The Spirit of Inquiry: How one extraordinary society shaped modern science

The Spirit of Inquiry: How one extraordinary society shaped modern science

by Susannah Gibson


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Cambridge is now world-famous as a centre of science, but it wasn't always so. Before the nineteenth century, the sciences were of little importance in the University of Cambridge. But that began to change in 1819 when two young Cambridge fellows took a geological fieldtrip to the Isle of Wight. Adam Sedgwick and John Stevens Henslow spent their days there exploring, unearthing dazzling fossils, dreaming up elaborate theories about the formation of the earth, and bemoaning the lack of serious science in their ancient university. As they threw themselves into the exciting new science of geology - conjuring millions of years of history from the evidence they found in the island's rocks - they also began to dream of a new scientific society for Cambridge. This society would bring together like-minded young men who wished to learn of the latest science from overseas, and would encourage original research in Cambridge. It would be, they wrote, a society "to keep alive the spirit of inquiry".

Their vision was realised when they founded the Cambridge Philosophical Society later that same year. Its founders could not have imagined the impact the Cambridge Philosophical Society would have: it was responsible for the first publication of Charles Darwin's scientific writings, and hosted some of the most heated debates about evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century; it saw the first announcement of x-ray diffraction by a young Lawrence Bragg - a technique that would revolutionise the physical, chemical and life sciences; it published the first paper by C.T.R. Wilson on his cloud chamber - a device that opened up a previously-unimaginable world of sub-atomic particles. 200 years on from the Society's foundation, this book reflects on the achievements of Sedgwick, Henslow, their peers, and their successors. Susannah Gibson explains how Cambridge moved from what Sedgwick saw as a "death-like stagnation" (really little more than a provincial training school for Church of England clergy) to being a world-leader in the sciences. And she shows how science, once a peripheral activity undertaken for interest by a small number of wealthy gentlemen, has transformed into an enormously well-funded activity that can affect every aspect of our lives.

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The story of a 19th-century scientific society that exerted wide-ranging influence throughout Britain and beyond.

In 1819, naturalists Adam Sedgwick, newly appointed professor of geology at Cambridge, and his friend John Stevens Henslow, a recent graduate, proposed to establish a scientific society for Cambridge, a place where "gentlemen of science" could share their research. As Gibson (History and Philosophy of Science/Univ. of Cambridge; Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?: How Eighteenth-Century Science Disrupted the Natural Order, 2015) reveals in a vivid, deeply researched intellectual history, the Cambridge Philosophical Society changed both the university and the larger scientific community. At the time the society was founded, Cambridge "was an intellectually cautious place" devoted to teaching the classics, the Bible, and the mathematics of Isaac Newton. Yet science was burgeoning, and the society was one among many that arose across Britain in the late 18th and early 19th century. Some were specialized (focused, for example, on astronomy or mineralogy), others intended as gatherings for the scientific elite. The society was unique because of its connection to the university, which both supported its efforts and allowed for its reach beyond the confines of its meeting rooms. Since its original members were members of the university, their own research and the ideas they gleaned at forums—letters from Charles Darwin from his trip on the Beagle, for example—made their ways into undergraduate teaching. Its two enthusiastic founders saw the society as "a place where things got done: if Cambridge lacked a decent scientific library, they would assemble one; if the town didn't have a natural history museum, they would create one; if the press failed to produce a natural philosophical journal, they would write one themselves." All these resources shaped Cambridge curriculum, which by the 1850s allowed students to be examined for a degree in the Natural Sciences. Over the years, students increasingly took up that option, and the university attracted major scientists—Niels Bohr, J.J. Thomson, Ernest Rutherford, among others—from all over the world.

A colorful, detailed history of scientific passions and the hunger for knowledge.

From the Publisher

"Gibson has thoroughly filleted the archives and she tells a richly fascinating history. Her book is an excellent example of everything that public outreach should be: accessibly priced, informative, and entertaining." — Ann Kennedy Smith, Times Literary Supplement

"A vivid, deeply researched intellectual history." — Kirkus

"Reviewing a great book is much like witnessing a blue moon, infrequent but captivating. For me, The Spirit of Inquiry was one such event... This book deserves your time." — Dr Stephen Hoskins, The Biologist

"As part of its bicentenary celebration, the Cambridge Philosophical Society commissioned historian of science Susannah Gibson to tell the story of the Society's foundation, its rise, decline and resurrection. She has managed the difficult task of bringing together the many different strands ... and made it very readable." — Douglas Palmer, Geoscientist

"Whether your particular area of interest is in the history of science, of Great Britain, of women in science, of intellectual history, or you [...] would simply reading enjoy an well-written, intelligent book that will significantly enlarge your understanding of the world in which we presently live by coming to know the stories behind some of the truly brilliant people who have formed the ideas and created so many of the technologies that make modern society possible, I highly recommend The Spirit of Inquiry to you." — The Well Read Naturalist

"I loved this book. And if you, too, are fascinated by the history of British science and are interested in Cambridge University, you will too ... Gibson has produced an impressive addition to the history of the development of the science..." — Brian Clegg, Popular Science

"How then did Cambridge transform into the world-beater in science of today? That is the subject matter of The Spirit of Inquiry by Susannah Gibson. She weaves a delightful tale about the institution that made it happen..." - Rajat Ghai, Down to Earth

"This is a bicentennial history of which the Society can be proud." — Michael A. Flannery, Metascience

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780198833376
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication date: 05/01/2019
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 382,478
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

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