Book Review: Seeing Further

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Well, here we are at last – the final review for my 2016 science reads resolution!

I have to admit, I felt a little teary finishing this final book for 2016. I read the final chapter on the last day of the year and it felt a little sad as I shut the book – and also proud that I managed to stick to my resolution.

But more on that later. First, the review of my final 2016 science read, which is none other than Seeing Further: Ideas, Endeavours, Discoveries and Disputes – The Story of Science Through 350 Years of the Royal Society. 

Phew. Now, that’s a title!

A little about the The Royal Society – the group’s origins came about one night in November 1660 when a group of men gathered at Gresham College to hear the young Christopher Wren give a lecture on astronomy. It has since become the oldest organisation dedicated to fostering, promoting and recognising the efforts of scientists all over the world (though at the time, the word ‘scientist’ itself had not been coined; rather these pursuers of knowledge and the understanding of their world were known as natural philosophers), and counts amongst its members names like Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Joseph Banks, Benjamin Franklin and Charles Babbage.

Now, in celebration of the society’s 350th anniversary (in 2010, when this book was first published), author Bill Bryson has edited a collection of essays by various scientists, journalists and writers that look at the achievements and history of the society. Everyone has their pet subject – Margaret Atwood looks at the satirisation of the Royal Society in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and the importance of ethics in scientific research and discovery; Neal Stephenson ponders the role of metaphysics in science while Ian Stewart emphasises the significance of mathematics in today’s world and Richard Dawkins writes about – what else? – evolution and Charles Darwin. The final culmination is a compilation of subjects that are as rich and eclectic as the society’s history itself.

And what a history it is. As Bryson writes in his introduction, nothing was beneath the Royal Society’s attention. Countless contributions were made by members far and wide, observations on everything from archeology to potatoes to accounts of ‘monstrous fish’ and the experiment of fermenting wine twice over (which incidentally lead to the invention of champagne.) Society members observed and made countless notes and collected various items of interest. They performed any number of experiments, from Benjamin Franklin flying a kite in a thunderstorm to two Fellows infusing a man with sheep’s blood, and an experiment to see if a spider could be trapped by a circle made with the powder of a unicorn’s horn (supposedly obtained by George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.)

Seeing Further consists of 22 chapters written by 22 contributors. Among my favourites include James Gleick’s commentary on the beginnings of the society (which includes that intriguing tidbit about the unicorn’s horn); Georgina Ferry’s account of crystallography and the pioneers in this field whose work eventually led to the discovery of the structures of the DNA double-helix, penicillin and insulin;  Richard Holmes’ entertaining account of balloonomania in the 1700s; Steve Jones’ cautionary chapter on biodiversity and Richard Fortey’s delightful account of the various collections, natural museums and botanical gardens associated with the Royal Society.

Another standout chapter was that contributed by science author and lecturer Margaret Wertheim with her observations on the relationship between science and self. Wertheim, in particular, looks at the impact scientific discoveries such as cosmology has had on our sense of self and spirituality, concluding with a particularly interesting anecdote about the way the Himba tribe in Namibia perceive space and self. It’s a melding of philosophy and natural philosophy, and in fact plays a kind of link into my next reading resolution for 2017 – but more on this in a future post!

I had a hard time picking a book to end my 2016 science reads resolution, but in the end I could not be happier with my choice of Seeing Further. With the various subjects covered, I felt almost as if I was reading a sort of recap of all my science reads this year, a nice summary in which I found myself recognising terms and concepts which I hadn’t been familiar with at the beginning of this year. In a way, I felt I was coming round full circle, refreshing and remembering everything I’ve enjoyed about this 2016 resolution – all the fascinating insights, the colourful characters and anecdotes, the heated passions and dedication, and a greater understanding of this unique world that we are fortunate enough to live in.

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