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The Scientific Revolution (1550-1700)

Cooperation in Science: The Role of the Royal Society (1662-1700)

Newton and Comprehensive Understanding (1687)

Cooperation in Science: The Role of the Royal Society (1662-1700), page 2

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As the spirit of scientific intellectualism grew in Europe, communication between the great thinkers of the time became more and more common, as they found their fields overlapping and their services of help to one another. This communication was aided by the efforts of intellectually minded social elites such as France's Mersenne and England's Samuel Hartlib, both of whom corresponded and associated with many of the Scientific Revolution's luminaries and encouraged them to cooperate with one another in the name of science. Hartlib, a scientist and socialite in London, began during the middle seventeenth century to plan for the founding of an institution within which to unite the thinkers of the region and engage them in intellectual pursuit and constructive debate. The Royal Society of London was officially organized in 1662, though its members had been meeting weekly to discuss current issues of philosophy and scientific import. In 1662, after a plea was sent to parliament and the crown, King Charles II proclaimed himself the founder and patron of the Royal Society, sometimes referred to as Gresham College. Charles continued to take an active role in the life of the Royal Society, proposing topics for investigation, and asking for the society's cooperation on a number of projects.

One of the most prominent features of the Royal Society was that it admitted as Fellows men of all religions, professions, origins, and classes. It sought to promote a universal culture of peace throughout Europe, and shunned war and discrimination. Many famous scientists of the era were Fellows of the Royal Society, and almost all of the society's Fellows went on to become somewhat famous, at least within their fields. The Fellows assisted each other with advice, criticism, and cooperation, and attempted to learn as much as possible from one another.

The Royal Society promoted the advancement of all professions and was heavily involved in the promotion of invention. In 1662, Charles II decreed that all inventions must pass under the inspection of the Royal Society before patents would be granted for them. Many of inventions of the period actually emanated from the Fellows themselves, as well. The society undertook many laboratory experiments, funded by the crown, and promoted the wide discussion of the results. In 1664, the society began to publish the works of its Fellows in scientific journals, and this practice eased the accessibility to scientific thought for the common man and constantly advanced the cutting edge of scientific study. In fact, Isaac Newton submitted his Principia in rough draft for inspection by the Royal Society, and found the suggestions offered by the fellows instrumental in the revision of his work.

One important function of the Royal Society was correspondence, which it undertook by committee in order to keep in touch with developments in science initiated by men and societies elsewhere. In 1666, the Academie Royale de Sciences officially formed in France, and the Prussian Akademie der Wissenschaften organized in 1700. All of Europe's scientific societies had similar purposes: to gather the great minds of their region and push forward modern scientific thought, and the interconnecting system which rose up between them contributed markedly to these goals.


In the minds of the Royal Society's founders, the society was meant to serve a double purpose. Amply funded, and consisting of many high born, wealthy gentlemen, the society served to check the tendency to sacrifice the thorough search for truth to the prospect of immediate profit, and thus prod the Fellows to see their discoveries from conception to application in a continuous process, rather than exposing new theories as soon as they cropped up, without thinking them out fully. The second purpose of the society was to check dogmatism and the subservience of the Fellows thereto. The society observed the restricting and damaging effects of the wide acceptance of the Aristotelian system, and strove to strike a more effective balance between the transmission of past knowledge and the initiative to unearth new knowledge. This latter function spawned the rigorous and unyielding demand for demonstration of scientific principles. The Fellows of the Royal Society demanded to be shown the manifestation of their colleagues' work. In this attitude the societies instituted the method of scientific inquiry most unfavorable to the persistence of dogmatism: laboratory experimentation. To quote past authority was useless, and frowned upon. The crest of the Royal Society bears the motto Nullius in verba ('On the word of no man'). This motto expresses the demand for tangible evidence, for repeatable experimentation, which created the spirit of science, as we know it today.

The Fellows preserved an openness throughout the existence of the Royal Society that stemmed from the conviction that their mental powers would be raised to higher levels in the company of other great minds than in solitude. They welcomed diversity of character and diversity of view, and practically insisted upon debate. The common-sense judgment of the average citizen was oft sought and highly valued. Even though the society was home to some of the most respected men in all of Europe, the contributions of the young and inexperienced to discussions and experimentation was never rejeccted or belittled. The Royal Society made a conscious effort to be bound by no concept of undeniable truth and no specific codes of scientific experimentation. The society at one point published the view that "true experimenting has this one thing inseparable from it, never to be a fixed and settled art, and never to be limited by constant rules."

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