Books: Now That's What I Call a Libertine ; SCIENCE; the Fellowship: The Story of a Revolution by John Gribbin ALLEN LANE Pounds 20 Pounds 18 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

By Grayling, A C | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), September 25, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Books: Now That's What I Call a Libertine ; SCIENCE; the Fellowship: The Story of a Revolution by John Gribbin ALLEN LANE Pounds 20 Pounds 18 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897


Grayling, A C, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


There were several major revolutions in the course of the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, all of them profoundly significant for the course of subsequent world history. Their collective effect was to topple a set of mutually supportive reactionary hegemonies: the Church, absolute monarchy, the dead hand of Aristotelian science, and the ignorance and backward-lookingness they jointly promoted.

But the greatest of these revolutions was the one that occurred in science. Its story has often and well been told to general readerships before, not least by John Gribbin, whose lucid pen and narrative skill make him a leader in the field of popular science writing. Here he tells the story again in a different way: by describing the lives of the men (they were all men, a fact familiarly to be explained by historical sexism, not brain physiology) who made that revolution happen " and principally, the men who variously inspired, founded and were early Fellows of the Royal Society.

Science did not come into existence when the Royal Society was given its charter by Charles II in the first flush of the Restoration. The method of true scientific enquiry, observation and experiment, had begun to be applied in the preceding century, and it had a great exponent in William Gilbert (1544-1603) who discovered why compass needles always align north- south, a great advocate in Francis Bacon (1561-1626), whose writings about scientific method were quoted as the inspiration for the Royal Society by its founders, and great exemplars in Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the first all-round scientist and mathematician of the modern era, and William Harvey (1578-1657), discoverer of the circulation of the blood.

The flowering of the influence and example of these men came in the generation after their time, in the astonishing decades following the Royal Society's founding. It resides principally in the work of three scientists of giant stature: Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke and Edmond Halley.

Gribbin devotes most attention to these three, providing short biographies of each with a sketch of their scientific achievements, in his highly readable trademark style.

But of course neither the heralds of the revolution " Gilbert, Bacon, Galileo and Harvey " nor the giants of the early Royal Society just named, operated in a vacuum. Accordingly Gribbin gives us an Aubrey-like Brief Lives of a number of the savants and enthusiasts who were involved in the founding of the Royal Society, some of them enthusiasts of science whose contributions did not consist in actual discoveries but in subventions of funds and influence at Court. Gribbin rescues their forgotten names and does them justice.

A theme throughout the book is that the keys to scientific advance were the application of mathematics, and above all the experimental method, in which predictions are deduced from hypotheses and then subjected to rigorous experimental testing. The prevailing orthodoxy beforehand had rested on an unhappy marriage between the 'a priori' technique of speculating about the world by reason alone, and the constraints of theology and revelation.

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Books: Now That's What I Call a Libertine ; SCIENCE; the Fellowship: The Story of a Revolution by John Gribbin ALLEN LANE Pounds 20 Pounds 18 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897
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