I give thanks to my reliable old friend who regularly passes me Christmas gifts he knows I will enjoy reading – and this one is no exception. It might not be to everyone’s taste but to a reader of historical biography, this was manna from heaven.
Gribbins is man with very extensive scientific and writing chops of the highest degree. I confess to having read none of his work previously though it stretches from top flight astronomy and astrophysics through climate change to quantum physics. He is one of the best popular writers on all aspects of science and he has chosen here to deliver a wonderfully easy to read insightful view into the predecessors and the founders of the British Royal Society.
This could be potentially deadening stuff but Gribbin’s sure and comfortable grip of his material navigates through his love of scientific method and the explanatory role of Mathematics. It is probably lost on many readers today that the derivation and meaning of the word Mathematics is focussed on the concept of learning and when combined with the Greek approach to analysing, theorising and understanding the real world is the foundation of what became Natural Philosophy and is today largely Physics. It was unfortunate that the dead hand of the Church sidelined this form of inquiry for at least a thousand years and erected significant defences against any attempts to debunk what is now readily comprehended as hokum.
Gribbins selects a series of key persons who contributed to the revival of the scientific method as it is understood today and the role of Mathematics in developing the explanatory concepts of people like Newton and later Einstein. Fear not, he presents the absolute minimum of math and confines himself to readily understood concepts such as explaining how and why the planets have elliptical orbits and also those of the comets. (what would Newton have though of landing a piggy-backing viewing platform on a piece of matter hurtling through space!)
Three key pioneers presented are William Gilbert with his early work on magnetism, Francis Bacon’s theorising on scientific method and William Harvey’s work on the circulation of blood. Gribbins does not see these men in isolation and pays respect to others in Italy, France, German and the Netherlands who contributed. Integral to this book has to be musings over the political, social and intellectual environment that occurred in late Tudor and Jacobean times with the Puritan interregnum. The tenacity of men who lived and worked through those times was remarkable as was the frequent somewhat humble beginnings of their families. Aristocracy is the exception here though the return of Charles II from an atmosphere more conducive to a fashionable sense of inquiry was certainly helpful in promoting the infancy of the Royal Society.
Later in the book, Gribbin spends more time on Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke and Edmond Halley (the comet!). I found the biographical background to all of these fascinating. I knew the basics on Newton previously but had somehow missed out on his Arianism and refusal to take a final communion. Gribbins touches lightly on his possible mental condition (somewhere on the Autism spectrum) and the possibility of his (at least) potential homosexuality with at least two partners.
The contributions of Hooke are well honoured though my favourite has to be Edmond Halley. I had no idea of what a magnificent spirit this man must have had. I had no idea that his spread of interests were as wide as they were and that he ‘captained’ his own Royal navy ship on journeys of scientific endeavour. What a character!
I found this an exciting work underlining the role of individuals who have encountered a range of barriers put in their way by human investment in blind prejudice and personal enmity. It is a more than a little saddening to look out on a modern world where the dead hand of so many of these influences still hold sway in human minds.