The Royal Society: Background information when reading A Garden of Marvels

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A Garden of Marvels

How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants

by Ruth Kassinger

A Garden of Marvels by Ruth Kassinger
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2014, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2015, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Heather A Phillips

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Beyond the Book:
The Royal Society

Print Review

Gresham CollegeMany of the scientists discussed in A Garden of Marvels were members of The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. Known today as simply The Royal Society, the group was founded in November 1660, and began as the Gresham College group – a loose collection of natural philosophers and physicians who started meeting at London's Gresham College in the mid-1640s.

Located in the heart of London, Gresham College has been hosting lectures for the edification of the general public since 1597. On November 28, 1660, after a lecture by Christopher Wren, members of the Gresham College Group, including Wren, met to propose a new "Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning." This proposed group was to meet weekly to witness and participate in experiments and discuss what we would now call scientific topics, including the use and construction of microsopes and viewing of the microscopic world, the properties of air and vacuum, as well as examinations of astronomy and geology. John Evelyn, a writer and gardener, was one of the founding members of the group, which became known as the Royal Society in 1662 after receiving the first of three Royal Charters from Charles II.

John Evelyn Other founding members included Sir Christopher Wren, who designed St. Paul's Cathedral; and Robert Boyle, who "invented" the experimental method of science which led to Boyle's Law; John Wilkins, a clergyman and philosopher who founded a natural theology that was compatible with science. Thus constituted, the Royal Society met at Gresham College until the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed the building. Over the following centuries the Society moved a number of times as it outgrew its location. Since the 1960s it has been based on Carlton House Terrace, between Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace.

Jocelyn Bell BurnellToday, the Royal Society acts as scientific advisor to the British government, funds research fellowships, and disseminates scientific advances through its journals. There are approximately 1,450 Fellows and Foreign Members, including around 80 Nobel Laureates. Current Fellows include astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and cosmologist Stephen Hawking.

Existing Fellows elect new members through a peer-review process that culminates in a vote. Each year up to 52 Fellows, 10 Foreign Members and 1 Honorary Fellow are elected from a group of over 700 candidates. Women make up about 5 percent of the Fellowship, and over the last 10 years about 10% of new Fellows elected to the Royal Society have been women.

An engraving of Gresham College in 1740 from Wikipedia.
A painting of John Evelyn who helped found the Royal Society by Sir Godfrey Kneller.
Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, courtesy of Harry the Dirty Dog at English Wikipedia.

This article was originally published in May 2014, and has been updated for the March 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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