Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society
© 2010 Bill Bryson
Although Bill Bryson is chiefly known for his humorous travelogues, he has been known to venture into other nonfiction at times, and in fact the first science book I ever read for fun outside of high school was his A Short History of Nearly Everything. I wasn’t too surprised, then, to see his name on a history of the Royal Society. What did come as a surprise was the tenor of the contents, because Bryson was the editor here rather than the author, and the contributing scientists deliver a far more thoughtful history than I’d anticipated, one that’s almost introspective. Rather than a straightforward chronicle of discoveries made and lines of thought pursued year by year, the essays are more thematic, emphasizing through moments and movements the evolution of natural philosophy and the development of a distinct discipline which rebuilt the world. (The history of the Royal Society itself appears at the beginning of the book, then the individuals and their contributions take over. One of the earliest essays, dwelling on the rise of scientific materialism, argues that the greatest disruption to traditional thought was the idea that the entire cosmos was made of the same material thing, that the stars had fallen from a heavenly realm and were instead pedestrian, subject to the same laws as apples and the dead leaves of autumn. In the monist world, where was the otherworldly? Another explores the tension between logic-driven natural philosophers and experiential ones in the late medieval period, whose work would eventually dovetail together. It’s not all introspection, as chapters on the important of mathematics (undergirding science) and engineering (applying science) bring us out of the clouds and closer to earth.