Sunday, 11 September 2005

The Fellowship – John Gribbin ***

Not The Fellowship of the Ring, but of the Royal Society. This is a strange book. It starts with a section that reinforces John Gribbin’s assertion that there was no science before the time of Galileo or thereabouts (ignoring both the likes of Archimedes and medieval adherents of experimental verification like Roger Bacon and his superb Arab counterparts). We hear a condensed version of Galileo’s story, and rather more on William Gilbert (whose forays into science, and particularly magnetism, were quite remarkable for the time, on Francis Bacon with his much-trumpeted if totally impractical ideas of a scientific method, and on William Harvey with his early medical insights. This is quite interesting stuff, but there’s a feeling of “where’s it going?”, because this all predates the Royal Society, and though it is intended to lay the groundwork of where the RS came from, the content seems strangely detached.
Then comes an astonishingly tedious section around the founding of the society itself. This could have been quite exciting had it focussed on the way the RS came into being and the early science that stimulated it, but instead we get short and decidedly tedious biographies of each of the key founder members – it’s probably about ten of them, but it felt like 300 – who, Boyle apart, really hadn’t much to recommend them to scientific history. Even those with exciting lives came across like someone in a not particularly exciting history textbook – nothing came alive. Dull, dull, dull.
But The Fellowship does revive in a big way when Gribbin is covering Robert Hooke. All of a sudden we meet an interesting person, a Renaissance man who not only came up with some great scientific ideas, seemed to run the RS single-handed and did the experiments for practically everyone else, but was also a man who was an equal with Wren in the rebuilding of the City of London in the great fire, and produced the most exquisite drawings of his studies through a microscope. “Yes!” was the reader’s cry, like that scene in When Harry Met Sally, this is what the whole book should have been like. On the whole this positive feeling continues into the remainder of The Fellowship, largely taken up with Newton (admittedly with a slight feeling of “been there, read this” – Newton’s not exactly fresh ground) and Halley, though Hooke remains the high point.
It’s hard to make a consistent conclusion about this book. It is excellent in parts, but has deeply uninspiring sections too, and occasionally is downright infuriating. Gribbin has a habit of giving a little teaser about something, then saying “but we don’t need to cover that”. If you aren’t going to tell us about it, don’t give us a hint, it’s not nice! Often this is where the person in question got the science wrong, so, apparently, we don’t need to hear about it. But this misses the point of history of science – we get a much fuller picture if we understand what the wrong ideas of the time were and how they influenced thinking.
John Gribbin has been an astoundingly prolific science writer (The Fellowship is apparently his 100th book!), and looking back over at his output, he is at his best when he is describing complex science with a bit of people thrown in – for instance in his In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat. Failing that, he can do a fair job of a scientific biography of an individual if there’s plenty of their science to throw in – this comes across in the best part of The Fellowship, when he is dealing with Hooke, and particularly in his Einstein book, which benefited from Michael White’s stylistic guidance. But producing engaging history books isn’t his forte – here his approach is too summary to ever engage the interest and falls into the trap, particularly when recounting the details of the lesser founders of the Royal Society, to give a list of dull pocket biographies.
This isn’t a bad book on the formalization of the scientific method and the establishment of the Royal Society, but it’s certainly not Gribbin at his cutting edge.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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