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

Part I. Chaos

Chapter 14. Of Mites and Men

Pepys’s light tone was telltale. Science was destined to remake the world, but in its early days it inspired laughter more often than reverence. Pepys was genuinely fascinated with science—he set up a borrowed telescope on his roof and peered at the moon and Jupiter, he raced out to buy a microscope as soon as they came on the market, he struggled through Boyle’s Hydrostatical Paradoxes (“a most excellent book as ever I read, and I will take much pains to understand him through if I can”), and in the 1680s he served as president of the Royal Society—but his amusement was genuine, too.17 All these intellectuals studying spiders and tinkering with pumps. It was a bit ludicrous.

The king certainly thought so. He, too, was an aficionado of science. He had, after all, chartered the Royal Society, and he liked to putter about in his own laboratory. But he referred to the Society’s savants as his “jesters,” and once he burst out laughing at the Royal Society “for spending time only in weighing of ayre, and doing nothing else since they sat.”

Weighing the air—which plainly weighed nothing at all—seemed less like a groundbreaking advance than a return to such medieval pastimes as debating whether Adam had a navel. Skeptics never tired of satirizing scientists for their impracticality. One critic conceded that the members of the Royal Society were “Ingenious men and have found out A great Many Secrets in Nature.” Still, he noted, the public had gained “Little Advantage” from such discoveries. Perhaps the learned scientists could turn their attention to “the Nature of butter and cheese.”

In fact, they had given considerable thought to cheese, and also to finding better ways to make candles, pump water, tan leather, and dye cloth. From the start, Boyle had taken the lead in speaking out against any attempts to separate science and technology. “I shall not dare to think myself a true naturalist ’til my skill can make my garden yield better herbs and flowers, or my orchard better fruit, or my field better corn, or my dairy better cheese” than the old ways produced.

To hear the scientists and their allies tell it, unimaginable bounty lay just around the corner. Joseph Glanvill, a member of the Royal Society but not a scientist himself, shouted the loudest. “Should those Heroes go on, as they have happily begun,” Glanvill exclaimed, “they’ll fill the world with wonders.” In the future, “a voyage to Southern unknown Tracts, yea possibly the Moon, will not be more strange than one to America. To them that come after us, it may be as ordinary to buy a pair of wings to fly into remotest Regions, as now a pair of Boots to ride a Journey.”18

Such forecasts served mainly to inspire the mockers. By 1676 the Royal Society found itself the subject of a hit London comedy, the seventeenth-century counterpart of a running gag on Saturday Night Live. The play was called The Virtuoso, which could mean either “far-ranging scholar” or “dilettante.” Thomas Shadwell, the playwright, lifted much of his dialogue straight from the scientists’ own accounts of their work.

Playgoers first encountered the evening’s hero, Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, sprawled on his belly on a table in his laboratory. Sir Nicholas has one end of a string clenched in his teeth; the other end is tied to a frog in a bowl of water. The virtuoso’s plan is to learn to swim by copying the frog’s motions. A visitor asks whether he has tested the technique in water. Not necessary, says Sir Nicholas, who explains that he hates getting wet. “I content myself with the speculative part of swimming. I care not for the practical. I seldom bring anything to use. . . . Knowledge is my ultimate end.”

Sir Nicholas’s family is not pleased. A niece complains that he has “spent £2000 in Microscopes, to find out the nature of Eels in vinegar, Mites in Cheese, and the blue of Plums.” A second niece worries that her uncle has “broken his Brains about the nature of Maggots and studied these twenty Years to find out the several sorts of Spiders.”

All the favorite Royal Society pastimes came in for ridicule. Gimcrack studied the moon through a telescope, as Hooke had done, and his description of its “Mountainous Parts and Valleys and Seas and Lakes,” as well as “Elephants and Camels,” spoofs Hooke’s account. (Hooke went to see the play and complained that the audience, which took for granted that he was the inspiration for Gimcrack, “almost pointed” at him in derision.)

Sir Nicholas experimented on dogs, too, and boasted about a blood transfusion in which “the Spaniel became a Bull-Dog, and the Bull-Dog a Spaniel.” He had even tried a blood transfusion between a sheep and a madman. The sheep died, but the madman survived and thrived, except that “he bleated perpetually, and chew’d the Cud, and had Wool growing on him in great Quantities.”

Like his king, Shadwell found much to satirize in the virtuosos’ fascination with the properties of air. Sir Nicholas keeps a kind of wine cellar with bottles holding air collected from all over. His assistants have crossed the globe “bottling up Air, and weighing it in all Places, sealing the Bottles Hermetically.” Air from Tenerife is the lightest, that from the Isle of Dogs heaviest. Shadwell had great fun with the notion that air is a substance, with properties, rather than a mere absence. “Let me tell you, Gentlemen,” Sir Nicholas assures his visitors, “Air is but a thinner sort of Liquor, and drinks much the better for being bottled.”

Shadwell had a good number of allies among the satirists of his day, many of them eminent. Samuel Butler lampooned men who spent their time staring into microscopes at fleas and drops of pond water and contemplating such mysteries as “How many different Species / Of Maggots breed in rotten Cheeses.”

But no one brought as much talent to ridiculing science as Jonathan Swift. Even writing more than half a century after the founding of the Royal Society, in Gulliver’s Travels, Swift quivered with indignation at scientists for their pretension and impracticality. (Swift visited the Royal Society in 1710, squeezing in his visit between a trip to the insane asylum at Bedlam and a visit to a puppet show.)

Gulliver observes one ludicrous project after another. He sees men working on “softening Marble for Pillows and Pincushions” and an inventor engaged in “an Operation to reduce human Excrement to its original Food.” In many places, the satire targets actual Royal Society experiments. Real scientists had struggled in vain, for instance, to sort out the mysterious process that would later be called photosynthesis. How do plants manage to grow by “eating” sunlight?19 Gulliver meets a man who “had been Eight Years upon a project for extracting Sun-Beams out of Cucumbers, which were to be put into Vials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the Air in raw inclement Summers.”

Swift’s sages live in the expectation that soon “one Man shall do the Work of Ten and a Palace may be built in a Week,” but none of the high hopes ever pans out. “In the mean time, the whole Country lies miserably waste, the Houses in Ruins, and the People without Food or Cloaths.”

Mathematicians, the very emblem of head-in-the-clouds uselessness, come in for extra ridicule. So absentminded are they that they need to be rapped on the mouth by their servants to remember to speak. Lost in thought, they fall down the stairs and walk into doors. They can think of nothing but mathematics and music. Even meals feature such mathematical courses as “a Shoulder of Mutton, cut into an Equilateral Triangle; a Piece of Beef into a Rhomboides; and a Pudding into a Cycloid.”

In hardheaded England, where “practicality” and “common sense” were celebrated as among the highest virtues, Swift’s disdain for mathematics was widely shared by his fellow intellectuals. In that sense, Swift’s mockery of absentminded professors was standard issue. But, more than he could have known, Swift was right to direct his sharpest thrusts at mathematicians. These dreamers truly were, as Swift intuited, the most dangerous scientists of all. Microscopes and telescopes were the glamorous innovations that drew all eyes—Gulliver’s Travels testifies to Swift’s fascination with their power to reveal new worlds—but new instruments were only part of the story of the age. The insights that would soon transform the world required no tools more sophisticated than a fountain pen.

For it was the mathematicians who invented the engine that powered the scientific revolution. Centuries later, the story would find an echo. In 1931, with great hoopla, Albert Einstein and his wife, Elsa, were toured around the observatory at California’s Mount Wilson, home to the world’s biggest telescope. Someone told Elsa that astronomers had used this magnificent telescope to determine the shape of the universe. “Well,” she said, “my husband does that on the back of an old envelope.”

Those outsiders who did take science seriously tended to dislike what they saw. The scientists themselves viewed their work as a way of paying homage to God, but their critics were not so sure. Astronomy stirred the most fear. Who needed it, when we already know the story of the heavens and the Earth, and on the best possible authority? To probe further was to treat the Bible as just another source of information, to be tested and questioned like any other. A popular bit of seventeenth-century doggerel purportedly captured the scientists’ view: “All the books of Moses / Were nothing but supposes.”

The devout had another objection. Science diverted its practitioners from deep questions to silly ones. “Is there anything more Absurd and Impertinent,” one minister snapped, “than to find a Man, who has so great a Concern upon his Hands as the preparing for Eternity, all busy and taken up with Quadrants, and TelescopesFurnacesSyphons, and Air Pumps?”

So science irritated those who found it pompous and ridiculous. It offended those who found it subversive. Just as important, it bewildered almost everyone.