Charles Darwin and the evolution of species by natural selection continue to be in the public eye. On the one hand, there was wide and very positive publicity in the popular as well as the scientific press around the world in response to the opening online of the complete works of Charles Darwin. But on the other hand, the battle continues against what Robert May in his last Presidential Address termed ‘a belief system masquerading as scientific scepticism’, referring to the so-called ‘alternative science of Intelligent Design’ fabricated to question Darwinian evolution. While historians of science can do little to counter such ideas, the history of science has an important role in preserving for future generations an ordered and objective account of the development of scientific thought in the context of, but not wholly as a result of, its social and political framework. In this issue we have three items related either to Charles Darwin or to the evolution of species; two of these are articles and the third is a report on the online Darwin archive.
In biographies of Darwin, mention is always made of the fact that he suffered from ill health during most of his life. There exists an extensive literature on the possible causes of his illness, among which are speculations suggesting Chagas' disease, lactose intolerance or various psychiatric conditions. In his autobiography and in many of his letters Darwin draws attention to his health problems. Being an acute observer of Nature, he was also an acute observer of his own state of health. Much is thus to be found in his writings of the symptoms of his illness, which lasted some 40 years, although his health greatly improved during the last 10 years of his life. In the article presented here, Fernando Orrego and Carlos Quintana argue that the most likely cause of Darwin's ill health was Crohn's disease, on the basis that this seems to give the best explanation of the symptoms and would also be consistent with their lessening with age, something characteristic of this condition.
Richard Dawkins once remarked that the text of his book The selfish gene was in fact no more than ‘a large footnote to the title’! Although it is certainly true that the title struck a chord in conservative social policies in the Britain of the 1980s, the book was also an important step in the popularization of science. For the author it led, some 20 years later, to his giving up his Readership in Zoology to become the first holder of the Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. The year 2006 marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of the first edition of The selfish gene and that of the third (anniversary) edition. The basic text remains almost unchanged from 1976 but in the 2nd edition (1989) two new chapters, extensive footnotes and an enlarged bibliography were added. In her article on the 30th anniversary of The selfish gene, Soraya de Chadarevian discusses the book, its origin, public reception and subsequent success, as an object of academic study. She uses the material that has now become available (from the routine opening of the archives for 30-year-old papers) from the production files of the Oxford University Press. She ends her article by commenting that the public view of science is now rather more critical, with the result that this is having an effect on the way in which scientists popularize their work.
Cromwell Fleetwood Varley FRS was an eminent Victorian electrical engineer who became a business partner of William Thomson in the design and production of telegraphic instruments used in the transatlantic cables of the late 1860s. Also a convinced spiritualist, he was one among many Victorians, including such eminent scientists such as Augustus de Morgan FRS and Alfred Russel Wallace FRS, who sought to use their scientific skills in demonstrating the reality of spiritualist phenomena. Among Varley's interests was, not surprisingly, the so-called spiritual telegraph through which distant beings could supposedly communicate directly with each other. He took every opportunity offered to him to use electrical instruments to try and detect the unknown forces apparently present during spiritualist séances. The electrical discharges observed in rarefied gases were also of great interest to him, and he photographed many different discharges in Geissler tubes. The aim was to use photography to detect the manifestations of the so-called ‘od’ force postulated by the German industrial chemist Karl von Reichenbach in the late 1840s. This was supposed to be imperceptible to all but a small number of sensitive individuals who were able to see a multi-coloured luminous aura surrounding certain objects. Richard Noakes, in his article on Varley, electrical discharges and Victorian spiritualism, recounts the extensive work undertaken by Varley and others in their quest to provide a scientific foundation for spiritualism and places it all in the context of Victorian attitudes to science as the means to explore the unknown. Richard Noakes is the current holder of the jointly funded British Academy–Royal Society Postdoctoral Fellowship in the History of Science at Cambridge University.
In 1908, the youngest son of Karl Wittgenstein, a rich Austrian steel magnate, moved from Berlin, where he had been studying mechanical engineering, to Manchester to study aeronautics. It had been foreseen that after a suitable preparation Ludwig would follow in his father's footsteps to be an engineer and enter the family firm, the biggest and most successful steel firm in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In Manchester, the young Ludwig Wittgenstein became interested in engines to power the rapidly developing flying machines because it had become well recognized that one of the keys to successful heavier-than-air flight was the power-to-weight ratio of the engine. One of the results of his aeronautical researches at Manchester was a patent in 1912 for a novel airscrew driven by blade-tip jets. It also resulted in an increasing interest in mathematics and their logical foundations. After a visit to the mathematician and philosopher Gottlob Frege, Wittgenstein went to Cambridge to meet Bertrand Russell, whom he sufficiently impressed that in 1912, on Russell's advice, he abandoned engineering and moved to Cambridge to study logic. In his paper on Wittgenstein's aeronautical work, Ian Lemco examines his engineering aspirations and discusses Wittgenstein's novel proposals for a jet-driven propeller in the light of future work.
John ‘Longitude’ Harrison became well known to the twentieth-century general public through the best-selling book Longitude by Dava Sobel. Despite his fame and undoubted genius, there existed no public memorial to him or his work until 24 March 2006, when the Duke of Edinburgh unveiled a memorial to Harrison in Westminster Abbey. In their short report, John Taylor and Arnold Wolfendale recount something of Harrison's inventive genius, explaining how together with the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers it was possible to arrange for the Westminster memorial and the exhibition of Harrison's work that was on show both at the Abbey and a little later at the Royal Society.
In a second report, John van Wyhe and Antranig Basman comment on the reception of the online Darwin Archive and future plans.
After a book review and news from the Royal Society Library this issue ends with the text of the President's Address given at the Anniversary Meeting of the Society held on 30 November 2006.
The plates from the Royal Society's archives in this issue relate to the Maull photographic portrait collection.
- © 2007 The Royal Society