wolpert and Steve Jones among them) who, just as irritated by the vacuities of contemporary "postmodernism" as by the cardinals who put Galileo on trial for saying that the earth moves, lump all "philosophy" indiscriminately together. They thus read the fierce struggle of early science to free itself from the stifling orthodoxy of Aristotelianism and theology to be a contest between science as such and philosophy as such. This overlooks the fact that the empiricist philosophers of the 17th century (chief among them Hobbes and Locke) provided the rationale for the experimental method, and organised the intellectual demolition of armchair "rationalism". The scientific revolution was in part the success of one emerging wing of philo- sophy; it was not for nothing that it began by being called "experimental philosophy".

Gribbin's focus is squarely on the Royal Society and its luminaries, so it is not a complaint to say that his picture of the emergence of science in the 17th century is incomplete. It is however interesting to note that voluntary congregations of like-minded enquirers have often had a major impact on intellectual history. In a way that somewhat parallels the effect of the Royal Society on science and therefore all subsequent history, the group of brilliant minds that collected around Marin Mersenne in Paris in the 1620s (sometimes known as the "Libertines" for the freedom of their thought, not their morals) had a great impact on subsequent science too - Fermat, Pascal, Gassendi, Descartes and others. Their collective story has been told in scholarship, but not yet to a general readership; perhaps Gribbin can be persuaded to bring his eloquence to the task.

For Gribbin the true heroes of the tale are Gilbert, Hooke and Halley. Newton of course goes without saying, but he was not the most pleasant of human beings, and he owed more to Hooke's discoveries than he liked to admit. The mini-biography of Halley is a revelation: he was a vitally talented and interesting man, the most adventurous and well-travelled of the Royal Society's early pantheon: he deserves a full biography of his own. Here again, perhaps Gribbin can be persuaded to turn his accomplished pen to the task.

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.

    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

    Scandi crush: Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    Th 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
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
    France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

    Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

    Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
    'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

    Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

    Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
    Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

    Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

    New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need
    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Its use is always wrong and, despite CIA justifications post 9/11, the information obtained from it is invariably tainted, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Rebranding Christmas: More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence

    Rebranding Christmas

    More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence. They are missing the point, and we all need to grow up