A new book out by Bill Bryson looks at the history of the Royal Society (In Our Time‘s 4-part series here). Here is the description for Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society:
Edited and introduced by Bill Bryson, with contributions from Richard Dawkins, Margaret Atwood, Richard Holmes, Martin Rees, Richard Fortey, Steve Jones, James Gleick and Neal Stephenson amongst others, this beautiful, lavishly illustrated book tells the story of science and the Royal Society, from 1660 to the present. On a damp weeknight in November, 350 years ago, a dozen or so men gathered at Gresham College in London. A twenty-eight year old — and not widely famous — Christopher Wren was giving a lecture on astronomy. As his audience listened to him speak, they decided that it would be a good idea to create a Society to promote the accumulation of useful knowledge. With that, the Royal Society was born. Since its birth, the Royal Society has pioneered scientific exploration and discovery. Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Joseph Banks, Humphry Davy, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, John Locke, Alexander Fleming — all were fellows. Bill Bryson’s favourite fellow was Reverend Thomas Bayes, a brilliant mathematician who devised Bayes’ theorem. Its complexity meant that it had little practical use in Bayes’ own lifetime, but today his theorem is used for weather forecasting, astrophysics and stock market analysis. A milestone in mathematical history, it only exists because the Royal Society decided to preserve it — just in case. The Royal Society continues to do today what it set out to do all those years ago. Its members have split the atom, discovered the double helix, the electron, the computer and the World Wide Web. Truly international in its outlook, it has created modern science. ‘Seeing Further’ celebrates its momentous history and achievements, bringing together the very best of science writing. Filled with illustrations of treasures from the Society’s archives, this is a unique, ground-breaking and beautiful volume, and a suitable reflection of the immense achievements of science.
Tim Radford has a review for the Guardian:
This is a book of cerebral riches, heavy with history, to be consumed at leisure. It is also beautifully illustrated. All but one of its 22 contributors wrote specially for this anthology. Richard Holmes, fresh from his scientific history The Age of Wonder, provides new material on 18th-century balloon flights. Richard Dawkins sums up the significance of Darwin’s achievement with renewed metaphorical force. The Natural History Museum palaeontologist Richard Fortey highlights the importance of collections; Steve Jones raises some of the puzzles of biodiversity; the physicist and science fiction author Gregory Benford contemplates the enigma of time.
Every now and then, the book begins to seem like a royal variety performance: well-known acts trip on to the stage, perform a much-loved routine and disappear, to be followed by something completely different yet equally familiar. But all contributors in their different ways also remind us that the show goes on. Do we see more clearly than Hooke and Newton did three and a half centuries ago? Oliver Morton argues that we may have traded one picture of the Earth for another, but our understanding of the globe remains incomplete; Ian Stewart reminds us that for all Galileo’s astuteness, even scientists can be oblivious to the subtle mathematics that underpin their research; John Barrow considers the apparent simplicity of cosmological physics and points out that we do not observe the laws of nature, we see only the outcomes of those laws. “Outcomes are much more complicated than the laws that govern them.”
Read the full review here.