Science City and Nullius in Verba

A smile that can only be prompted by irony was raised within days of last week’s blogpost about one gospel’s claim that “In the beginning was the word.” News arrived of a major new gallery opening in September at London’s Science Museum, looking at the rise of London as a global centre of scientific excellence. As detailed on the museum’s website, Science City 1550–1800: The Linbury Gallery will “explore how London’s scientists and artisans transformed our understanding of the world over 250 years.”

In the two and a half centuries under review, London was transformed from a modest commercial centre, some way eclipsed by several other European cities for cultural and commercial clout, into what was one of the world’s largest, and unarguably its most influential city. Science very much played its part in this evolution of significance, both shaping and being shaped by the lives and interests of its citizenry.

The Science Museum exhibition will draw upon two major collections in addition to its own iconic store of objects, instruments, devices, and publications. In addition to the King George III collection supplied by King’s College London, there will be an assemblage of pearls from the vast collection of the Royal Society, which came to life in the decade of George III’s ascension to the throne and was powered in its early years to a large extent by the genius of two of the greatest ever scientists, Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke – each well-represented in the museum’s new gallery.

Lesser known to posterity, perhaps, but Hooke was remarkable in many ways that reflect what was going on in the wider city over the course of his life, as science and art grew up together. The microscope he designed, as the Royal Society’s Curator of Experiments, enabled his publication of the science world’s first best-seller. Published in 1665, his Micrographia featured marvelously detailed drawings of insects and plants revealing extensive collaboration with London’s growing community of talented artisans and designers.

And the ironic smile mentioned above? It was prompted by that reference on the museum’s website to the Royal Society, which had its headquarters for most of the 18th century in Crane Court, just off Fleet Street. Distinguished in the modern age as the oldest scholarly association still in existence, the Royal Society adopted in its earliest days as its motto the call to arms for sceptics (or indeed scientists) everywhere:

“Nullius in verba” – take nobody’s word for it. Surrounded by the dozens of Fleet Street printing presses and publishing houses turning out millions of words every year, the denizens of Crane Court were laying down principles of enquiry and discovery that were to power the Enlightenment and inspire the modern world.

Follow the evidence; apply critical thinking; experiment; qualify; and accept the authority of nobody whose simple affirmation is all they’ve got. Nobody’s word on its own is gospel.