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The Royal Society: 353 Years Later, England’s First Scientific Organization Keeps On Illuminating

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In the 1640s, the Scientific Revolution was already underway. A century before, Copernicus had argued that the Earth revolved around the sun; 50 years before, Galileo Galilei had supposedly dropped two balls of different masses from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa to test the hypothesis outlined in his book On Motion. But as far as a popular movement, what we know of as science was still a bold new fad.

Officially, the Royal Society was founded in November 1660, when Gresham College astronomy professor Sir Christopher Wren and 11 other men aimed to found ‘a Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning,’ where members would meet every week to discuss scientific topics and watch demonstrations of experiments. Soon after, the Society was granted a Royal Charter by King Charles II, and adopted a motto: “nullius in verba,” or roughly, “don’t take anybody’s word for it.”

The Society also began publishing in 1662, starting with John Evelyn’s Sylva, a treatise on forest trees, and Micrographia, a lavishly illustrated compilation of Robert Hooke’s microscopic observations (and where Hooke coined the term ‘cell,’ after remarking that the walled structures inside a piece of cork reminded him of a monk’s cell).

Other leading lights of science soon joined their voices to the chorus. Sir Isaac Newton began writing to the Society in the 1670s, detailing his experiments with light. Newton also corresponded with Wren on possible experiments to confirm the rotation of the Earth; Wren proposed firing a gun in the air at precise angles and recording where the bullets dropped.

Did the Royal Society help promote a scientific attitude in the English public? Both Thomas Sprat’s 1667 history of the Royal Society and Sir Henry Lyons’ 1944 treatise credited the Royal Society with providing the grounded, naturalistic counterweight to supernatural superstition—thus leading to the decline of popular belief in witchcraft and other spiritual phenomena across England. But despite this enthusiastic portrayal of the Royal Society as a group of medieval Mythbusters, they actually weren’t anything of the sort.

“The Society did not inquire into these phenomena and discredit them: it simply avoided them,” University of London historian Michael Hunter wrote in a 2011 paper.

However, some individual Society members were interested in investigating the supernatural and the occult. Robert Boyle, the Irish scientist credited as the “father of chemistry,” kept tabs on a man named Valentine Greatrakes who was a “stroker,” supposedly healing the sick with his hands. Though Boyle published an account of several of Greatrakes’ sessions, he did not offer any judgment on procedures.

Today, the Royal Society provides grants to both established and emerging researchers, supports international collaboration between scientists, and publishes the latest findings in numerous journals like Proceedings of the Royal Society B and Interface. It currently counts about 1,600 Fellows and Foreign Members, elected via peer review based on their excellence in science. Current Fellows include Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, and Tim Berners-Lee.

The Society also aims to recognize excellence in science communication through the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, which is also a supporter of the 2014 World Science Festival program Science and Story: The Write Angle, featuring authors Steven Pinker, Joyce Carol Oates, E.L. Doctorow, Jo Marchant, and Sean Carroll—winner of the 2013 Prize for his book The Particle At The End of the Universe.

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