Books: Schools for Scandal Ambition and Skullduggery Dogged the Early Days of Modern Science. Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution by Lisa Jardine Little, Brown, Pounds 20, 444pp
Gregory, Philippa, The Independent (London, England)
In 1675 the foundation stone of the Greenwich Observatory was laid. The observatory was to house telescopes and clocks to make an accurate record of the night skies. The place was equipped, at his own expense, by Sir Jonas Moore, a brick wall with a painted line built to represent zero meridian, and John Flamsteed appointed as royal astronomer. Everyone waited for the revolutionary astronomy charts which Flamsteed would produce.
And waited. Flamsteed said that "it might be better to forbear till the spring that I might have more time to consider them". That was in 1675. Everyone waited. In 1677 Flamsteed was still not ready. In 1679 the charts were promised for the press but all that emerged from Flamsteed at Greenwich was a single copy which was kept private.
Sir Jonas Moore died, still waiting for the tables that he had sponsored, and it took Sir Isaac Newton to insist that the charts should be produced and published. But Newton was the last man that Flamsteed would oblige.
Newton might be the incoming president of the Royal Society, but he was a scientific rival. He wanted the tables to prove his own theory of planetary movements, and Flamsteed doubted that Newton would give him the credit for years of meticulous observation and measurements. He trusted Newton with a single copy of the manuscript charts, and Newton legged with it to the printers without the author's consent.
Newton argued that, since Flamsteed's salary was paid for by the public purse, his work must be in the public domain. Flamsteed replied that the equipment used to make the observations was his own, and he recalled and destroyed the unsold remaining 300 copies of his charts.
This story - of rivalry, theft, and trickery on projects which, ostensibly scientific, are in fact driven by national expansion and commercial profits - is typical of the history of science as told by Lisa Jardine in this lively account. She traces the rise of the Royal Society, with its squabbles and rivalries, the science that its members worked on, the money that they made, their blind spots and their moments of stunning creativity. In Jardine's version the 17th and 18th-century world is a bustling rich exchange, a continuous trade of ideas and information and secrets, not just in the coffee shops of London where people are learning how to drink Sir John Sloane's new import of chocolate, but across national boundaries - even across the boundaries of countries at war. More than one scientist in this story has his data impounded and is accused of espionage as the scientific community insists on writing and travelling across a Europe at war.
The background of warring and deeply rivalrous emerging European nations is the spur for many of these scientific discoveries. The importance of learning how to measure longitude was vital to an expansionist Europe, which was seeking new markets beyond the limits of the known world. Accurate surveying and map-making was essential for countries which were preparing for war, and to those hoping to map the new world.
Also, there was an obsessive fascination with new things: whether drawn from inside the body like the gravel seen with the newly invented microscope in the scientist's own urine, or collected from faraway Virginia, China or the Far East. …