The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge

A few quotes from Edward Dolnick, The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, the formal name of this grab-bag collection of geniuses, misfits, and eccentrics, was by most accounts the first official scientific organization in the world.’

Science today is a grand and formal enterprise, but the modern age of science began as a free-for-all. The idea was to see for yourself rather than to rely on anyone else’s authority. The Royal Society’s motto was “Nullius in Verba,” Latin for, roughly, “Don’t take anyone’s word for it,” and early investigators embraced that freedom with something akin to giddiness.’

The world was so full of marvels, in other words, that the truly scientific approach was to reserve judgment about what was possible and what wasn’t, and to observe and experiment instead.’

“Books on the Second Coming were written by the score during this period,” one eminent historian observes, “and members of the Royal Society were preoccupied with dating the event.” They proceeded methodically, looking for hidden meanings in biblical texts or manipulating numbers cited in one sacred passage or another.’

If God were to relax his guard even for a moment, the entire world would immediately collapse into chaos and anarchy. The very plants in the garden would rebel against their “cold, dull, inactive life,” one Royal Society physician declared, and strive instead for “self motion” and “nobler actions.”

At another meeting in 1660, the Society gravely scrutinized a unicorn’s horn and then tested the ancient belief that a spider set down in the middle of a circle made from powdered unicorn’s horn would not be able to escape. (The spider, unfazed, “immediately ran out several times repeated.”)


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