Lisa Jardine: When science wasn't all theory and experiment

From a masterclass held by the director of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at Queen Mary, the University of London
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The Independent Online

Accounts of the early history of the Royal Society have traditionally tended to concentrate on its importance for the development of the physical sciences, mathematics and astronomy. Until recently, a large body of the Royal Society's early letters have remained substantially unstudied, neglecting the historical contribution of the society and its early corresponding members in pharmaceuticals, medicine, plant-breeding, etc.

Many of these early letters are very long; the material is eclectic and doesn't distinguish between pure science as we would recognise it today, and other more general observations. Post-Newton, science was about grand theories and experimentation, but these early letters simply report on day-to-day interests and occurrences.

In a letter from St George Ashe, at Trinity College Dublin, to the secretary of the Royal Society, Francis Aspen, in 1685, Ashe reports on a girl with horns, a man with a tertian squint, the invention of a new alphabet, and that the River Shannon had been observed to seemingly run backwards after a period of heavy rainfall.

It is interesting how divorced these letters are from the traditional idea/image of a scientist. Christopher Wren writes to Lord Brouncker, president of the Royal Society, responding to Brouncker's request for experiments with which to impress the King. Wren argues that any such experiments need to be "showy" circus experiments, dismissing chemistry as too dirty or tedious, anatomy as too sordid, and astronomical instruments as "of interest only to astronomers".

These are definitely personal, not business letters. In the past, it is the excerpts that refer to scientific matters than have been highlighted, but often the background material offers more of an insight. It was important for individuals to establish personal relationships with the society, increasing the likelihood of publication in the formal "Philosophical Transactions". Personal elements, such as invitations to dinner, remind us that the Royal Society was essentially a social dining club.