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History of science

The gold of wisdom

The Royal Society, the venerable British institution, celebrates its 350th anniversary

PAULA GABBAIThe sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the dawn of what is now referred to as modern science. In those times, it seemed that knowledge could come from anywhere: from the serious experiments being conducted in the laboratories of virtuosos or from the insane attempts of curiosity seekers, alchemists and even charlatans. How could a distinction be made between something that had a basis from something that did not? At that time, formulas to cure a serious illness or to make wine last longer or render the soil more fertile were almost always trade secrets. One had to pay for them. Sometimes people died or killed for such secrets. When they were copied on paper, it was not uncommon to use codes or to alter the words deliberately.

It was necessary to discuss what was then referred to as new science, which was increasingly distancing itself from ancient science. This was how the Royal Society came into being 350 years ago in England: one of the first and, to this day, one of the world’s leading scientific societies. England was undergoing turmoil at the time. In the late 1640’s , the English Civil War had flared up between those who supported Charles I, the absolutist monarch, and Parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell. The result was the end of the monarchy for a few years, though it was reinstated in 1660 in parliamentary form.

The Royal Society has always been an exclusive club, with only eight thousand members, or fellows, according to the official site. Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein were among its illustrious members. Whoever has the acronym FRS – Fellow of The Royal Society before his or her name – is a Nobel Prize recipient or is up for a nomination at any moment. The Royal Society currently has approximately 1,450 fellows – such as Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins – of whom more than 75 are Nobel Prize laureates. The fellows represent all the fields of the sciences, medicine and engineering. It is a closed society when it comes to electing its members. However, concurrently, the Royal Society is also an academy of natural and applied sciences that is open to the population, especially to young people: it publishes books, awards prizes and medals, organizes classes, conferences, and debates, gives research grants and frequently shows its collection at interactive exhibitions.

The collection, as one would imagine, is far from modest. It contains endless sources of resources, as old as the Royal Society itself. These can help one to reconstruct the history of science. This has included some comical chapters, tragic ones and above all, luminous ones, as indicated by Ana Maria Alfonso-Goldfarb and Márcia Ferraz, from the Graduate Studies Program in the History of Science at the Catholic University of São Paulo, a partner of the Simão Mathias Center for Studies on the History of Science, created 15 years ago and supported by FAPESP. The two researchers visit the Royal Society on a regular basis and have come across material that has never been studied, which has helped them prepare pioneering reconstitutions.

In the midst of these gigantic archives, Ana Maria and Márcia discovered, for example, documents that describe the dialogues among the society’s earliest members on alkahest – a universal solvent. The word was allegedly coined by Paracelsus, a renowned Swiss physician, philosopher, and alchemist from the sixteenth century (see Pesquisa FAPESP nº 154 ). The researchers state that nowadays alkahest is a topic of great interest to researchers who study the beginnings of modern science. In the past, it aroused very little attention among historians dedicated to serious studies, as the formula was believed to be a fantasy.

PAULA GABBAIThe documents concerning alkahest were found in the personal files of one of the founders of the Royal Society, the physician Jonathan Goddard (1617-1675), and crosschecked with other documents from those times. With the collaboration of Piyo M. Rattansi, from London’s University College, the Brazilian researchers published an article on this in the September issue of Notes & Records, one of the journals of the Royal Society. One should point out that the Royal Society pioneered this kind of scientific publication. Why did a universal solvent attract so much attention? “One of the reasons is that the autopsies conducted back then led to suspicions that death had been caused by ‘stones’ in people’s bodies,” explains Márcia Ferraz.

Many archives, such as those of Goddard, are still awaiting further research. There is a lot of material: even when they lived in the same city, the members of the Royal Society liked to exchange ideas in writing. There are hundreds of handwritten pages, many of which are in Latin. “Scientific work in those times reminds me of what the situation is like for us in Brazil: an act of courage and a huge effort,” says Ana Maria. With so many documents to be read, it is interesting to note that the motto of the Royal Society is Nullius in verba, a Latin expression that can be roughly translated as “don’t believe anybody’s word.” This motto reaffirms that the founders were determined to maintain skepticism and to ensure that any hypotheses were thoroughly proven by means of experiments.

The wise founders of the society avoided discussions on theology and affairs of the state, which might give rise to misunderstandings. They concentrated on gaining knowledge about nature and techniques, especially those which they referred to as the new mechanical, or experimental philosophy, related to such topics as medicine, astronomy, chemistry, geometry, navigation and mechanics. The meetings were always lively: the members would often leave the society to go and work on experiments in their laboratories.

The Royal Society was not the only scientific society of its time. Other pioneering societies include Florence’s Accademia del Cimento, founded in 1657, and the Académie Royale des Sciences in Paris, founded in 1666. Galileo Galilei was one of the founders of the Italian society. Similar societies were established in Scotland, Ireland and Sweden in the following century. The society in Sweden has awarded Nobel Prizes since the early twentieth century. “One must emphasize the importance of team work in the history of scientific discoveries. Each member of the team can contribute with his or her specific talent or expertise. This is very clear in the history of the Royal Society,” Ana Maria adds.

The definition of science, its rules and limitations only became official between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This is when the word “scientist” took on its current meaning. “A scientist is a specialist who cannot be confused with a philosopher or a technician, both of whom were part of broader and undefined fields of natural philosophy or experimental philosophy,” Ana Maria emphasizes. In the twentieth century, when everything seemed to have settled down, the science paradigm was shaken, as the researcher describes it metaphorically. She points out that the early twentieth century witnessed the birth of the theory of relativity and quantum theory, and some years later, the theories of genetics and robotics. This is when the history of science – as it is known today – began to gain its contemporary format.

PAULA GABBAIFor those who are interested or for researchers in search of sources, the site of the Royal Society makes catalogues available on-line. The on-line versions include books and journals dating back to 1660, manuscripts and documents of the institution itself, images in various forms, information on the fellows and their work. The library’s collection has more than 70 thousand books published since the fifteenth century. The collection of images has more than 6 thousand photographs, etchings, engravings and paintings. The journals include the Philosophical Transactions, published since 1665. Seven other publications came later, including the traditional Proceedings, with specific issues on exact sciences and life sciences; Interface, with articles on the interdisciplinary aspects of the sciences; and Notes & Records, with texts in the field of history of science. As part of the celebrations of its 350th anniversary – a calendar that is filled with many events and programs on Britain’s BBC – the files of the journals can be accessed freely until November 30.

The Royal Society holds a number of meetings in several countries to discuss new knowledge-related challenges under a multidisciplinary perspective. The Frontiers of Science event was held for the first time in Brazil this August. It was organized by the Royal Society with the support of FAPESP and in partnership with the British Council, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the Chilean Academy of Sciences, and the United Kingdom-Brazil Cooperation for Science and Innovation. The decision to hold the event in Brazil during the anniversary was seen as evidence of the importance Brazil is now achieving in the international context of science. This prominence was pointed out by Marcelo Knobel, one of the event’s coordinators. Professor Knobel is the dean of Undergraduate Studies and a professor at the Gleb Wataghin Institute of Physics (IFGW) at the State University of Campinas. The event brought together Brazilian speakers from Unicamp’s Ludwig Institute, the University of São Paulo (USP), the Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics (Impa) and the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). The United Kingdom was represented by speakers from the Universities of Bath, Oxford, Plymouth, Warwick, Bristol, Exeter and from London’s Imperial College.