March 29, 2020

Review: Seeing Further Edited by Bill Bryson.

Few realize in this relatively enlightened age that our outlook on the world around us has been shaped by a pioneering few who often went against the grain. This week, we look at Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, & the Genius of the Royal Society. This collection of essays traces the 350 year history of the British Royal Society, first established in 1660. Over the years, the Society has hosted such luminaries as Isaac Newton, Joseph Banks, and Francis Crick, to name a very brief few.

Since its inception, less than 8,000 members past and present have been elected to the Royal Society, and the standing joke by John Desmond to student chemist and crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin is that membership in the Society was considerably more difficult than winning a Nobel (she eventually did both). The Society was founded on the ideas for scientific survey first set forth by Sir Francis Bacon, and its founding served as a turning point in western civilization’s long march out of superstitious darkness. Many do not realize that the very idea of deduction through observation was anathema to many thinkers in the ancient world; it’s sometimes tough to accept nature as the way it is rather than what we think it should be. The essays in Seeing Further capture this insight, as key thinkers and philosophers of our time share pivotal moments in the Royal Societies’ history. These range from tales of the practical, such as Simon Schaffer’s Charged Atmospheres and the nature of lightning and Henry Petroski’s Images of Progress and the building of the ground-breaking Menai Bridge, to the pivotal, such as Richard Dawkins excellent essay Darwin’s Five Bridges on the road to natural selection or the controversial discovery of DNA in Georgina Ferry’s X-Ray Visions. Some even verge on the bizarre and little known by-ways of science history, such as the metaphysical battles waged between Newton and Leibniz in Neal Stephenson’s Atoms of Cognition and the promise and terror wrought by modern science in Margaret Atwood’s Of the Madness of Mad Scientists.

But Seeing Further also takes us on a tour of the present state of scientific issues and on a journey into an uncertain future. The dilemmas of technology, population, and global warming are all addressed, as well as the continuing role that science will play in confronting them. As we become more mature as a species, we can scarcely afford to ignore our fragile place in the cosmos or the part that science will play in assuring our continued survival. Whatever your partisanship or affiliation, we’re all stuck on one planet, together. Seeing Further also wisely acknowledges that it is virtually impossible to predict the state of humanity in the distant future, as such a world is almost always more nuanced than we can realize, and progress is often incremental rather than smooth. Science Fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once stated that any future science would appear suitably advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic, and modern airliners and IPhones certainly fit this bill. Read Seeing Further to get a snapshot not only of the history of the Society, but the role that science has played in our lives and where we may be headed.

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