Nov 282016


The President, Council and Fellows of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, commonly known as the Royal Society, was founded on this date in 1660 although it did not go by that name at first. It is perhaps the oldest official learned society in the world dedicated to the study of scientific matters. It was on this date in 1660 that the “1660 committee of 12” announced the formation of a “College for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematical Experimental Learning” which would meet weekly to discuss science and run experiments. At the second meeting, Sir Robert Moray announced that the king, Charles II, approved of the gatherings, and he signed a royal charter on 15 July 1662 which created the “Royal Society of London” with Lord Brouncker serving as the first president. A second royal charter was signed on 23 April 1663, with the king noted as the founder and with the name of “the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge.” Robert Hooke ( ) was appointed as Curator of Experiments in November. This initial royal favor has continued and, since then, every monarch has been the patron of the society.

The society’s early meetings included experiments performed first by Hooke and then by Denis Papin, who was appointed in 1684. These experiments varied widely in their subject area as well as significance. The society also published an English translation of Essays of Natural Experiments Made in the Accademia del Cimento, under the Protection of the Most Serene Prince Leopold of Tuscany in 1684, an Italian work documenting experiments at the Accademia del Cimento. Although meeting at Gresham College, the Society temporarily moved to Arundel House in 1666 after the Great Fire of London, which did not harm Gresham but did lead to its appropriation by the Lord Mayor. The Society returned to Gresham in 1673.


There had been an attempt in 1667 to establish a permanent college for the society, rather different from the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. The first proposal was given by John Evelyn to Robert Boyle in a letter dated 3 September 1659. He suggested building a college with apartments for members and a central research institute. Similar schemes were put forward by Bengt Skytte and later Abraham Cowley, who wrote in his Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy  (1661) of a “‘Philosophical College” with houses, a library, and a chapel. The society’s own ideas were simpler and  included residences only for a handful of staff. Henry Oldenburg and Thomas Sprat put forward plans in 1667 and Oldenburg’s co-secretary, John Wilkins, moved in a council meeting on 30 September 1667 to appoint a committee “for raising contributions among the members of the society, in order to build a college.” These plans were progressing by November 1667, but never came to anything, partly because of the lack of contributions forthcoming, and partly because the general plan did not have sufficient support.

The 18th century is sometimes thought of as a slack period for the Royal Society, but this characterization is unfair.  It was customary, for example, for the government to refer concerns over scientific matters to the council of the society for advice, which occasionally spilled into politics. In 1777, for example, the matter of the most effective lightning conductors to use on buildings was referred to the society. The pointed lightning conductor had been invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1749, while Benjamin Wilson had invented blunted ones. During the argument that occurred when deciding which to use, opponents of Franklin’s invention accused his supporters of being U.S. allies rather than being British patriots, and the debate eventually led to the resignation of the society’s president, Sir John Pringle. During the same time period, it became customary to appoint society fellows to serve on government committees where science was concerned, a practice that still continues.


During the early 18th century the number of fellows increased from 110 to approximately 300 and the reputation of the society increased under the presidency of Sir Isaac Newton from 1703 until his death in 1727. By that time, editions of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society were appearing regularly. During his time as president, Newton abused his authority in the dispute between himself and Gottfried Leibniz over the development of infinitesimal calculus. He used his position to appoint an “impartial” committee to decide the case, eventually publishing a report written by himself in the committee’s name. Nowadays they are generally given equal credit, although reasonably good humored debate continues.


The Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions was the world’s first journal exclusively devoted to science in 1665. It originated the peer review process, now the norm in scientific journals. Its founding editor was Henry Oldenburg, the society’s first secretary. The society’s motto, Nullius in verba,  (loosely: “Take nobody’s word for it”) was adopted to signify the fellows’ determination to establish scientific facts via experiments rather than from authority, and comes from Horace’s Epistles, where he compares himself to a gladiator who, having retired, is free from control

The Royal Society is unquestionably a highly regarded learned body these days with a long and prestigious history. Being able to use the postnomial FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society) is considered by many to be a high honor. There are now about 1,450 fellows who become fellows for life upon election. Up to 52 new fellows from the UK and Commonwealth are elected each year by committees of specialists. It took until 1945 for the society to elect women to fellowships, and even then there was some opposition.

Thankfully, the world at large is blissfully unaware of the pettiness, bickering, and self serving that plagues the scientific world as a whole. It’s pleasant to fantasize about august bodies, such as the Royal Society, seeking to enlighten the world with its knowledge, and rising above mere mortal concerns such as fame, honor – and money. I’m sorry to disabuse you. The Royal Society currently has about £42 million annually at its disposal to disburse in grants and fellowships. It also publishes 11 journals devoted to scientific matters. When you have this kind of clout human foibles intrude. This is nothing new. There is no existing portrait of founding fellow and first curator of experiments, Robert Hooke, not because of some glitch in the historical record, but because of deliberate attempts by jealous contemporaries to undermine his status and diminish his importance. Newton’s little snit with Leibnitz is, likewise, completely normal.

It took a long time for science to turn its attention to cooking for a variety of reasons. Of course, nowadays, culinary science is a fixture in the pantheon because the biochemistry of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats is fundamental, and because concerns about health and hygiene spill over into scientific inquiry. But it is not really mainstream. Cooks have been natural experimental scientists for centuries without necessarily knowing the scientific reasons why browned meats taste good in stews, or why seaweeds can enhance flavor. It’s taken a long time for science and cooking to come together.

Let’s look at a recipe from 1638 :

Divers Sallets boyled.

Parboile Spinage, and chop it fine, with the edges of two hard Trenchers upon a boord, or the backs of two Choppinknives: then set them on a Chaffindish of Coales with Butter and Vinegar. season it with Sinamon, Ginger, Sugar, and a few parboyled Currans. Then cut hard Egges into a quarters to garnish it withall, and serue it upon Sippets. So may you serve Burrage, Buglosse, Endiffe, Sackory, Coleflowers, Sorrell, Marigold-leaves, Water-cresses, Leekes boyled, Onions, Sporrages, Racket, Alexanders. Parboyle them and season them all alike: whether it be with Oyle and Vinegar, or Butter and Vinegar, Sinamon, Ginger, Sugar, and Butter: Egges are necessary, or at least very good for all boyled Sallets.

This recipe comes from an era when raw vegetables were considered unhealthy, and the advent of the Royal Society and its scientific inquiries did nothing to change general opinion. Simple empirical testing could have shown the error of this common judgment. The motto that nothing should be accepted simply on someone’s word had no effect on cooking prejudices.


By modern standards this salad with its dressing that includes sugar and butter would not pass muster with stringent nutritionists, but I expect it would be all right. Cooking certain vegetables for salads is also fine. I sometimes make a salad of cooked spinach, and a number of vegetables, such as broccoli rabe, asparagus, and potatoes have to be cooked to be palatable. Cooking vegetables and then serving them cold with a dressing is an idea that does not get enough attention these days. Just be sure to cook them until they are al dente only.

 Posted by at 11:44 am

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