The Emergence of Scientific Societies

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The Emergence of Scientific Societies


Despite the persistent stereotype of the scientist as a solitary genius, science has always been a communal endeavor. Investigators have sought inspiration from the exchange of ideas, from collaborative experiments, and from personal rivalries within the context of a community of others who share their interests in science. The seventeenth century saw the emergence of one of the most important institutions in the history of science, the scientific society. For more than two centuries, scientific societies and the publications they supported were the primary communication networks for scientists and their work.


As the pace of scientific activity increased during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, individuals pursued scientific discoveries within a variety of institutions. Some were employed by rulers or noblemen, others worked within monasteries or at universities, still others were independently wealthy and powerful citizens themselves. Scientific books were published in Latin—universally known to learned Europeans of the time—and sold to the relatively small number of enthusiasts who shared the authors' interests.

In 1603 the first group organized explicitly for the purpose of advancing science was formed. That year, the Accademia dei Lincei was established in Rome by Duke Federigo Cesi and included some of the most prominent scientists of the day, such as Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Gimbattista Della Porta (1535?-1615), and Francesco Stelluti. They championed the role of experiments in advancing knowledge and the role of a group of experts such as themselves to sanction and support scientific investigation. The Lincei had as many as 32 members during its rather short existence (it was disbanded by 1630 after the death of Cesi and due to increasingly hostile pressure from the Catholic Church). The Lincei published a number of important books, including those of Galileo, each inscribed with the Academy's shield on which a lynx symbolized scientific truth in its struggle with ignorance. Galileo identified particularly strongly with the Lincei and its goals. He used the title "Lynceus" throughout his career, and in his famous dialogue presenting his revolutionary understanding of the universe it is the "Academician" who speaks for Galileo and for science.

The Accademia dei Lincei had a direct heir in another short-lived scientific society. The Accademia del Cimento was formed by two brothers in the powerful Medici family, Grand Duke Ferdinand II and Prince Leopold. Both men, as well as some of the other members, had been pupils or acquaintances of Galileo and his disciple Evangelista Torricelli (1608-1647). From these men the Medicis had learned a keen respect and enthusiasm for systematic observation and experiment. They sought to apply these empirical methods to a wide range of natural phenomena. The meetings of the Cimento, which began formally in 1657 following several years of less-organized gatherings, took place at Leopold's home. He provided instruments and other services as well as participating in the experiments. The society had just nine working members, which made simpler their goal to work as a team in their investigations. Many of their experiments were tests of Galileo's theories, perfecting methods and techniques for the use of thermometers, pendulums, barometers, and vacuum pumps; others investigated elementary problems in electricity. They published an account of their experiments in 1667, which was subsequently translated into other languages and served as a guide to investigators and other nascent societies throughout Europe. The Cimento dissolved in 1667, when Leopold was named cardinal.

These small, private societies set an example for future scientific groups, and they helped to advance scientific knowledge and practice through their publications. Perhaps the most important paradigm for the development of scientific societies came not from an actual group, but from an imaginary one. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), an English philosopher, was a widely influential spokesman for systematic scientific inquiry. In several important books published during the early seventeenth century, Bacon argued against scholasticism and the reliance on classical texts and for experiment and what came to be called inductive science. He believed that by an iterative process of hypothesis and experimental testing, science could discover Nature's secrets and lead society toward perfection. In his book The New Atlantis (1626), Bacon described a community of scientific workers who would divide the labor of science among themselves and work together to advance knowledge. The "Salomon's House" of this fable was an idealized scientific utopia, conjured to inspire actual scientists to work together in an organized manner.


From these early, largely inspirational, developments followed the establishment of the two most influential scientific societies, the Academie des Sciences in Paris and the Royal Society of London. These two organizations were institutionally very different. The Paris Academy was founded in 1660 by Louis XIV. It began as a small group of mathematicians and physicists, supported by government stipends, who worked in teams on experiments and theoretical investigations aimed at extending and propagating the work of the French physicist René Descartes (1596-1650). By century's end the Academy had increased its size and extended its activities to include all areas of scientific investigation. Election to the Academy was a great achievement for a scientist, and assured financial support as well as scholarly prestige. The Academy of Sciences became the center of scientific activity in France—perhaps in the world—for most of the eighteenth century. It published its proceedings, which fore-shadowed in importance the scientific journals of later centuries, as well as historical accounts of the scientific achievements of deceased members that helped to establish the idea of what a scientific career should be, and summaries of scientific work done by investigators in other countries.

The Royal Society of London was established in 1662 with a charter from King Charles II, but without any financial support. The Royal Society grew out of many years of informal meetings among scholars in London and Oxford. They treated their independence from the government as a point of pride, although the need for the members to support not only themselves but also the activities of the Society made money troubles a recurring problem throughout the Society's first century of existence. The Royal Society was strongly criticized by the Church in its early years, and defenses of the Society written by members Thomas Sprat and Joseph Glanvill provide interesting views into its early accomplishments and ideology.

Like the Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society became a clearinghouse for scientific ideas and reports, and a central node in the developing communication network among scientists throughout Europe and the European colonies. Investigators around the world would send the results of their work or even their chance observations to the learned group in London. The members would then discuss the ideas and—most importantly—publish the accounts in their Proceedings. In its early decades, the Proceedings featured an eclectic assortment of reports and results; the scientific discoveries of Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) appear side by side with reports from country farmers about calves born with two heads. Gradually, the judgment of the Society became more discriminating, and publication of work in the Proceedings or a discussion of one's results at the Society was an important validation of scientific merit.

The Royal Society and the Academy of Sciences inspired many imitators. During the eighteenth century scientific societies were formed in most of the capitals of Europe and in many of the smaller provinces as well. Societies became a part of the fabric of science, providing a place for like-minded individuals to share ideas and experimental techniques. The belief that science would be advanced by the collaborative work of men and the direct encounter between man and nature was made tangible in scientific societies. The practical benefits of the existence of societies and their publications were enormous. While the primary benefit of the spread of scientific societies would seem to be to the smaller cities where scientists had new opportunities to congregate, in fact the spread of these societies helped to make an international community of science. With their publications and by welcoming traveling investigators to meetings, scientific societies gave those working on the increasingly esoteric and difficult study of nature a reliable means of connecting to anyone else in the world who might share their interests. In addition, many societies sponsored prizes to identify and honor scientific accomplishment, and competitions to focus attention on particularly pressing scientific problems.

By the middle of the nineteenth century general scientific societies and their publications began to be less important to the practice of science than new, smaller, more-specialized groups and journals devoted to particular studies such as physics or botany. Scientists continued to form groups and to network internationally, but as science itself became increasingly complex the multidisciplinary institutions such as the Royal Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science took on more honorific roles. As scientific training became formalized and absorbed within university curricula, universities became increasingly important to maintaining networks of scientific communication and interaction. Scientific societies, mostly organized according to discipline rather than regionally, have remained important to science throughout the twentieth century and beyond. They are the backbone of the international network of communication and cooperation among scientists.


Further Reading

Hahn, Roger. The Anatomy of a Scientific Institution: TheParis Academy of Sciences 1666-1803. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971.

Heilbron, John L. Early Modern Physics. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982.

Lyons, Henry. The Royal Society, 1660-1940. Cambridge, England: University Press, 1944.

McClellan, James. Science Reorganized: Scientific Societies in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Ornstein, Martha. The Role of Scientific Societies in the Seventeenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938.

Purver, Margery. The Royal Society: Concept and Creation. London: Routledge, 1967.

Pyenson, Lewis and Susan Sheets-Pyenson. Servants ofNature: A History of Scientific Institutions, Enterprises, and Sensibilities. New York: Norton, 1999.

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The Emergence of Scientific Societies