The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge has been at the forefront of scientific endeavour for more than 350 years, since receiving its royal charter from Charles II in 1662. Philosophical Transactions, published in 1665, established the concepts of scientific priority and peer review and is the oldest scientific journal in continuous publication in the world. The 8,000 fellows elected to the Society to date include all of the scientific leading lights of the last four centuries, including Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Tim Berners-Lee and Stephen Hawking.
The Society's motto, nullius in verba, 'on the word of no one', is a reminder of its founders' belief that authority must always be questioned; hypotheses can never be taken for granted; truths must be demonstrated or they are not truths at all. Adrian Tinniswood examines why the Royal Society has been such a pivotal institution in the cultural life of Britain and the world.
Tinniswood (The Long Weekend), a University of Buckingham history research fellow, devotes this modest, accessible chronicle to the Royal Society of London and its role in developing modern scientific study. Writing in a conversational tone, he follows the Society's successes and struggles since its 1660 formation, revisiting famous early members including, in addition to Isaac Newton, natural philosopher Robert Boyle; Robert Hooke, discoverer of the cell; and architect Christopher Wren and early experiments in which, he admits to squeamish modern readers, puppies and kittens routinely lost their lives. Tinniswood discusses, perhaps in excessive detail, the Society's governance, including such missteps as its reluctance, up to the 1940s, to allow women admission. However, he takes care to note the Society's many accomplishments, among them the 1665 publication of the first (and still publishing) scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions, and the Society's sponsorship of Captain James Cook's 1768 expedition, which resulted in the mapping of New Zealand and Australia's coastlines. Tinniswood also touches on the Society's involvement in contemporary issues; for example, climate change, cybersecurity, and genetically modified organisms. Science buffs will find Tinniswood's account professionally written if nothing extraordinary, but it does present a credible case for the Royal Society's historic and continuing importance.