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The scientific article has been a hallmark of the career of every important western scientist since the seventeenth century. Yet its role in the history of science has not been fully explored. Joseph E. Harmon and Alan G. Gross remedy this oversight with The Scientific Literature, a collection of writings excerpts from scientific articles, letters, memoirs, proceedings, transactions, and magazines that illustrates the origin of the scientific article in 1665 and its evolution over the next three and a half centuries. Featuring articles as well as sixty tables and illustrations, tools vital to scientific communication that represent the broad sweep of modern science, The Scientific Literature is a historical tour through both the rhetorical strategies that scientists employ to share their discoveries and the methods that scientists use to argue claims of new knowledge. Commentaries that explain each excerpt's scientific and historical context and analyze its communication strategy accompany each entry.
— Steven Shapin
"Editors Harmon and Gross's stated purpose is a 'guided tour' of the scientific literature, illustrating its origins and evolution over the past 350 years. They do this with a short, most often no more than page-long, synopsis of an article, acoompanied by an explanation of why it was important in the evolution of scientific literature....A bibliography of more than 50 books that the editors recommend for science studies and extensive bibliographies for each of the nine chapters make this a valuable reference. Strongly recommended for lay readers interested in how today’s often intimidating scientific literature has its genesis.”
And new Philosophy calls all in doubt, The Element of fire is quite put out, The Sun is lost, and th'earth, and no man's wit Can well direct him where to look for it. And freely men confess that this world's spent, When in the Planets and the Firmament They seek so many new; they see that this Is crumbled out again to 'his Atomies. 'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone, All just supply, and all relation ...
From "An Anatomy of the World" (1611) by John Donne
Without question, printed books and not scientific articles communicated the "new Philosophy" and revelations about the natural world that spawned the scientific revolution and called "all in doubt." Among those making the honor roll, one would have to include Copernicus's De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of Celestial Spheres), Bacon's Novum Organum (New Tool of Reasoning), Galileo's Sidereus Nuncius (Message of the Stars), Harvey's Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals, Descartes's Discours de la Méthode (Discourse on the Method), and Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). In fact, there is little reason to believe that prospective authors viewed the early journal literature as anything more than an ancillary mode of communication, much as e-mail is considered today.
Besides books, the other major predecessor and rival for communicating new science in the seventeenth century was the "learned letter," most famously illustrated by Galileo's letters on sunspots and the orbits of the planets. As the ideas of the scientific revolution spread in England and on the Continent, the accelerated pace of scientific activity compelled natural philosophers to communicate their recent findings through personal correspondence within and between countries. But these are not "letters" in the traditional sense of the word; authors wrote these epistles on some scientific or technical topic with the understanding that they would be passed on to others. Thus the actual intended audience was interested members of the scientific community at large, though short passages within them may personally address the primary recipient.
To disseminate the information in these learned letters more efficiently, industrious scholars became centers for spreading the latest technical news at home and abroad. Their job was to receive letters, make copies, and pass them on to other interested scholars. After the emergence of scientific societies, the job of "trafficker in intelligence" became more formalized in that the societies themselves appointed a secretary to handle correspondence and circulate newsworthy learned letters among society members and friends.
It was in March 1665 that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society of London, launched the first English scientific periodical, Philosophical Transactions. Its introductory sentence established the importance of published communication to the advancement of science and still rings true today: "there is nothing more necessary for promoting the improvement of Philosophical Matters, than the communicating to such, as apply their Studies and Endeavours that way."
The early Philosophical Transactions reflect what was communicated during meetings of the Royal Society of London. This society was a fairly large, loose-knit group of men living in and around London. Some were extraordinarily talented. Some simply had an above-average curiosity about the natural world and the social status that provided the leisure to purchase and read scientific texts and attend meetings. The Royal Society members met regularly in London to learn about and discuss the latest scientific news from home and abroad. Attendance at meetings averaged a mere twenty to thirty members, although considerably more might show up on special occasions. The early scientific societies like the Royal Society-part elite social club, part research institute, part publishing house-constitute the major institutional factor in shaping the scientific article in the first century after its origin.
The initial Philosophical Transactions, issued monthly, were only about twenty pages long and printed in runs of 1,200 copies. The first issue has a definite international and socially diverse flavor, with contributors from different nations and walks of life. In it we find reports (what Oldenburg called "relations," "accounts," and "narratives") attributed to Robert Hooke, official curator of experiments for the Royal Society; the astronomer Adrien Auzout, "a French Gentleman of no ordinary Merit and Learning"; the Dutch mathematician and inventor Christiaan Huygens; the English explorer Robert Holmes; an unnamed "inquisitive Physician" from Germany; and an "understanding and hardy Sea-man."
European savants immediately took note of this journal's introduction. A mere two weeks after its first issue (March 30, 1665) the French Journal des Sçavans reported that the English, taking their cue from the French of course, had founded "a journal ... under the title Philosophical Transactions ... to make known to all the world that which is discovered of novelty in natural philosophy," and that this journal contained articles by Royal Society members, "who produce each day an infinity of beautiful works."
Under Oldenburg's stewardship (1665-77) and beyond, Philosophical Transactions remained true to its subtitle, opening its pages to contributors "from many considerable parts of the world." The author index reads like a who's who of seventeenth-century scientists in England and Europe: Isaac Newton, Edmond Halley, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, John Wallis, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, Christiaan Huygens, Johannes Hevelius, and Gottfried Leibniz. In so doing, editor Oldenburg shepherded into print articles on important seventeenth-century scientific topics like the mechanisms behind the ocean tides, the properties of respiration and combustion, the properties of light, and methods for determining longitude at sea.
With the death of Oldenburg, the Transactions lost its founding father and guiding light, and it temporarily ceased publication in 1679. It was replaced by the Philosophical Collections, edited by Robert Hooke, second secretary of the Royal Society and a past critic of Oldenburg and his journal. Only seven issues of this journal appeared over its four years, and it never achieved the stability and reputation of its predecessor. In 1683, the Society resuscitated the Transactions first with Robert Plot, then Edmond Halley, as editor, and the periodical eventually returned to some semblance of its former glory.
How did early English scientists write and argue within the early Philosophical Transactions? For one thing, among the founding members of the Royal Society, there was a programmatic effort to avoid what Royal Society historian Thomas Sprat called "fine Speaking." But practice did not always follow theory, as our selection from Martin Lister exemplifies, with its elaborate sentence structure and liberal use of metaphor and analogy.
In general, the earliest scientific articles ask the reader to trust the author rather than the details of the science. They draw upon qualitative experience more than experiment and measurement in support of theory. Hence, a more personal voice is evident, and ideas of relevance are interpreted liberally. In the midst of describing his experiments with a prism in the seventeenth-century Philosophical Transactions, for instance, Isaac Newton confides that "Amidst these thoughts I was forced from Cambridge by the Intervening Plague, and it was more then two years, before I proceeded further." Today, such circumstantial detail would never appear.
As to organization, no attempt is made to codify and modularize in the modern manner (see chapter 6). This absence is not meant to imply, however, that the parts of the modern experimental article-its introduction, materials and methods, and results and discussion-are not generally present in one form or another. This is readily apparent in our selections from Robert Boyle, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Cavendish, and Caroline Herschel.
Nor had the natural philosophers of England settled on a preferred way of arguing. Among our selected passages, for example, Newton argues against speculative hypotheses-those which no crucial experiment could settle-while John Arbuthnot argues by statistical analysis for divine providence, a claim beyond confirmation with a crucial experiment. And while a skeptical Mr. Hill expresses doubts on a report of a merman sighted in a Virginia river, offering a more plausible explanation, a gullible Mr. Toyard from France argues for the achievement of man-powered flight, apparently based on hearsay alone.
We open this chapter with a small sampling of books and letters written by Royal Society authors, then turn to Philosophical Transactions articles spanning the period 1665 to 1800. It is worth bearing in mind that the boundaries among books, letters, and articles of this time were not as sharply defined as they are today. Some journal articles are printed as letters beginning "Dear Sir" and ending "Your humble servant," but otherwise differ little, if at all, from articles in the same publication that do not follow such epistolary conventions. Moreover, some letters and articles are as long as typical books, while some books are nothing more than collections of loosely connected articles or letters with a scientific slant.
EARLY BOOKS AND LETTERS
Boyle's World-Wide Letter
Robert Boyle, 1660. New Experiments Physico-mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air, and Its Effects, Made, for the Most Part, in a New Pneumatical Engine. Oxford: H. Hall (printer to Oxford University).
Sir Robert Boyle was a founding member of the Royal Society of London, inaugurated in 1660. Along with other early members like Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, and Edmond Halley, they made this fledgling scientific society into one of the most extraordinary groups of scientific minds ever assembled. Boyle was also instrumental in the founding of Oldenburg's Philosophical Transactions in 1665. Before that time, society members had only letters and books as avenues for spreading the written word about their work. The above-cited selection qualifies on both counts. On the one hand, it reports a diverse collection of forty-three experiments, mostly performed with the aid of an air pump, and is printed in the form of a fairly long book. On the other hand, it is a "letter" addressed to the author's nephew, Charles Lord Viscount of Dungarvan, eldest son to the Earl of Corke.
In the preface, Boyle concedes his treatise is "far more prolix then becomes a letter" and addresses "why I publish to the World a Letter, which by its Stile and diverse passages, appears to have been written For, as To a particular person." His answer to that question has two components, both related to the importance of publication to scientific progress:
The one, That the Experiments therein related, having been many of them try'd in the presence of Ingenious Men; and by that means having made some noise among the Virtuosi [fellow science enthusiasts] ... I could not quite without trying more then one Amanuensis, give out half as many Copies of them as were so earnestly desired, that I could not civilly refuse them. The other, That intelligent Persons in matters of this kinde perswaded me, that the publication of what I had observ'd touching the Nature of the Air, would not be useless to the World; and that in an Age so taken with novelties as is ours, these new Experiments would be grateful to the Lovers of free and real Learning.
Whatever the kind of communication-book, unpublished letter, or published journal article-visual representations routinely complement the seventeenth-century written texts. At the very front of Boyle's book-length letter to his nephew appears a picture of his regal air pump. Constructed with the aid of Robert Hooke, this air pump consisted of two main components: a large glass bulb (about thirty "Wine Quarts" in volume) on top of a pumping apparatus. For purposes of experiment, Boyle or his assistants inserted test materials (burning candles, different species of animals, Torricelli apparatus) through a port on the top. A hollow brass cylinder directly below the globe contained a piston, which was worked by the crank at the bottom and sucked air out of the globe, something like a reverse bicycle pump. This device was not without problems: the globe cracked or even imploded, the cylinder bent because of the negative pressure, the device leaked and would not hold a vacuum for long, and the crank was extremely difficult to turn as one approached the evacuated state. Also, the air pump was expensive, with only a handful in existence two decades after its invention (about 1650, by the German physicist Otto von Guericke). A reasonable estimate for the cost of the first pump is twenty-five pounds, more than the annual salary of Robert Hooke as Curator of Experiments for the Royal Society. From his many experiments with this state-of-the-art device, Boyle concluded that air is essential to both respiration and combustion, that sound does not occur in a vacuum, and that a key property of air is its elasticity or "spring."
The air pump is a typical scientific instrument-the remote ancestor of the centrifuge and the particle accelerator. Experiments with such instruments, by creating a condition not available in nature, permit scientists to argue into place some natural fact or law. In the history of science, revolutionary new theories (the heliocentric universe, uniformitarianism, natural selection, relativity, etc.) tend to grab most of the headlines. But the advance of science is propelled at least as much, if not more, by the creation and continued refinement of new research tools.
Hooke Looks a Flea in the Eye
Robert Hooke, 1665. Micrographia; or, Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses, with Observations and Inquiries Thereupon. London: J. Martyn and J. Allestry (printers to the Royal Society), pp. 210-11.
In addition to the air pump, the premier scientific instruments in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the telescope and microscope. The two master technicians of the microscope were the Dutchman Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (of whom more later) and the Englishman Robert Hooke. At one time a research assistant to Robert Boyle, Hooke himself was a brilliant experimentalist, inventor, and theorist. He also possessed a contentious personality, especially when it came to defending a knowledge claim he believed his intellectual property. According to an annotated version of Philosophical Transactions issued in 1809, "It is said he was rather deformed in his person, of a penurious disposition, and extremely jealous of his reputation as an original discoverer."
Published under the sponsorship of the Royal Society of London and a masterpiece of seventeenth-century bookmaking, Micrographia contains Hooke's multifarious microscopical observations of such objects as the point of a needle, a printed period, pores in cork, eels in vinegar, the eye of a fly, the hair of a cat, and the body of a flea and louse. Hooke complements many of his verbal observations with realistic engravings. One of the most spectacular is the often-reproduced magnificent engraving of the lowly flea. The original figure is on a foldout sheet, measuring nearly a foot and a half in length. Our reduced copy is but a pale imitation.
Though the mouth is distorted, Hooke's achievement is remarkable, given that the primitive resolution of his compound microscope necessitated that he construct the whole image by carefully examining isolated regions of his specimen. As he says himself in the preface: "The Glasses I used were of our English make, but though very good of the kind, yet far short of what might be expected ... for though Microscopes and Telescopes, as they now are, will magnify an Object about a thousand times bigger then it appears to the naked eye; yet the Apertures of the Object-glasses are so very small, that very few Rays are admitted, and even of those few there are so many false, that the Object appears dark and indistinct."
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