The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World - Edward Dolnick (2011)

Part I. Chaos

Chapter 11. To the Barricades!

The brilliant, frenetic Robert Hooke was a natural performer who took for granted that the best way to entertain an audience was to place himself in front of it. But the Royal Society experiments, which Hooke was charged with organizing, had a purpose beyond theatrics. The experiments also served as a call to arms against the old ways. The first rallying cry, as we have seen, was “Out of the library, into the laboratory.” The second crucial message was “In plain sight.” Ideas would be tested in the open, in front of witnesses. If an insight seemed genuine, other experimenters could test it for themselves.

This was an innovation. Until the mid-1600s everyone had always taken for granted that a person who made a discovery should keep the knowledge to himself, as secret as a treasure map, rather than give his fortune away by revealing it to the world. A plea from a mathematician named Girolamo Cardano, written about a century before the Royal Society’s birth, highlighted the old attitude. Cardano wanted another mathematician to share a formula with him. “I swear to you by God’s Holy Gospels and as a true man of honor, not only never to publish your discoveries, if you teach me them,” Cardano begged, “but I also promise you, and I pledge my faith as a true Christian, to note them down in code, so that after my death no one will be able to understand them.”11

The Royal Society pushed for a radically new approach: knowledge would advance more quickly if new findings were discussed openly and published for all to read. Thinkers would inspire one another, and ideas would breed and multiply. Robert Boyle made the most forceful argument against secrecy. A thinker who concealed his discoveries was worse than a miser who hoarded his gold, Boyle maintained, because the miser had no choice but to cling to his treasure. To give it away was to lose it. Thinkers had no such excuse, because ideas were not like gold but “like torches, that in the lighting of others do not waste themselves.” With ideas as with flames, in fact, to share meant to create light.

Boyle insisted that this was ancient wisdom. “Our Saviour assureth us that it is more blessed to give than to receive,” he reminded his fellow scientists, but this was a hard lesson to absorb. It remains hard today. To have found a secret that others are still scrabbling around for is to have a very special kind of private property. Modern physicists all know, and identify with, the story of Fritz Houtermans. In 1929 Houtermans wrote up a pioneering paper on fusion in the sun. The night he finished the work, he and his girlfriend went for a stroll. She commented on how beautiful the stars were. Houtermans puffed out his chest. “I’ve known since yesterday why it is that they shine.”

And no one else did. That was the point. Before the Royal Society proposed changing the rules, scientists had tried to have it both ways—they announced their discoveries, which let the world know they had solved a stubborn equation or designed a new clock mechanism or found the ideal shape for an arch, but often they concealed the details in a cipher, to be decoded only if someone else challenged the claim. The new call for full disclosure meant an about-face.

Hooke fought the call for openness with all his might, and he was not alone. Such resistance was practical as well as philosophical. Unlike Boyle, a man of enormous wealth, Hooke had a living to earn. He needed not simply to demonstrate his inventions but to patent them so he could turn a profit. For decades Hooke argued that the Royal Society ought to recast itself as a tiny army, like the conquistadors who had taken over Mexico. (He reserved the role of Cortez for himself.) Secrecy was vital, censorship of discoveries essential. “Nothing considerable in that kind can be obtained without secrecy,” Hooke warned,“because else others not qualified . . . will share of the benefit.”

Hooke lost that battle, but his doubts highlight just how radical the new approach was. In the past, scholars and intellectuals had always made a point of setting themselves apart from the common herd, and they had invoked biblical authority to justify themselves. “Do not throw your pearls before swine,” they intoned endlessly, “lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you.” Like other priesthoods, intellectuals had long luxuriated in arcane rites and obscure vocabulary. The new scientists could have taken the same line. That would have seemed a natural step and an endorsement of a deeply entrenched and hugely powerful doctrine—true knowledge was too deep to put in ordinary words and too dangerous to trust to ordinary mortals.

Astonishingly, they did just the opposite. Rather than set themselves up as the newest mystic brotherhood, the new scientists spearheaded an attack on exclusivity. This marked just as sharp a break with the past as the attack on secrecy. In the era when science was born, carrying out experiments and building instruments still looked suspiciously like manual labor. That was not a way to win admirers. In the past, the discovery of truth had always been a task reserved for philosophers. Now technicians and tinkerers wanted to horn in.12

The renown that the Royal Society eventually won makes it easy to forget just how shaky its triumph was. The very sweep of its innovations made its survival doubtful. In its early decades, the Society never managed to establish itself as a safe, permanent feature of the intellectual landscape. More than once it nearly went under, beset by financial woes or bad leadership or personality clashes. For that reason, for long stretches it will nearly vanish from our story.

On this question of practicality, Hooke could scarcely have made his distaste for the old ways more clear. Universities might still believe that educating their students meant equipping them to compose odes in Greek and epigrams in Latin. Hooke favored a different mission. Even across the centuries his voice drips with scorn. The aim of science was “to improve the knowledge of natural things and all useful Arts . . . not meddling with Divinity, Metaphysics, Morals, Politics, Grammar, Rhetorick, or Logick.”

The disdain was aimed not at learning but at endless talking. (Hooke was the furthest thing from a philistine. Architect, scientist, inventor—“England’s Leonardo,” in one biographer’s phrase—he had set out as a young man to become an artist.)13 But Hooke and his restless allies had work to do, and they were in a hurry to get started. They sought to carry out their investigations “not by a glorious pomp of words,” one early manifesto declared, “but by the silent, effectual, and unanswerable arguments of real productions.”

This was a battle cry, too, though again we might miss its significance. The rejection of “glorious” phrasemaking was a deliberate provocation. The seventeenth century was an age of tremendous formality, especially when it came to speech and writing. The Royal Society would have none of it. The Society favored “a close, naked, natural way of speaking,” its first historian declared, “. . . bringing all things as near the Mathematical plainness as they can, and preferred the language of artisans, countrymen, and merchants before that of wits or scholars.”

This was shocking. To speak in a “naked, natural way” was as unlikely as to walk outdoors naked and naturally. Elaborate rules of etiquette governed every kind of verbal exchange. A person sitting down to write a letter had to know when it was proper to sign “Your most obedient and most obliged servant” and when “Your most humble and most affectionate servant.” If the letter was addressed to a social superior, eloquent groveling was mandatory. “All that I mean,” John Donne wrote to the Duke of Buckingham, “in using this boldness, of putting myself into your Lordship’s presence by this rag of paper, is to tell your Lordship that I lie in a corner, as a clod of clay, attending what kind of vessel it shall please you to make of Your Lordship’s humblest and thankfullest and devotedst servant.”

In books even such arcane matters as the precise appearance of the dedication page called for great concern. Such pages carried a fervent declaration of praise and gratitude from the author to his patron. The size of the blank space between dedication and the author’s signature was key. The larger the gap in status between patron and author, the larger the gap between dedication and signature, as if to ensure that the unkempt, ink-stained writer could not besmirch his eminent sponsor.

Such rules endured all through the 1600s, but the Royal Society set out to combat them. Metaphors, similes, and all the other long-esteemed forms of verbal display were mere distractions, ornamental froufrou that only impeded the search for truth. Out with them!