book-reviews

Seeing Further

by Bill Bryson (ed.)

Rating: ★★★

This book is best described as a collection of chapters ostensibly about the Royal Society. I say 'ostensibly' because many of the chapters are not at all actually about the Royal Society, and many of the ones which do reference it only do so briefly before charging off down some other angle about science and scientists. I would be more forgiving of this foible if I was less interested in the actual history of the Royal Society -- I picked up this book after finishing Dolnick's The Clockwork Universe, which treated me to a slightly disorganised surface-level history of the Society, and I was hoping that this collection would be a series of historically-focused vignettes from the organisation's history, covering whichever person or event most interested the author of that chapter. Some of the authors in Seeing Further have followed such a brief, so I am not entirely unsatisfied, but many of them instead spoke in generalities about science or connected issues.

The title, Seeing Further, is a reference to the famous quote of Isaac Newton's, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants". We learn much about Newton in the earlier chapters of the collection (including that the quote actually doubles as an underhanded jab at a short-statured opponent), and while later focus switches to other luminaries such as Darwin, Newton looms over the whole collection, much as he seems to have loomed over the Society in his own time. This is something of a disappointment, as I wanted to learn more about the characters more briefly mentioned in the earlier parts of the Society's history, such as Christopher Wren, and they get sidelined to some degree by the bigger characters.

The collection boasts a number of highly talented writers, not least Bryson himself, whose introductory chapter brims with enthusiasm for the Royal Society. There is something of a 'too many cooks' issue, though -- the chapters are for the most part very isolated, so you only get to see what each author can do working alone, and miss out on what a single skillful writer could have done with the same material.

Despite its failings, this collection is still worth reading -- each of the writers manages to either make a good point or describe something interesting, and anyone interested in popular science or its history would probably find it worthwhile. It simply isn't quite the collection I'd hoped for.