This review appeared in the Sunday Times on 4 September 2005
John Gribbin, The Fellowship: The Story of a Revolution, Allen Lane, £20, pp. 336
In October 1992, after years of careful deliberation, the Vatican finally admitted that it had been wrong in its dealings with the astronomer Galileo, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 1633 for promoting the heresy that the earth revolves around the sun. The great astronomer, it was conceded, had been “more perceptive” than his persecutors, and so, 359 years on, the most notorious injustice in the history of science was finally overturned: Galileo was granted a formal pardon by Pope John Paul II, and was restored to his place in the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
The scandal of Galileo’s trial, as John Gribbin points out in the opening pages of this, his 100th book, had far-reaching consequences for the shape of European science. Galileo, after all, had been world famous — his first book, The Starry Messenger, had appeared in a Chinese edition within 5 years of its first publication in 1610 — but his official silencing by the Cardinals in Rome had sent a clear warning to scientists across Catholic Europe “to give up their work, keep quiet about it, or head for more comfortable climes”. Over the course of the 17th century, the intellectual powerhouses of northern Italy, which had dominated European thought since the Renaissance, would be overshadowed by the new coalitions of natural philosophers who were beginning to be active in the Protestant nations north of the Alps. Instead of Florence and Padua, it was Oxford and London which, in the decades following the English Civil War, would go on to supply the “fertile ground in which the seeds of science could grow”.
The Fellowship sets out to tell the story of the rise of science in 17th-century England through the lives of the founders of the Royal Society, who had begun to meet in Oxford in the late 1640s, during the Parliamentary Interregnum that separated the reigns of Charles I and II. Their emphasis, from the outset, was on understanding the world through the conducting of experiments, although, as Gribbin shows, this was hardly a new approach, having been championed by earlier researchers such as William Gilbert of Colchester, who published a book on magnetism in 1600, in which he urged his readers to look “not only in books but in things themselves for knowledge.” Gribbin claims Gilbert as Europe’s first research scientist, who, unlike most of his Tudor contemporaries, believed in “getting your hands dirty investigating the real world, instead of strolling about discussing it in philosophical terms.” It was this emphasis on first-hand observation that led to the establishment of the scientific method — the 17th century’s Big Idea — in which the results of one’s experiments lead to the framing of a hypothesis, which is tested in turn by further experiments in a concerted attempt to disprove it. Only when the hypothesis has survived every test will it be elevated to the status of a theory, although, as Gribbin reminds us, there is nothing sacred or permanent about a scientific theory: “Note that a theory can never be proved right. The best that can ever be said is that it has passed all the tests applied so far.”
This was a novel way of looking at the world — Gilbert himself described it as “a new style of philosophizing” — although many of its adherents viewed themselves as inheritors of earlier forms of knowledge rather than champions of the new. Even William Harvey, the great medical researcher who discovered the circulation of the blood, saw his work as a continuation of the Aristotelian tradition, and sought the causes of bodily circulation in the mystical circulations of the heavens. Newton, too, nearly a century later, was distracted from his researches into gravity and light by the sirens of alchemy and Biblical exegesis, to which he devoted a surprising amount of his time. In fact, had it not been for the efforts of Edmond Halley, who travelled up to Cambridge on a mission to persuade the notoriously secretive Lucasian professor to write and publish the Principia Mathematica, it is unlikely that Newton would be remembered at all, and instead it would be Robert Hooke, who had proposed a number of the original hypotheses which Newton’s work set out to test, whose name would forever be associated with universal laws of motion.
Gribbin is a marvellous explainer of scientific ideas, and admirers of his earlier books will be familiar with the deceptive ease with which he conveys the complexities of Newtonian (or should that be Hookeian) physics in ways that make the reader feel intelligent. But the biographical approach has its limits, and there were times when this read like a series of extracts from the Dictionary of National Biography rather than a history of collaborative research. But since the DNB is my favourite book, that’s really more of a compliment than a criticism, and so, having just enjoyed Gribbin’s 100th book, I’m already looking forward to his 101st.