July 10, 2020

Credit: Getty Images / Peter Macdiarmid

Science in the 1600s wasn’t an especially safe endeavor. People were burned at the stake for saying that the Earth revolved around the sun. Galileo Galilei narrowly avoided that particular fate, but was placed under house arrest. It was pretty different from our modern world, where we rely on scientists to help us understand the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, and, hopefully, come up with a vaccine. 

How did we get to our current state of affairs? Well, part of the reason is that, in 1660, a group of philosophers and thinkers came together to establish what would become known as the Royal Society. That’s according to Adrian Tinniswood, author of The Royal Society And the Invention of Modern Science. Tinniswood walks us through the important legacy of the oldest scientific institution in the world, and how it helped shape evidence-based science.

Three Takeaways:

  • In 17th century Europe, science, at least as we understand it today, didn’t really exist. Tinniswood says that magic and science were pretty much one and the same, with people believing in centaurs and unicorns. Medicine, at least in Western Europe, was still relying on ancient Greek sources. (Which, unless you believe that an imbalance of black bile is causing your headache, is not a school of thought you want your doctor to be pulling from.) The Royal Society was one of the very first institutions that tried to separate superstition from science and attempted to build knowledge from evidence and experimentation. And (though they themselves performed their share of baffling experiments) it gave scientists the space to share knowledge and try new things.
  • From its beginnings in 1660, the Royal Society grew to become the preeminent scientific institution in the United Kingdom. Its fellows read like a who’s who of world-changing thinkers: Albert Einstein, Alan Turing, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, just to name a few. It also established the world’s longest-running scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, creating a model for the dissemination of scientific discovery. 
  • The Royal Society still exists today, and though it’s no longer quite as prominent as it once was, Tinniswood believes that it still has a vital role to play. Specifically, he sees it as having a moral role, looking over the shoulder of science: “In an age when you’ve got governments and big corporations taking on scientific endeavour… you need an independent body to just say ‘hey, are you sure that’s right?’” 

More Reading:

Adrian Tinniswood, science, The Royal Society, Sci and Tech

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