Book Review – Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society

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This collection of essays, put together by Bill Bryson as editor, to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), really is something to savour.

I must admit that while I already had a positive regard for the RSA, it was the presence of Georgina Ferry in the list of contributors that first caught my attention (she wrote one my of favourite non-fiction books, A Computer Called LEO).

But as it turned out, it was Henry Petroski‘s essay, Images of Progress: Conference of Engineers, that I turned to first. A chapter inspired some what by this painting. And really, from this point I explored the chapters in a random and leisurely fashion.

The twenty-one essays in this book covers science from all angles – the science itself, its relevance to issues we currently face and how scientists themselves are situation in society. If you are like me, you will warm to some chapters immediately but others take a little time to appreciate. I suggest you take you time!

I also suspect that some of the more historical or philosophical based essays will age well, and others – addressing current issues from a contemporary scientific view – will in a decade or so perhaps be less relevant. However, as you read this book you become aware that this very much reflects the nature of the RSA. They a collection of explorers, build on a solid foundation of credibility but they do not have perfect foresight (as Simon Schaffer’s and Richard Holmes’ chapters demonstrate), they are simply always moving forward.

Overall, I found this book very encouraging is the broadest sense. Bill Bryson writes in his introduction:

“The Royal Society has been doing interesting and heroic things since 1660 when it was founded, one damp weeknight in late November, by a dozen men who had gathered in rooms at Gresham College to hear Christopher Wren, 28 years old and not yet generally famous, give a lecture on astronomy.”

I immediately thought of my present day peers, coming together at different BarCamps and similar unconferences to exchange ideas. Perhaps these modern day collaborations have more potential than we imagine? We shouldn’t forget that by modern day standards, many of the RSA’s early history is full of experiments and ideas that sound completely absurd too!

The physical (hardcover) book itself and its visual design has also been put together with great thought. Just the right number of images and photos have been used in each chapter, so that they embellish the experience of reading rather than overwhelming it.

Incidentally, the RSA continues to be a thoroughly progressive and modern global organisation – for example, check out their YouTube. They also have Fellowship chapters around the world, including here in Australia.

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