Seeing Further, &tc.

I can tell you at once that my favourite fellow of the Royal Society was the Reverend Thomas Bayes, from Turnbridge Wells in Kent, who lived from about 1701 to 1761. He was by all accounts a hopeless preacher, but a brilliant mathematician.” B. Bryson, Seeing Further, page 2.

After begging for a copy with Harper and Collins (!), I eventually managed to get hold of Bill Bryson’s “Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society“. Now, a word of warning: Bill Bryson is the editor of the book, meaning he wrote the very first chapter, plus a paragraph of introduction to the 21 next chapters. If, like me, you are a fan of Bryson’s hilarious style and stories (and have been for the past twenty years, starting with “Mother Tongue” about the English language), you will find this distinction rather unfortunate, esp. because it is not particularly well-advertised… But, after opening the book, you should not remain cross very long, and this for two reasons: the first one is that Bayes’s theorem appears on the very first page (written by Bryson, mind you!), with enough greek letters to make sure we are talking of our Bayes rule! This reason is completed by the above sentence which is in fact the very first in the book! Bryson took for sure a strong liking to Reverent Bayes to pick him as the epitome of a FRS! And he further avoids using this suspicious picture of the Reverent that plagues so many of our sites and talks… Bryson includes instead a letter from Thomas Bayes dated 1763, which must mean it was sent by Richard Price towards the publication of “An Essay towards solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances” in the Philosophical Transactions, as Bayes had been dead by two years at that time.

What about my second reason? Well, the authors selected by Bryson to write this eulogy of the Royal Society are mostly scientific writers like Richard Dawkins and James Gleick, scientists like Martin Rees and many others, and even a cyberpunk writer like Neal Stephenson, a selection that should not come as a surprise given his monumental Baroque Cycle about Isaac Newton and friends. Now, Neal Stephenson gets to the next level of awesome by writing a chapter on the philosophical concepts of Leibniz, FRS, the monads, and the fact that it was not making sense until quantum mechanics was introduced (drawing inspiration from a recent book by Christia Mercer). Now, the chapters of the book are quite uneven, some are about points not much related to the Royal Society, or bringing little light upon it. But overall the feeling that perspires the book is one of tremendous achievement by this conglomerate of men (and then women after 1945!) who started a Society about useful knowledge in 1660…

I quite liked Gleick’s depiction (Chapter 1) of the early experiments ran by the Society, showing a curiosity about everything (meaning really everything, even the most ridiculous claims!), disliked Atwood’s essay (Chapter 2) on the figure of the “mad scientist” and Maggie Gee’s text (Chapter 18) on the “end of the world” as very much unrelated to the Society, as well as Wertheim’s study (Chapter 3) of the impact of Newtonian physics on cosmology and faith (maybe because quoting Star Treck and X-Files does not seem to belong there!, maybe because of the cheap philosophy underlying the text). More interestingly, Paul Davies rekindles the debate in Chapter 14 about the not-such-a-special-place features of our location.

I have already mentioned Neal Stephenson’s superb foray into Leibniz’ metaphysics (Chapter 4), definitely worth reading and reminding me in the last part of the great Logicomix book. Rebecca Goldstein’s (Chapter 5) on the apparent opposition between mathematical and empirical approaches within the Society is quite fascinating, concluding on Wigner’s “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” (and making me realise that Francis Bacon was almost contemporary to the creation of the Society). Philip Ball comes back to Bacon in Chapter 13, with his call for an experimental philosophy oriented towards applications. Simon Schafer’s Chapter 6 is about an epiphenomenon, namely the dispute within the Society as whether or not spiked rods were effective against lightning strikes, followed by another mildly interesting chapter by Richard Holmes on ballooning and the reserve of the Society about “a typically French craze for novelty and display” (p.159). Richard Fottey’s Chapter 7 starts from the stupendous Archaeopteryx fossil displayed in the British Museum to discuss how classifications stemmed from personal collections, as in Linnaeus’ system. (This reminded me of the very enjoyable Remarkable Creatures I read this summer. Although neither of the two main characters appears in this chapter.) This preceds Richard  [yes, three Richards in a row!] Dawkins’ brilliant Chapter 7 on Darwin’s “five bridges” (pp. 219-221), the final bridge being crossed by “the  twentieth-century founders of population genetics, R.A. Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane and Sewall Wright” (p.223). Dawkins conclude that “a sharper representation of evolution sees [chisels] as working not on the bodies of animals but on the statistical structure of gene pools” (p.227). Steve Jones’ Chapter 12 returns to Darwin with the unknowns about what drives biodiversity (and “the importance of randomness”, p.291).

Sometimes a likelihood gets so low that we say the proposal is `falsified’, or so high that it is `confirmed’ or `verified‘.” John Barrow, page 364.

Chapter 10 by Henry Petroski is about a topic that never ceases to fascinate me, namely bridges, with mentions of the Firth of Forth and Millau bridges, but it does not seem much related to the Society. Georgina Ferry’s Chapter 11 on the role of crystallography in uncovering molecular structures is very engaging, especially as it links with the political and social involvements of the crystallographers of that time, leading to the first women elected as FRS in 1945 (Kathleen Lonsdale and Marjorie Stephenson) as well as to the first and only British woman to win a Science Nobel Prize, Dorothy Hodgkin (1964). There is very little about mathematics in this book and Ian Stewart’s Chapter 15 deals with “the hidden mathematics that rule our world”. While not very exciting for mathematicians (although it made me find that Joseph Fourier had been elected an FRS), it may bring some novelty to the general public… John Barrow’s Chapter 16 is somehow related in that it deals with the theory of complexity and the search for theories of everything (TOE). Fairly interesting (with a great final picture p.383 that I would and maybe will relate to the difficulties of running simulated annealing, although Barrow uses it for sandpile buildups). The Late Stephen Schneider covers the difficult issues of climate change modelling (Chapter 19), with a return to Bayes: “when I first got involved in (…) climate change, I didn’t understand Bayesian versus frequentist statistics, but in fact that was the heart of the matter” (p.433). His argument is that prediction only makes sense from a Bayesian perspective, as “there are no hard statistics in the future” (p.434).

The final chapters seemed less interesting (to me) in that they were dealing more with societal than (Royal) Society issues. Or maybe they carried less historical weight, being about mostly present matters. For instance, I kind of resented the inclusion of a iPhone on the cover of Martin Rees’ conclusion (Chapter 21). Whose predictions for 2060 seem a wee wide and off-the-mark (included the mention of Conway’s game-of-life which reminded me of Wolfram‘s “new science”!), but who informed me that Ramanujan became an FRS before his early death

All in all, Bill Bryson’s edition of “Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Societyis a wonderful if uneven and sometimes disconnected collection of essays. I spent a few enjoyable evenings perusing through those and will most likely do so in the future (once those who borrowed the book from me will have given it back!). I must also add that the book design is quite well-done, with quality paper (even in the paperback edition), an agreeable format, and mostly well-reproduced illustrations. Thus, even though chances of joining the Society are extremely limited for most of us, I do highly recommend reading this book!

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