November 30th, 2009


Great Moments in Science

The Royal Society, entering its 350th anniversary year, is celebrating with a new website of 60 groundbreaking science articles. (Naturally, they published them all in the first place.) The first few articles may seem ridiculously obvious to the modern reader; the fact that dogs need air to breathe comes as no shock to us. But then, we've had the benefit of 350 years of science, instead of more than a thousand years of appealing to theology or ancient philosophers for explanations of the natural world.

The Royal Society was formed in 1660, just after the accession of Charles II. He became the society's official patron, and his backing offered them powerful protection. In those days the scientific method of experimentation was not widely accepted. Instead, physicians and scientists appealed to authority. If Aristotle said something, it must be true, even if it was demonstrably false. His claim that males have more teeth than females could have been readily disproven merely by looking into a few mouths.

But opening a mouth requires an open mind, and the few people possessing those found them dangerous. Only a few years earlier Galileo had been tried by the Inquisition for spreading the heretical idea that the earth was not the center of the solar system. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest. He was lucky not to suffer the fate of Giordano Bruno, a scientist who was burned at the stake in 1600 for heresy.

Over the decades and centuries, the Royal Society published papers on every branch of science, from physics to medicine to astronomy. Some of the papers on the web site include Isaac Newton on the physics of white light, discussions of inoculation against smallpox, and an inquiry into whether the youthful Mozart was a true prodigy or a short adult. (Prodigy.) Every article is represented by a red dot placed on a timeline that also shows other important events in western history. Mouse over the red dots to get a brief commentary and images. The silver dots show contemporary events.

The final article linked on the site has an ironic ring. It's James Lovelock's paper on fighting global warming--a scourge resulting from heedless use of advances in science. There is no question that scientists have been incredibly wrong at times; a glance into the history of medicine makes that instantly clear. Yet if there is hope for humanity, it lies in science and the willingness to keep thinking, testing, experimenting, finding new ways to do things.

It might conceivably be possible to care about science without revering the Royal Society, just as a baseball fan may not care about Cooperstown, but it's unlikely. I take my hat off to the men and women of the Royal Society and to the merry monarch, Charles II, who could so easily have driven it underground. May the Royal Society continue to flourish for centuries more.