The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World - Edward Dolnick (2011)
Part I. Chaos
Chapter 10. The Boys’ Club
Science today is a grand and formal enterprise, but the modern age of science began as a free-for-all. The idea was to see for yourself rather than to rely on anyone else’s authority. The Royal Society’s motto was “Nullius in Verba,” Latin for, roughly, “Don’t take anyone’s word for it,” and early investigators embraced that freedom with something akin to giddiness.
The meetings of the Royal Society in its young days sound like gatherings of a group of very smart, very reckless Cub Scouts. Society members gathered in a large room with a bare table and a roaring fire. In a group portrait, the men—the company was all male—would have looked more or less alike, but that was largely because everyone wore wigs. (In England and France, fashion followed the court. When Charles II began to go gray, and when the Sun King’s hairs began to clog the royal hairbrush, the monarchs donned wigs, and soon no gentleman in Europe would venture out in public in his own hair.)
Half a dozen chairs, reserved for important visitors, sat empty on most days, while spectators jostled for space on two wooden benches. Seating was catch as catch can. New arrivals found places “as they think fit, and without any Ceremony,” one French visitor wrote in amazement, “and if any one comes in after the Society is fixed, no Body stirs, but he takes a Place presently where he can find it, so that no Interruption may be given to him that speaks.” Whisperers were hushed indignantly.
The highlights, most weeks, were “demonstrations,” the livelier the better. Hooke and Boyle carried out a long series of experiments to explore “the expansive forces of congelation”—they put water in a glass tube and froze it—and then everyone settled in to watch the tubes break “with a considerable noise and violence.” Noise was always a great selling point. The members of the Royal Society were forever studying giant hailstones, for instance, in the hope that they would explode with a deafening crack when thrown into the fire. As a bonus, some hailstones had a strange shape or color. In those cases, the scientists’ descriptions took on the tone of a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” item about a potato in the shape of a donkey.
Hooke had a particularly admired touch. He had figured out how to pump the air from a bell jar. (Official credit for building the air pump went to Boyle, for several years Hooke’s employer.) Now he carried out experiment after experiment while his fellow scientists watched enthralled. “We put in a snake but could not kill it,” one onlooker wrote perplexedly, but a chicken made a better show. “The chick died of convulsions outright, in a short space.” What was the magical substance in ordinary air that living creatures needed in order to keep breathing, and why did some animals need more of it than others?
Soon Hooke and the others moved beyond experiments with birds and mice (and, less dramatically, with burning candles, which also seemed to need to “breathe”). On May 7, 1662, the Society needed something out of the ordinary for a particularly distinguished guest, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, cousin to the king. Out came the much-loved air pump. “We tried several experiments of Mr. Boyle’s Vaccuum,” wrote the diarist John Evelyn, who was in attendance. But what to put inside? Another mouse?
Robert Hooke had a better idea. “A man thrusting in his arm”—this was Hooke himself—“upon exhaustion of the air had his flesh immediately swelled, so as the blood was neere breaking the vaines, & unsufferable,” Evelyn noted contentedly. “He drawing it out, we found it all speckled.”
Transfusions made even better theater. On a November afternoon in 1667, forty witnesses crowded into the Society’s meeting room to watch a blood transfusion from a sheep to a human. The subject was one Arthur Coga, “who, hearing that the Society were very desirous to try the experiment of transfusion upon a man, and being in want of money, offered himself for a guinea, which was immediately accepted on the part of the Society.”
Coga had studied divinity at Cambridge but had suffered some kind of mental breakdown. That combination of credentials made Coga a perfect subject—his word could be trusted, since he was a gentleman, and he was mad, so he was intriguing. The hope was that the blood transfusion would cure him, though no one had any very good reason to think that might happen. While the crowd looked on, a surgeon made an incision into the sheep’s leg and another into Coga’s arm and then maneuvered a thin, silver pipe into place between them.
For two minutes blood passed from the sheep into Coga’s body. Remarkably, Coga survived (although he did not recover his sanity). “After the operation the patient was well and merry,” the surgeon reported, “and drank a glass or two of [wine] and took a pipe of tobacco in the presence of forty or more persons; then went home, and continued well all day.”
* * *
Sheep to man blood transfusion. Wellcome Library, London.
For the spectators who jostled one another for a better view of Arthur Coga’s throbbing arm, every element of the scene before them was noteworthy. The experiment itself was new and untested, but the Royal Society’s whole approach to the pursuit of knowledge constituted a much vaster, more important experiment.
Experiments were something new. The Society’s devotion to this innovative way of probing nature amounted to a call for people to think for themselves. That idea, which seems like the merest common sense to us, struck onlookers at the time as dangerous and obviously misguided.
It’s always the case that history is a tale told by the victors. But the triumph of the scientific worldview has been so complete that we’ve lost more than the losing side’s version of history. We’ve lost the idea that a view different from ours is even possible. Today we take for granted that originality is a word of praise. New strikes us as nearly synonymous with improved. But for nearly all of human history, a new idea was a dangerous idea. When the first history of the Royal Society was written, in 1667, the author felt obliged to rebut the charge that “to be the Author of new things is a crime.” By that standard, he argued, whoever raised the first house or plowed the first field could have been deemed guilty of introducing a novelty.
Most people would have agreed with the Spanish ruler Alfonso the Wise, who had once decreed that the only desirable things in this world were “old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to converse with, and old books to read.” The best way to learn the truth, it was often observed, was to see what the authorities of the past had decreed. This was the plainest common sense. To ignore such wisdom in favor of exploring on one’s own was to seek disaster, akin to a foolish traveler’s taking it in his head to fling the captain overboard and grab the ship’s wheel himself.
Through long centuries the mission of Europe’s great universities had been, in the words of the historian Daniel Boorstin, “not to discover the new but to transmit a heritage.” (In the fourteenth century Oxford University had imposed a rule that “Bachelors and Masters of Arts who do not follow Aristotle’s philosophy are subject to a fine of 5 shillings for each point of divergence.”) The intellectual traits that we esteem today—like independence and skepticism—were precisely those traits that the Middle Ages feared and scorned.
That deference to authority had religious roots, as did nearly every aspect of medieval life. Good Christians showed their faith partly by their willingness to believe in the unbelievable. In a world riddled with miracles and mysteries, where angels and demons were as real as cats and dogs and where every illness and good harvest showed God’s hand, skepticism was only a step from heresy. Who would set limits on the marvels the world contains? No one but an infidel.
So experiments had two linked drawbacks. To insist on making one’s own investigations was bad in itself, because it veered on impiety. In addition, looking for oneself meant second-guessing the value of eyewitness testimony. And for longer than anyone could remember, eyewitness testimony—whether it had to do with blood raining from the sky or the birth of half human/half animal monsters—had trumped all other forms of evidence. To accept such testimonials marked a person not as gullible or unsophisticated but as pious and thoughtful. To question such testimonials, on the other hand, the historians Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park remark, was “the hallmark of the narrow-minded and suspicious peasant, trapped in the bubble of his limited experience.”
Augustine had laid out the argument many centuries before. “For God is certainly called Almighty for one reason only,” he had written. That reason was perfectly plain: “He has the power to create so many things which would be reckoned obviously impossible” if not for the eyewitnesses who could swear to their truth.
The believers’ task, then, was to defer to authority and refrain from asking questions, literally to “take it on faith.” Augustine railed against the sin of curiosity with a fury and revulsion that, to modern ears, sound almost unhinged. Curiosity was, he wrote, a form of lust as despicable as any lusting of the flesh. The “lust to find out and know” was a perversion born of the same evil impulse that leads some people to peek at mutilated corpses or sneak into sideshows and stare at freaks. God intended that some mysteries remain beyond the bounds of human insight. Did not the Bible warn that “what the Lord keeps secret is no concern of yours; do not busy yourself with matters that are beyond you”?
Augustine’s denunciation of curiosity prevailed for a thousand years. To seek to unravel nature’s mysteries was to aspire to see the world with perfect clarity, and such insight was reserved for God alone. Pride was the great danger. “Knowledge puffeth up,” Corinthians declared, and humankind had a duty to bear that rebuke constantly in mind. When the early scientists finally presumed to challenge that age-old dogma, traditionally minded thinkers sputtered in fury. No testimony was good enough for these maddening newcomers. “If the wisest men in the world tell them that they see it or know it; if the workers of miracles, Christ and his apostles, tell them that they see it; if God himself tells them that He sees it,” one theologian thundered, “yet all this does not satisfy them unless they may see it themselves.”
So the Royal Society’s emphasis on experiments was a startling innovation. And experiments had still another feature that made them suspect. Experiments were by definition artificial. How could anyone draw universal, valid conclusions from special, manufactured circumstances? The problem with the new scientists’ approach wasn’t so much that they insisted on looking at nature rather than at books; the problem was that, not content with looking at the world, they insisted on manipulating it.
Premodern thinkers had studied the natural world closely. Astrologers scrutinized the night sky; botanists and doctors took notes on every plant that grew. But that had been a matter of observing and arranging rather than devising new questions to ask. The investigator’s task had always been seen as akin to that of a librarian or a museum curator. For millennia, in one historian’s words, an intellectual’s “first duty” had been “absorbing, classifying, and preserving the known rather than exploring pastures new.”
The new scientists, a less patient bunch, preferred the creed of their predecessor Francis Bacon, a contemporary of Shakespeare and the first great advocate of experimentation.10 Nature must be “put to the torture,” Bacon had declared. No doubt the image came quickly to mind in an age that coerced confessions by stretching prisoners on the rack or crushing their fingers in thumbscrews.
For the boisterous men of the Royal Society, spying on nature from behind a curtain was entirely too passive. Experiments had the great advantage that they let you do something. Preferably something dangerous. Hooke eventually managed to build a vacuum chamber so large that he could climb inside. Then, while the members of the Royal Society looked on with fascination, he gave the signal to pump the air out. The pump malfunctioned before Hooke could suffocate, but he did manage to render himself dizzy and temporarily deaf.