My dear cousin Stephen was chiding me the other day for insufficient self publicity, which leads me to point to Seeing Further (Amazon UK, currently half price), a book of essays celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society which is edited by Bill Bryson and the excellent Jon Turney. Like many far worthier people, I have an essay in this handsome volume. The worthier in question include Bryson himself (excerpted here in the Times), Neal Stephenson, Simon Schaffer, the Margarets Atwood, Wertheim and Gee, Paul Davies, Ian Stewart, John Barrow, James Gleick, Greg Benford, the Richards Holmes, Fortey and Dawkins, Steve Jones, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Phil Ball, Georgina Ferry and Henry Petroski. Bayes, balloons, bridges, lightning, logarithms, monads, maths, museums, X-rays, extraterrestrials and the end of the world…
This superb collection of essays, extensively illustrated, is a fitting tribute [to the Society, which] has had 8,200 members, including Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Ernest Rutherford and Francis Crick: people who radically transformed the way we see the world. As Bill Bryson rightly says, “this isn’t just the most venerable learned society in the world, it is the finest club.”
Mr Bryson or, more plausibly, Jon Turney, who is the contributing editor of the book, did not confine his selection of authors to those known for their scientific writing. Margaret Atwood, an award-winning Canadian novelist, offers her thoughts on the origin of the figure of the mad scientist, and Neal Stephenson, who writes science fiction, explores the point at which physics abuts metaphysics through the work of two great intellectuals, Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz.
As the essays build up we deepen our appreciation of the tensions between experimentation and mathematics, function and abstraction, creation and destruction, simplicity and complexity, harmony and chaos, individual genius and collective endeavour, and scientists and laymen.
All contributors in their different ways also remind us that the show goes on. Do we see more clearly than Hooke and Newton did three and a half centuries ago? Oliver Morton argues that we may have traded one picture of the Earth for another, but our understanding of the globe remains incomplete; Ian Stewart reminds us that for all Galileo’s astuteness, even scientists can be oblivious to the subtle mathematics that underpin their research; John Barrow considers the apparent simplicity of cosmological physics and points out that we do not observe the laws of nature, we see only the outcomes of those laws. “Outcomes are much more complicated than the laws that govern them.”
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