The Fellowship: the story of a revolution by John Gribbin

By A. C. Grayling
Tuesday 30 April 2013 03:40

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.

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