Philosophy 167: Class 11 - Part 7 - The Founding of the Royal Society: the Fellows, and Philosophical Transactions.

Smith, George E. (George Edwin), 1938-


  • Synopsis: The Royal Society of London was founded in 1663, and included many of the great scientists of the time. The Philosophical Transactions became an important mechanism for scientific communication.

    Opening line: "I spoke before magnetical philosophy. What I'm gonna shift on to for the next few minutes is England right after Street, before and after Street."

    Duration: 16:27 ... read more
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I spoke before magnetical philosophy. What I'm gonna shift on to for the next few minutes is England right after Street, before and after Street. Before Street, the magnetical philosophy had started to flourish when a discussion group formed in around 1645, discussion group that would meet like once every two weeks, like one of your reading groups, to talk about science and natural philosophy.
The group was Gresham College, which is in London, and it was centered on Wilkins. Both Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke were part of that. Wilkins was pushing the magnetical philosophy. There was another discussion group at Oxford centered on Boyle. And I slightly misquoted last week. Boyle started talking the data 1647, the invisible philosophic college, then it come into being.
That is these discussion groups and the interaction among people had fundamentally formed a network of regularly meeting people talking to one another about the state of science in the 1640s and 1650s, and in that, magnetical philosophy was a fairly big deal. This is striking because it comes from a paper I put on supplementary material.
It's about Wilkins and magnetical philosophy, but it's Christopher Wren's account of cometary motion applied to the comet of 1664, 1665, and you notice it's a straight line. And he's got diagrams showing you a straight line is consistent with a set of observations, okay? Hooke and he both worked hard on that comet of 1664, 65.
It's one of the last publications of Christopher Wren before he becomes a full-time architect. What proceeded to happen, especially with the discussion group at Gresham and at Oxford, is when Charles the Second comes back to the throne in 1660, 61, the church of England regains authority over the universities, and the people who wanted to do natural philosophy totally divorced from scholasticism and Aristotle felt quite threatened because they were confident that the Church of England, which is essentially, the doctrine is essentially the same as the Roman Catholic Church.
The only real difference is that Henry VIII wanted to get remarried. I trust all of you know that story. That's what led to the break of the Anglican Catholic church at the time. They were sufficiently afraid of what the Anglican Catholic church was going to do to the universities that they went to Charles the Second and asked him to create a new university.
A new university centered on these discussion groups. Charles decided not to give them that much money, but he gave them enough money to form a permanent society. That society, which still exists today, it has a building right across from Green Park and I had the pleasure of speaking there last December in celebration of the 350th anniversary of it.
And the 300th anniversary of the publication of the second edition of Newton's Principia. It was formed in 1663, chartered in 1663 with money from Charles the Second. It's full title was The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge. Okay, dedicated to the improvement of natural knowledge.
These are not the only fellows. Again, some of you may know this, if you're British, and you have titles including NL, Nobel Laureate, the first title you list after your name is always FRS, Fellow of the Royal Society. Now it's not the highest prize, obviously. The Nobel's worth a good deal more both financially and otherwise.
But to be a Fellow with the Royal Society is a fairly big deal. The charter fellows you will notice, Brunker was a competent guy in mechanics, Boyle and Wilkens were right at the heart of it. I think Bero was a professor of mathematics at Cambridge, Newton's predecessor in the chair that Newton ultimately acquired, and Newton's teacher of mathematics.
Robert Hooke, a name that we've already got. We can now come back to him. Neil Ampel, I know very little about. John Wallis, of course. Christopher Wren and one foreign member Christiaan Huygens. The sole foreign member of the royal society when it started. You'll see right after that we get Mercator, Boolio.
John Collins is a mathematician. James Gregory is a mathematician. Then in 1672, we've got Newton, Cassini, Leibniz a year later etc. So this is a society that had its own building at the time. It's moved two or three times. The building it's in now I regard as fairly palatial.
I don't have pictures of it. My wife did take pictures of it last winter, but I never downloaded them, so I'm not sure. But it's a nice, big white building now. But that's not where it was at the time, it was more centrally located in London. See if I can describe where it doesn't and I'll drop it for now.
They would meet every other week except in the summer, summer was vacation, no meetings. They would at each meeting have to have an experiment of some sort demonstrated, that was a requirement. The sole paid member, full time paid member, was Robert Hooke. He was the curator of experiments.
He had the responsibility of producing every other week some interesting experiment that would capture the minds of all the people who attended. Hook's interesting because Hooke and Kepler are the only two people we're going to encounter here that come from not well, reasonably well to do backgrounds. Who really needed money all their lives from a paying position.
And it had consequences on Hooke's personality, but we'll worry about that a little later. The Royal Society is usually referred to as very Baconian, meaning they took seriously Francis Bacon's New Organon and all of his proposals about the importance of basic knowledge on experiment, on observation, etc. Bacon even introduced this idea of a crossroads experiment, by which he meant an experiment that's like a finger-post at a crossroads telling you which direction to go.
That he subsequently called an experimentum crucis, and that's a term Hooke adopted and Newton adopted from Hooke. But it's a crossroads experiment as the bacon concept. There are many important bacon concepts. But the thing that runs through the Royal Society heavily for the first 50 or 60 years on it is theory is just conjecture.
Experiment, you get truth. And it's a Gassendi-like view. Of course, Boyle was profoundly influenced by Gassendi and Boyle was the most important figure in that group. He was the oldest figure, and was by far the most established figure at the time the Royal Society was formed. And he did have the Gassendi view that we will never know what's happening down at the corpuscular level.
That's always gotta be a hypothetical conjecture, but experiments you're gonna really establish things with. So that became somewhat the view of the Royal Society. Formed in 1663, meeting regularly all the time with enough money to have their meetings, etc. And they had a recording secretary, Oldenburg, who lived until 1676.
And I'll come to that in a moment. Oldenburg decides they've gotta have a journal. So he puts together the philosophical transactions of the Royal Society. This is the number one issue. I've given you the whole issue in the handout, the very first one. There are parts of it I'm gonna read to you, and this one I think I can see without turning.
This journal has been published continuously from 1666 to right now, with one three year hiatus when Oldenburg died. It took awhile, when Hooke got appointed to replace him. It took a while for Hooke to come to realize how much work Oldenburg had been doing, scrapping out papers for each issue.
Contacting people all over. In effect, have you got something I can publish here? So for three years, 1677 to 1680, fill transactions doesn't get published. In two weeks, you will see a letter from Hooke to Newton, begging him for an article and that's the beginning of the Principia.
That letter that initiates Newton's interest. Reinitiates his interest in astronomy. Let me read some of this though. I'm gonna skip the contents. So the introduction. Whereas there is nothing more necessary for promoting the improvement of philosophic matters than the communicating to such as apply their studies and endeavors that way.
Such things as are discovered are put in practice by others. It is therefore thought fit to employ the press, as the most proper way to, something, gratify those whose engagement in such studies and delight in the advancement of learning and profitable discoveries doth entitle them to the knowledge of what this kingdom or other parts of the world do from time to tome afford.
As well as of the progress of the studies, labors, and attempts of the curious, and learned and things of this kind, as of their complete discoveries and performances. To the end of such productions being clearly and truly communicated, desires after solid and useful knowledge may be further entertained.
Ingenious endeavors and undertakings cherished, and those addicted to and conversant in such matters may be invited and encouraged to search, try, and find out new things. Impart their knowledge to one another and contribute what they can to the grand design of improving natural knowledge and perfecting all philosophical arts and sciences, all for the glory of God, the honor and advantage of the kingdoms, and the universal good of mankind.
Okay, so that's the statement of what the philosophical transactions is about. And there just was prior to that, no scientific journal that would publish things in short-term. You would often have to wait years to publication, or go through communication by word of mouth. So suddenly, we have a journal being published several times a year.
And I'm not gonna read the rest of it, I'm just gonna point out what it's about. This is describing Compagnie's great lenses and discoveries, part of which were made by Compagnie. But some of them are attributed in Paris, and you also see Huygens mentioned at the bottom in conjunction with Saturn and the ring around Saturn.
But these are all singling out primarily the excellent eyeglasses of Compagnie and the use to which they're being part by Compagnie in Rome, Cassini in Paris, and the mention of Huygens. That's the first article. And in it, there's this mention, this Compagnie, observed by the goodness of his glasses, certain protuberances and inequalities much greater than those that have been seen therein hitherto.
That's the spot of Jupiter, which is in the news this week as a matter of fact, as they now think they know what's causing it. And if you go on down there, you'll see the description of the layers of Jupiter all being announced in the first issue. Just below that is the announcement of the spot.
Below that is a discussion of the comet recently observed with reference to Ozu and what he observed in France. So we're communicating. Notice this is in English. Everything in the journal is either in English or Latin, till Latin gets dropped. They don't publish in French. They translate from French.
A narrative concerning the success of pendulum watches at sea for longitudes. The person who did this is Major Holmes. He is using a Christiaan Huygens' clock for this purpose, as is noticed is noted at the top up here, Christiaan Huygens of that's the small town where their house was located just outside of the Hague.
And there's the discussion of the success and limitations of the watches that is the Huygens maritime clocks for determining longitude at sea. Finally, there's a tribute page for Matt, who had just died. I think that's the last of these. Yes. Describing what he had done. That's the whole of the first issue.
Now this is a sea change in the world in two important respects. We now have a journal with articles coming out that are essentially refereed. In fact, one of the first things I did when I got serious about this course, is I read all of the issues of fill transactions that Newton had, Newton subscribed from very early on.
So I read them until he died. And maybe one in three articles you read it and you know it's not true, okay? As. Well, you get some statement about somebody swallowing a huge amount of poison and not dying. And the sort of joke you wanna make, the laws of nature really didn't change from 1600 to now.
This just can't be true. When you get two and three headed monsters, we are very dubious that these things exist. On the other hand, on average, article after article is really very very impressive, and Newton was getting, he subscribed. He would get it when it arrived. It did not arrive monthly.
They couldn't control the press that well. They didn't always have enough articles to put it out. So there were some irregularity. But they nevertheless, had their issues coming out as if it were regular and filling those slots on a regular basis. You can go on JSTOR and look at all of these now.
I had to go to a library and read them one by one. But now JSTOR has them all. I'm lifting that out just out of JSTOR. And it's extraordinarily impressive, as I say, right down to the present day.