The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society

Past volumes of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions are available to read online for free, and I’ve been spending the odd hour or two most days over the last few weeks wandering through them; I’m up to about 1737 now.

Apart from being able to read the original writings of  Hooke, Newton, Stukeley, Sloane, and the like, it’s fascinating to see some of the subjects covered, and great fun too. Some of the papers are reminiscent of the modern people who fire off about bizarre ideas on websites, others are very airy-fairy, while there are those which show early scientific method; some also have interesting juxtapositions, for example: Concerning a Person Who Had a New Set of Teeth after 80 Years of Age; With Some Observations Upon the Virtues and Properties of Sugar.

Here are a few examples of titles of papers:

A Relation of an Idiot at Ostend, With Two Other Chirurgical Cases; An Account of a Small Telescopical Comet Seen at London on the 10th of June 1717. by Edm. Halley; A Description of the Organ of Hearing in the Elephant, with the Figures and Situation of the Ossicles, Labyrinth and Cochlea in the Ear of That Large Animal; Some Instances of the Very Great and Speedy Vegetation of Turnips; An Account of the Method of Making Sugar from the Juice of the Maple Tree in New England; An Account of the Impression of the Almost Entire Sceleton of a Large Animal in a Very Hard Stone, Lately Presented the Royal Society, from Nottinghamshire. By Dr. William Stukely.

Observations upon the Vessels in Several Sorts of Wood, and upon the Muscular Fibres of Different Animals By the Same Curious and Inquisitive Person; An Account of a Pair of Very Extraordinary Large Horns Found in Wapping Some Years since, with a Probable Account, Whence They Came, and to What Animal They Belonged By Sir Hans Sloane; An Account of the Hermaphrodite Lobster Presented to the Royal Society on Thursday May the 7th; Giving an Account of the Condition of the Town of Hastings, after It Had Been Visited by the Small Pox; An Account of What Appeared Most Remarkable on Opening the Body of Ann Edwards, Who Died January 5th, 1729/30 Having a Large Umbelical Rupture.

There’s the snappily titled An Experiment to Shew That the Friction of the Several Parts in a Compound Engine, May Be Reduced to Calculation, By Drawing Consequences from Some of the Experiments Shewn before the Royal Society Last Year, upon Simple Machines, in Various Circumstances, by Me. Now Exemplified by the Friction in a Combination of Pullies.

Or: The Anatomy of a Female Beaver, and an Account of Castor Found in Her; Some Experiments Made upon Mad Dogs with Mercury; An Experiment to Shew That Some Damps in Mines may be Occasioned Only by the Burning of Candles under Ground, without the Addition of any Noxious Vapour, Even When the Bottom of the Pit Has a Communication with the Outward Air, Unless the Outward Air be Forcibly Driven in at the Said Communication or Pipe; An Attempt to Explain the Phaenomenon of the Horizontal Moon Appearing Bigger, Than When Elevated Many Degrees above the Horizon: Supported by an Experiment.

However, among all the Fortean reports of monstrous births, and strange meteorological phenomena, as well as a strange fascination for odd objects apparently exiting the human body from inappropriate orifices, sometimes after an inordinate length of time (e.g. the rather alarming An Account of a Fork Put up the Anus, That Was Afterwards Drawn out Through the Buttock), there are papers on mathematics, botany, zoology, geology, archaeology, physics, medicine – you can see the early development of western science, its birth pangs, almost. The majority of the papers are in English, although as the eighteenth century goes on more Latin appears – and they do revert to Latin sometimes for subjects that only educated people should know of, like referring to Animalcula in Semine Masculino in translations of Leeuwenhoeck’s microscopy reports – obviously one couldn’t have the ο πολλοί reading such things.

There are some interesting descriptions of early mining techniques, potholes, Irish bogs, turnip bread, electricity, Roman roads, and a discussion of the possibility of a land bridge having joined Britain to Europe in the remote past. It’s a reminder that science had a much wider sense in the past, meaning ‘knowledge’, and the writers of these papers saw themselves as ‘natural philosophers’, or just intellectuals.

Edmond Halley (of comet fame) has Some Considerations about the Cause of the Universal Deluge, Laid before the Royal Society, on the 12th of December 1694 in which, among other things, he admits to ‘some difficulties as to … the Reception and Agreement of the Animals among themselves.’ It wasn’t actually printed until 1724 as he was ‘sensible that he might have adventured ultra crepidam; and apprehensive least by some unguarded Expression he might incur the Censure of the Sacred Order.’

And now in the twenty-first century the papers in Phil.Trans.A have titles like Singularities of the susceptibility of a Sinai–Ruelle–Bowen measure in the presence of stable–unstable tangencies; or Dynamics of dislocations in a two-dimensional block copolymer system with hexagonal symmetry; or Bose–Einstein condensation and superfluidity of trapped polaritons in graphene and quantum wells embedded in a microcavity. I imagine that in 2311 they will seem quaint, too.

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