To say that science has many faces is a trite statement of the obvious. But it is that multiplicity of faces that makes science's past such a rich resource for historical research. The contributions to this issue reinforce the point, underlining the diversity both of the activities that go to make up the scientific enterprise and of the challenges that historians face in charting its complex course. That we can no longer be content with histories that portray science as a remote, otherworldly engagement with nature, detached from society and the wider cultural context, is illustrated by the articles and essay reviews that follow. Meghan Doherty's article, arising from her prize-winning entry for this year's Notes and Records of the Royal Society essay award, examines the importance of Robert Hooke's familiarity with engraving and other artistic techniques, in particular those developed in portraiture, for the way in which he interpreted and communicated his observations with the microscope. As Doherty argues, what Hooke was able to bring to the new science of microscopy was a distinctive way of seeing, aided though not delimited by the optical devices he used. This allowed him to convey the three-dimensional in the two dimensions of the printed page with a vividness that John Wilkins (whose instruments would have been similar to Hooke's) and other contemporaries could not match. It was this same vividness that kept Samuel Pepys up reading Micrographia in a state of excitement until two in the morning and that has ensured the book's survival as one of the acknowledged classics of science.
The communication of observations is similarly the subject of Noah Moxham's study of the publication of Edward Tyson's Phocaena (1680), a pioneering work of comparative anatomy stimulated by the recent dissection of a dolphin, begun at Garraway's coffee-house and continued at Gresham College. Moxham identifies the book's ‘self-consciously’ compact format and slimness (just over 60 pages) as significant on at least two counts. At one level, it reflected a measure of support for research and publication that was modest by the standards of the Parisian Académie des Sciences. At another, and more importantly, it proclaimed by implication the virtues of an English style that was unflashy, even humble. As Tyson seems to have intended, his simply illustrated report on a single dissection, published with the approval of the Royal Society but in no sense at its command, stood in marked contrast with the Académie's volumes of natural history, whose large size and fine presentation made them fitting gifts for distribution by the Sun King but hardly the stuff of everyday circulation within the Republic of Letters.
Terje Brundtland's ‘Francis Hauksbee and his air pump’ treats a different facet of the public face of the early Royal Society. Communication mattered to Hauksbee, as it did to Hooke, Tyson, and most other Fellows of the day: he was an author, lecturer, and the Royal Society's curator of experiments, engaged to perform demonstrations at the Society's weekly meetings. But he was also an instrument-maker, pre-eminent as a technician and with a keen eye to business. Brundtland's account demonstrates the value of insights into the niceties of workshop and laboratory practice in helping us to understand both the detailed operation of the air pumps for which Hauksbee was, and remains, best known and the reasons for their success. Hauksbee's double-barrelled model evidently marked a significant step up from an earlier, single-barrelled model, which entailed the laborious opening and closing of stopcocks and other procedures that often called for two operators. The much quicker and simpler double-barrelled pump was, in Brundtland's words, a ‘masterpiece’, a status conveyed in its high price: a pump delivered to Dublin, with its accessories, cost £26 8s. Not surprisingly, several double-barrelled pumps (including a fine example at the Royal Society) survive, whereas none of the single-barrelled type seems to have done so.
Whereas ‘benevolent indifference’ (to borrow Moxham's term) characterized the nature of state patronage of science in Britain until well into the nineteenth century, things were very different in the more centralized world of France. As we now know, the French way during and long after the reign of Louis XIV pointed the way forward to the world of governmental involvement that has become the norm in our own day. Some of those who, tardily, helped to effect this transition in Britain are well known: the names of Patrick Blackett, Solly Zuckerman and William Penney, among recent generations of FFRS, all spring to mind. But what occurred was not simply the work of figures of recognized national importance. Jeff Hughes directs attention to someone who will be unknown to most readers of Notes and Records: David Christie Martin, Assistant Secretary and subsequently Executive Secretary of the Royal Society for almost 30 years until his death in 1976. Exploiting the diary that Martin kept between 1947 and 1949 (a new ‘find’ in the Royal Society Library), Hughes throws fascinating light on a face of science about which we still know all too little. Martin was pre-eminently the ‘invisible administrator’, someone who trod the boundaries between the Royal Society and Whitehall with extreme discretion while helping the Society to cope with the challenges of the incipient Cold War and postwar austerity and setting it on the road that, in the course of 30 years, took its parliamentary grant in aid from £36 000 to some £2 million. Just as historians have come to recognize the importance of technicians, laboratory assistants and other ‘hidden’ contributors to science, it is high time for more serious study of administrators and managers, whose role (as Hughes insists) has often been to ‘make and maintain’ the wheels of science and not just ‘oil’ them.
Largely hidden from public view in a different way and for different reasons was Alan Turing, the centenary of whose birth this year has drawn new attention to a brilliant but tragic figure. In his essay review ‘Turing today’, James Sumner reflects on Turing's passage from the relative obscurity of a respected early contributor to computational logic to the worldwide posthumous celebrity he enjoys today. Along the way were wartime years at Bletchley Park, shrouded in the intense secrecy that surrounded everything and everyone involved in the unravelling of the German Enigma codes until the 1970s, and the stress that blighted the lives of so many who had homosexual tendencies in Turing's day. The current literature on Turing, in particular the recently reissued biography of him by Andrew Hodges, does not portray him as one who was uniformly sinned against. Turing seems to have been a poor handler of colleagues, and his refusal to dissemble led inexorably to his conviction for gross indecency in 1952. But there was much about the treatment of Turing during his lifetime that was shameful, not least the withdrawal of his security clearance (which seriously impeded his work) and the hormone-based therapy to which he submitted as the alternative to prison. It is hard to see his death two years later, probably by suicide, as anything but an admission of defeat before the pressures mounting against him.
In a very different disciplinary and chronological context, Robin Carrell points to the harm that can be done by public attitudes founded on prejudices that have, or should have, no place in scientific debate. In his essay review of Linda Bryder's Women's bodies and medical science, Carrell discusses the campaign that resulted in the dishonouring of the staff of the National Women's Hospital in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1987. The episode turned on conflicting judgements of the consequences of mass screening for cervical cancer since the adoption of the Papanicolaou smear test for this purpose some two decades earlier. On the one side was a group supporting a leading academic clinician at the hospital, Herbert Green, who had painstakingly accumulated evidence that caused him to question the efficacy of the smear tests. On the other were Public Health epidemiologists and a militant feminist movement that condemned Green's study as ‘an unfortunate experiment’, one that had risked the lives of women to whom Green was (wrongly) said to have denied treatment. As Carrell observes, multiple tensions were at work here. One was the opposition, familiar in many times and many places, between academic and service medicine. But, for Carrell, the most disturbing tension was between rational procedures for gathering and weighing evidence and the irrationality that can so easily and so damagingly take hold in response to what is deemed to be the public mood. Carrell's judgement is that the National Women's Hospital succumbed to a trial by media. That is a chilling conclusion. It is one that must disturb anyone concerned to raise the still dismally low standard of so much public debate about science.
- This journal is © 2012 The Royal Society