Doers and shakers with a method on their minds

The Fellowship
June 30, 2006

John Gribbin portrays himself as a no-nonsense historian. In his recent Science: A History, 1543-2001 , he sets out his methodological stall with crystal clarity, distancing himself firmly from the trends that have so profoundly marked the history of science since the 1960s. The result is an approach to history that has no time for social construction in even its mildest forms and that finds the essential driving force of science in the individual quest for objective truth rather than in social or economic context.

The Fellowship is cast in just this vein. It offers a racy, narrative account of the roots, founding and early work of the Royal Society, with an emphasis on the contributions of a core of exceptional men and minds picked out for detailed discussion. The roots, as Gribbin has it, lay distantly but crucially in the work of Francis Bacon, William Gilbert and William Harvey (especially the last two, the true "heralds" of the scientific revolution).

The founding of the society was largely the work of the group that clustered around John Wilkins, the warden of Wadham College, Oxford, in the late 1640s, and subsequently migrated to Gresham College in London, where 12 members of the group resolved on November 28 1660, to establish an association "for the promoting of Experimentall Philosophy". The icing on the cake (the "cake" being Newton's theory of universal gravitation) was provided by the comet of 1759, whose reappearance in that year had been predicted, following its previous passage in 1682, by Edmond Halley.

The guiding thread for Gribbin in this long process was the gradual elaboration of what he calls "the scientific method". Such an analysis, with its simplifying corollary that Newton's prolonged interest in alchemy can be dismissed as a departure from his work as "a scientist" and is therefore irrelevant, makes for a punchy success story, and Gribbin tells the story well.

Although the essentials of what occurred are familiar enough, certain of Gribbin's emphases lend a welcome freshness. His chapter on "the King's men", for example, points persuasively to the crucial role of certain early fellows of the Royal Society who, despite their general lack of scientific distinction, did much to win respect for the society in Restoration England: the Scottish Royalist Sir Robert Moray, in particular, emerges as an illuminating figure, a man whose closeness to the court was crucial in securing the favour of Charles II and the granting of a first Royal Charter in 1662. For different reasons, Robert Hooke has a special role and a chapter to himself. His appointment as curator of experiments in 1662 and a fellow in 1663 brought into the society a skilled experimenter and a doer of the kind that Gribbin admires: he was, for Gribbin, "the man who made it work", the hard-headed saviour of the society at a time when it might have disintegrated altogether or degenerated into a vacuous talking shop.

Like everything that Gribbin writes - and he is a skilful as well as a dazzlingly prolific author - The Fellowship is clear and informative. But the straightforwardness of its handling of complex events does not mean that it is anodyne in its thrust. There is certainly nothing anodyne about Gribbin's insistence that scientific change should be seen as an incremental, step-by-step process carried forward by individuals whose achievements justify his, in essence, biographical approach.

The target of this insistence is, of course, Thomas Kuhn, whose notion of science progressing in a succession of revolutionary changes of paradigm is dismissed as "a complete nonsense".

Such a dismissal is contentious enough. But to suggest, as Gribbin does, that Kuhn might have been saved from his error if only he had had some experience of scientific research is to ignore an engagement in physics that took Kuhn to a Harvard University doctorate as a distinguished pupil of the Nobel prizewinner John Van Vleck. How much more research would Kuhn have had to undertake to accumulate the appropriate insights? And are we to conclude that the analysis of science, past or present, is best left to practising, or at least well-seasoned, scientists? I hope not.

The gulf between broadly positivistic perspectives on science of the kind adopted in this book and widely (though by no means universally), favoured in the scientific community, and the very different approaches fashioned in recent work in the humanities and social sciences is already unhealthily deep. At a time when a heightened public engagement in science is a matter of such urgency, we can ill afford to see that gulf widened still further by prescriptions about who is or is not fit for the pressing task of communication to which Gribbin himself has contributed so much.

Robert Fox is professor of the history of science, Oxford University.

The Fellowship: The Story of a Revolution

Author - John Gribbin
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 336
Price - £8.99
ISBN - 0 14 101570 5

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