Saturday, January 8, 2011

Interrogating Nature

There's a fair claim that the Royal Society saw its first shoots just over the road from the Sheldonian Theatre, in the gardens of Wadham College in the 1650s. The young Warden of Wadham, Dr Wilkins, had written a paper called 'How One Might Fly to the Moon'. And he was no mean politician. A Cromwellian through marriage, he attracted young Royalists to his college and later nipped over from Cromwell to Charles II without any recorded angst.
 
Wilkins encouraged a group of like-minded young gentlemen to take on the new philosophy of the observation and testing of Nature, as distinguished from theory alone. To inquire. To experiment. To interrogate Nature.

One thing that did come from Wadham, as well as the men who went on to London formally to start the Society, was the idea of a collegiate group: the notion of sharing ideas and of working as a group, and of commenting on and examining each other's ideas. This was key to the Society.

When Christopher Wren and the others moved to London to greet the new king, the group congregated around Gresham College. This had been founded by an Elizabethan philanthropist. It became a unique mix of high learning and public availability: the prototype of the Open University. At Gresham College, seven handsomely subsidised professors gave academic lectures that could be attended by anybody at all. That too became one of the guiding principles of the Society: that knowledge was free, open and available to all.

These men looked back to the great Elizabethan lawyer, courtier and essayist, Francis Bacon. He famously declared that 'knowledge is power' and he saw two books in the world, Nature and the Scriptures. To get knowledge from Nature it had to be questioned in the court of the mind; 'tortured' was another word he used. And that knowledge would reveal God's way and add to the relief of Man's estate.

The Royal Society was not the first of its kind. In the immediate past, there was the Academy of the Lynxes, formed in Rome in 1603, led by Frederico Cesi, to which Galileo belonged. Then there was the Academy of Experiment formed in Florence in 1567 by the Medici princes. One can trace these organisations back through the courts of the Caliphs in the early mediaeval Arab world, to the Academy of Plato in Athens. In all cases, these groups of inquirers had been small in number. Most had been in immediate contact with their patrons. Then there was the Parisian Royal Academy of Science, officially to be commissioned to discharge projects in the interests of the Crown.

The Royal Society was not like any of these. It was there 'for the Promoting of physico-mathematico experimental learning'. And 'Nullius in verba' was its motto. 'Take no man's word.' Experimenting was believing. Its open collectivity, its focus on experimental demonstrations, its assurance that these trials would reveal the works of God, its sense that economic and commercial projects are part of the divine plan and its literary determination to describe these trials and observations in such a way that they can be followed by all readers and trusted by them, makes it unique. Above all, it was independent. Crucial then as today. The monarch never attended its meetings.

One thing that strikes me about all these groups and many other key influential intellectual groups in science, art and philosophy, is how small was their membership. In our age of mass education it seems almost against Nature that so few so often accomplished so much. Is there something in smallness itself, as the man claimed, that is not only beautiful but, on significant occasions, uniquely effective? It has happened rather often. In fifth-century BC Athens, in the Florence of Michelangelo and Leonardo, in Shakespeare's London, the Edinburgh Enlightenment, in mid twentieth-century Cambridge, in the music of the Big Five in late-nineteenth-century Russia. Is something given to a small clique of brilliant and disputatious contemporaries to dig deeper?

The fact that we are in Oxford, famous in the Latin-speaking Christian world in the thirteenth century for its own small group of philosophers like Duns Scotus and William of Occam, brings me to a core subject in this observational history: that it charts the movement over centuries from one great dominating system in Europe and its colonies - Christianity - to what appears to be its great successor - science.

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