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History of science community: get involved in Royal Society pilot archive project Science in the Making

25 April 2018

For the first time, high quality full colour never-before-seen digital images of the original Royal Society Journals from 1665 to 1996 are being made available on the Royal Society’s pilot Science in the Making website. The Society has gone even further and presents archival material from its collections connected to the journals. This includes annotations, illustrations, and additional material that have so far only been available to people visiting our library. Some of the material available includes a dismissive peer review of Alan Turing’s work and Robert Hooke’s disapproval of Newton’s colour theories.

With the help of historians and academics tagging and transcribing the images, improved metadata will mean the collection is easier to search, enabling users of the site to navigate through over 350 years of science in the making.

Stuart Taylor, Publishing Director at the Royal Society says, “We are delighted to be making this fascinating material from our archives available online for the first time. It provides a unique insight into the way science was communicated and critiqued by peers from the earliest days of the Royal Society. We very much hope that the history of science community will help us contribute to the content and make this pilot a success.”

Some of the highlights from the newly digitised content include;

Charles Darwin’s grandson believes Alan Turing’s mathematics “aren’t very deep”

Peer-review has been a key part of the Royal Society’s work since the 19th century and less formal forms of refereeing were at the core of the publication process since the 17th century. On the Science in the Making platform, the public can now access enlightening reports about some of the most famous scientific papers, and read famous scientists considering the work of their peers. Users will be able to interact and trace the correspondence between scientists in an interactive map that links each scientist to their peer reviews.

One of the highlights includes a report on Alan Turing’s paper 'On the Chemical basis of Morphogenesis' which was reviewed by Charles Darwin’s grandson, Charles Galton Darwin. He said of Turing’s paper “The mathematics are not very deep, and the mathematician will not get any new principles from it, though for him the detailed results may be handy.”

Robert Hooke throws shade at Newton’s theory about colours

Newton’s papers on the science of colour in the Philosophical Transactions 1672-1676 launched a fascinating debate around his experiments on understandings the origins of colours. Robert Hooke, the Royal Society’s first Curator of Experiments and others believed colours resulted from the mixing between darkness and light. Newton disproved this theory and, using refraction by prisms, proved that colours were an intrinsic part of light.

In the document “Considerations of Mr. Hook”, Newton’s work on discourse of light and colours is heavily criticised by Hooke.

“I have perused the Discourse of Mr Newton about colours and refractions, and I was not little pleased with the niceness and curiosity of his observations.”

Hooke then goes on to write, “Yet as to his hypothesis of solving the phenomena of colours thereby, I confess I cannot see yet any undeniable argument to convince me of the certainty thereof. For all the experiments and observations I have hitherto made, nay and even those very experiments, which he alleged, do seem to me to prove, that white is nothing but a pulse or motion, propagated through an homogeneous, uniform, and transparent medium: and that colour is nothing but the disturbance of that light by the communication of that pulse to other transparent mediums, that is, by the refraction thereof”.

The digital collection brings together papers revealing the original controversy that followed Newton’s publications and connects it to later papers by leading scientists such as William Herschel, Thomas Young and James Clerk Maxwell who referred directly to Newton’s theory as the founding moment in the history of optics. The history of colours that emerges from this collection demonstrates Newton’s impact on nearly 200 years of scientific discussions.

The eyes of the nation in the Royal Society’s hands

Since its founding, the Royal Society has been providing scientific advice in various area of public life, including health.

In 1908, the Home Office wrote to the Royal Society asking them to investigate how and why glare and heat apparently caused glassworkers to develop cataracts during their working lives. Upon this request the Council of The Royal Society appointed a Committee on June 18, 1908 to report on the physical and physiological problems in the disease known as Glass Workers’ Cataract. The cataracts are formed by continuous exposure to infrared radiation while glass blowing or working closely with molten metals (as in the case of blacksmiths).

The clinical investigations by the Society drove forward fundamental research in ophthalmology, with the results leading to crucial developments in workers’ health protection, as glassworkers consequently benefitted from State pension.

Even the Royal Society doesn’t get it right every time

Articles submitted for publication to the Royal Society were not automatically accepted. The articles were read out to a meeting and evaluated by selected Fellows. Today when an article is rejected, it is sent back to its author, but for a long period of time, the Royal Society kept some of the articles it did not publish. Some of them were published in other scientific journals and went on to have a profound impact on science, as in the case of photography pioneer Henry Talbot’s paper on The Art of Photogenic Drawing.

Henry Talbot’s first paper on photography captured his experiments on the first photographic process that was capable of producing negative images on paper. The Society never published his full paper, only a short synopsis later in the Proceedings. Talbot took matters into his own hands and published the paper privately, which was bought by libraries and collectors. In 1842, The Royal Society finally recognised Talbot and awarded him the prestigious Rumford Medal “for his discoveries and Improvements in Photography.”

Where’s Pingu?

Over 180 newly digitised images of penguins and seals from Captain Scott’s National Antarctic Expedition are available on the site and need to be tagged and annotated, as well as many other images from the expedition.

The Society is the world’s oldest scientific publisher and has been publishing journals for over 350 years. In 2017, the archival content from 1665-1996 was digitised, bringing to life for the first time through high quality full colour scans 45,883 articles and 740,364 pages worth of original collections. Since 1997 the journals have been created as digital assets.