The March 2017 issue of Notes and Records contains papers which deploy historical detective work to investigate, and give meaning to, some intriguing cases: one concerns the support given by figures in the early Royal Society to a book sceptical about the phenomena of witchcraft; another concerns the meaning of a widely quoted yet cryptic theological utterance by Isaac Newton; and a period of dissent in the eighteenth-century Royal Society is re-examined, in part to test conventional historical interpretations. Two relatively marginal groups are also explored in this issue: clubbable scientifically inclined dentists and friends of dentistry at the Royal Society; and female authors keen to present the domestic sphere as, in various ways, fertile ground for scientific endeavour. Hasok Chang's 2015 Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar Lecture is a typically clear-sighted and thought-provoking response to the question: ‘who cares about the history of science?’ This issue of Notes and Records ends with the Anniversary Address of the Royal Society's President.
In 2011 Michael Hunter discussed the early Royal Society's corporate stance on magic. Here he offers a paper which reconsiders the ambivalent response by figures within the early Royal Society to John Webster's Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft (1677). Some of the figures involved remain shadowy; and Webster's proposed dedication to the Royal Society did not appear in print. Yet the book did ultimately receive the Royal Society's imprimatur, albeit in an irregular fashion—and at a time when the Society appears to have been in disarray. The ‘boundary work’ of defining what did and what did not constitute natural philosophy could be a subtle business.
John Henry, next, ponders why Newton ended his Optice (and Opticks) in a way that might well seem odd to present-day readers but, Henry argues, must also have seemed quirky to all but the most theologically alert readers in the early eighteenth century. Having dealt with various Enlightenment appropriations of Newton's comments about enlarging the bounds of moral philosophy by perfecting natural philosophy, and having dismissed also the attractive proposal that Newton was merely making an off-the-cuff gesture to natural theology in ending the Opticks as he did, Henry proposes that Newton's carefully considered, and reconsidered, authorial sign-off had another motive: it was really a hint to contemporary scholarly adepts about the progress Newton was making, in unpublished works, towards recovering the true original religion.
Benjamin Wardhaugh re-examines the notorious ‘Dissensions’ of 1783-84 connected with the dismissal of Charles Hutton as the Royal Society's Foreign Secretary. Although with the passing of time and the changing of historiographic fashion it is impossible to say ‘what really was the case’ in these long drawn out disputes centred on the person, character and organisational style of long-serving Royal Society President Joseph Banks, Wardhaugh encourages us to accept that certain take-home messages from this affair—for example, concerning Banks's alleged hostility towards practical mathematics—will need to be revised.
Paradoxically, Hutton's diverse networks—rather than his alliance with one group—appear to have provided ammunition for concerted hostility. Hutton was intolerable to Banks for not one but several reasons; Banks, in turn, was unpopular with as many as forty Fellows who, rather than representing a clear faction, had rather little in common. Networks figure, also, in Michael Bishop's research report, which documents the initially surprising fact that many of the key figures engaged in the reform and professionalization of dentistry from the early nineteenth century, after Banks's death, were simultaneously Members (or officers) of the Athenaeum Club and Fellows of the Royal Society. Bishop's conjecture is that the convivial, literary and sociable forums provided by the Athenaeum helped, in ways difficult now to recover, to consolidate the work of FRS reformers.
The paper of Eleanor Peters is one of many products of the recent connection of ‘literature and science’, ‘science and the book’, and studies of ‘familiar science’. In the last of these, a cup of tea or a candle might be the starting point for an easy, informative and elevating dialogue on the religious or economic utility of science. Peters leaves behind the scientific meeting-rooms of the ‘Dissensions’ and the male-dominated reading-rooms of the Athenaeum, entering instead the ‘domestic sphere’: the homely environments for science conjured up by popular pedagogic authors of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century such as Priscilla Wakefield, Jane Marcet and Maria Edgeworth. Peters' close reading of these authors’ texts helps to build up a picture of diverse fine-grained domestic spheres (plural) in which young experimenters and observers might be variously obedient or autonomous and devout or utilitarian in perspective.
Hasok Chang asks, disarmingly, why we should even care about the history of science. The other authors represented in this issue could no doubt give a host of reasons—and find a host of morals to be read from their particular investigations, and their style of investigation. Historians of science should never take the value of their constantly changing subject for granted; and certainly in the United Kingdom, historians of science are increasingly engaged with diverse publics, ‘user groups’, and neighbouring academic disciplines. Chang's paper, a new contribution to the programme of ‘integrated history and philosophy of science’ which he has done so much to advocate, argues that there are more reasons to care about the history of science than, for example, the well-worn proposal that a sensitive knowledge of the humanities serves to ‘round out’, humanize, or ‘add culture to’ the apparently otherwise one-dimensional scientist. Chang's work has shown, in part, that rereading the classic and not-so-classic scientific papers treating subjects from boiling to batteries may recover reproducible phenomena which appear to defy simple, or conventional, explanation according to current views. The history of science then, coupled with faithful practical reproduction of past scientific experiments, may, in a useful way, destabilize current premature scientific consensus—or encourage the scientists of today to look again at the experimental work of their long-dead predecessors.
This issue of Notes and Records concludes with Royal Society President Sir Venki Ramakrishnan's Anniversary Address, delivered on 30 November 2016.
- © 2017 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society.