Credit: Getty Images / Peter Macdiarmid
Science in the 1600s wasn’t an especially safe endeavor. 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. Tinniswood walks us through the important legacy of the oldest scientific institution in the world, and how it helped shape evidence-based science.
- 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?’”
- If you want to learn more about the sometimes gross history of medicine, here’s with Lindsey Fitzharris about surgery in the 19th century, and why you should be extremely thankful that you didn’t have to have surgery back then.
- It took until 1945 for the Royal Society to admit its first first women fellows, and women still make up only one in twelve members. .
- Isaac Newton was one of the Royal Society’s first presidents, and is still probably the most famous. But… was he a jerk? .