In the first article in this issue, Michael Hunter draws an important distinction between the diverse private beliefs of early Fellows of the Royal Society and the impact of the Society as a corporate body. He does so in the context of his argument that whereas a number of early Fellows were sympathetic to at least some of the principles of magic and other preternatural phenomena, the effect of the Society as a whole was inexorably to undermine such beliefs. What the Society did was not to prescribe any particular view with regard to magic or even to engage systematically with the investigation of it, but rather to set standards of debate that had the effect of marginalizing superstition and the uncritical examination of evidence in general.
It was just such standards that won the day not only within the Society but also on the public stage. That said, we cannot be sure how far the Royal Society's promotion of rational debate was responsible for the change of opinion on the plausibility of magic in society at large. And that point is relevant to our own day as well. For now, as in the seventeenth century, it is difficult to gauge precisely the influence of a small, elite body such as the Royal Society as an opinion former. One thing that can be said is that the Society has never been unmindful of its capacity to promote an engagement with the implications of cutting-edge science among the wider non-scientific community. Lord Rees makes the point in his Anniversary Address for 2010. Commenting on the quality of current debate about science, he points to the public's hazy command of notions of risk and probability and expresses concern about the dangerously entrenched misconceptions that result on matters as diverse and crucial for our future as climate change and population control. Here we seem to be facing an indifference that goes with a perception that any consequences that there might be for the planet and human well-being are remote in time or place. Such attitudes are understandable but especially disturbing when ‘low-probability high-consequence’ events, such as lethal pandemics, are in question.
Of course, with regard to public opinion there is only so much that the Royal Society can do. Even those with the ears to hear may not wish to hear. But the voice of science is getting louder. The 350th anniversary celebrations did much to bring scientific issues into greater prominence in the media. And, on that score, the momentum of 2010 shows every sign of continuing. If the progress is to be consolidated, however, the Society cannot be expected to act alone. The British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Wellcome Trust are just two bodies with similar commitments to promoting the public engagement with science, technology and medicine. And the article in this issue by Sir John Meurig Thomas reminds us of another important ally, the Royal Institution (RI), which has been working to spread an understanding of science for more than 200 years. Among its best-known vehicles in this task are the Friday Evening Discourses, which Michael Faraday launched in 1826 and which continue to this day. The distinction of those who have given discourses and worked in the RI's laboratories over the years is well known. But Sir John (who was Director of the RI from 1986 to 1991) develops an unusual perspective on the choice of lecturers and collaborators in research by showing how often and how astutely successive Directors—he writes in particular about James Dewar, the Braggs father and son, and Eric Rideal—‘picked winners’, men and women whose true eminence had yet to be fully recognized.
Last year's celebrations very properly focused attention as much on the future as they did on the past of the Society. An exciting project for the future is the establishment of the Kavli Royal Society International Centre at Chicheley Hall, a fine Georgian country house in Buckinghhamshire whose history Peter Collins and Stefanie Fischer trace in their article ‘The story of Chicheley Hall’. They recount a story of ‘intricate genealogy, malicious wills, a modicum of debauchery’ (most of it rooted, reassuringly, in a rather distant past). Other articles pursue less eye-catching aspects of history. Matthew Walker's study of the architectural history of the Monument to the Great Fire of London explores the role of Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke in the design of one of London's most celebrated landmarks. As Walker shows, Wren and Hooke worked together in accordance with the formal remits of the offices that they held: Wren as Royal Surveyor, Hooke as City Surveyor. The important point, for Walker, is that there was little in the association between Wren and Hooke to suggest that they carried over to their architectural work the ideal of informal collaboration that was emerging at the core of the new experimental philosophy. Building on that observation, Walker presents Hooke as having by far the greater responsibility for the design, while Wren's role was predominantly advisory. In pointing to the ‘limits of collaboration’, Walker has an eye on a secondary literature that, in his view, has passed too easily from the evidence of the undoubted friendship between Wren and Hooke to the unjustified corollary that they worked as equal partners in their architectural endeavours.
Katy Barrett also enters a field in which there has been keen debate, that of John Harrison's contribution to the determination of longitude. Harrison has conventionally been regarded as a poorly educated provincial clockmaker who had to struggle to win recognition for his method, based on his ingenious marine timekeepers, in the face of the sustained prejudice or misapprehension of his work on the part of the elite Board of Longitude. But what seems at first sight to be a simple conflict between a provincial artisan and the oppressive establishment of eighteenth-century London emerges from Barrett's article as a more complex affair, especially with regard to two Acts of Parliament that were passed in 1765. The two Acts bore crucially on Harrison's claim to the prizes upon which the Board had been called to adjudicate in 1714. In the passing of them, as Barrett shows, the parliamentarian and Treasurer of the Navy William Wildman, Viscount Barrington, played a crucial role, one that has not been fully described before this.
Barrett's argument draws on a small collection of papers, left by Barrington, which the National Maritime Museum purchased in 2003. Her use of this material underlines the importance of archival resources if we are to challenge historiographical stereotypes and elucidate the fine structure of scientific debate and the complex processes of decision-making of the kind that resulted in various monetary awards to Harrison, although never the prize. That reflection should make us mindful of the heritage of documentation that the scientists of today will bequeath to the historians of tomorrow. Here, the Royal Society has a leading contribution to make. Its library and archives are long-established resources, and the recently established Centre for History of Science, under the directorship of Peter Collins, is now adding further weight to the Society's support for historical research. With regard to the science of our own day, the Society will continue to enrich its paper-based archives and to record and evaluate the work of deceased Fellows in the annual Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. But documentation in the twenty-first century is raising new challenges. How and to what extent should we conserve electronic material, for example? And what might we learn from an accumulating body of oral histories? In this International Year of Chemistry, it is appropriate to mention the engagement with these questions on the part of chemists and historians of chemistry. Soon after this editorial is published, an international symposium on ‘Renewing the heritage of chemistry in the 21st century’ (website at http://chmc2011.fr/?lang=en) will be taking place in Paris, between 21 and 24 June 2011, under the aegis of the Commission on the History of Modern Chemistry of the Division of History of Science and Technology of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science. Major themes to be discussed will include the preservation of the databases and other computer-generated documents in current use, sources that by their sheer volume threaten to swamp depositories and archivists alike. There will also be discussions about the laboratories and other key sites, academic and industrial, in which chemistry has been or is being pursued. How far should these be restored and made accessible not only to scholars but also to the general public, and what might historians expect to learn from them?
Chemistry, of course, is not the only science to be facing such challenges with regard to its heritage. And the communities of chemists and historians of chemistry are not the only ones to be turning their attention to the responsibilities of today's active scientists for tomorrow's collective memory. Prominent among the institutions with essential contributions to make are the national academies and the now rather numerous historical groups working within disciplinary societies. So, as with its work for the public understanding of science, the Royal Society will not find itself labouring alone. Yet it will necessarily have a special role as we live through the gathering revolution in archives and data preservation, and as we mould the heritage of science in an era transformed by the escalating sophistication not only of the various sciences but also of techniques of communication. With so many interested parties, the key to progress is dialogue. It is encouraging to see the first signs that such a dialogue is getting under way.
- This Journal is © 2011 The Royal Society