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Dr Kate Bennett discusses John Aubrey's best-known work, 'Brief Lives'.
John Aubrey FRS (1626—97) wrote some of the earliest and certainly some of the liveliest sketches of scientists in the seventeenth century, mainly in his famous Brief Lives (c. 1680—81). He wrote these from an insider’s view: his many friends included Robert Hooke and a number of other Fellows of the Royal Society. However, Aubrey’s contribution is not only to present an unique and often hilarious account of his contemporaries. Aubrey saw the Society as a way of promoting science by recognising, recording, and supporting the work of those who sorely needed such encouragement. In the same way his Lives do justice to the work of scientists, especially mathematicians, who were in remote locations and who lacked equipment, funding, encouragement, the latest publications, and social stimulation. In doing so he shows us a different side of early science: men who taught their little daughters algebra, while other mathematicians were discouraged from their work by clergyman relatives because it was not the business of saving souls. Aubrey’s Lives show how seventeenth-century scientific culture involved failures, uncompleted work, squandered talent, and really bad ideas as well as successes and ground-breaking publications.
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