This week the President of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, is heading to China on an official Royal Society visit to meet the President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and other key dignitaries.

As part of the preparations for this important trip, we in the Library have been involved in creating unique gifts for the President to present to VIPs during his visit.

From the beginning of this project, both Science Policy and Library staff were keen that the gifts should be based on historical items from the Royal Society’s archives, as this would provide a valuable opportunity to highlight the richness of the collections, and the wealth of international interest they contain.

It was agreed that the gifts had to be strong in terms of content, aesthetically pleasing and, from a practical point of view, relatively easy to transport. We came up with the idea of creating high-quality bespoke printed copies of key manuscripts from the collections, to be mounted and framed with explanatory captions and Mandarin translations, resulting in special, one-off gifts fitting for such high-profile recipients.

The hardest part of this process was deciding what material to choose from the vast archives. After much searching in the basement stores and rummaging through volumes of bound papers, we decided upon two documents.

The first directly relates to China and serves to illustrate the Royal Society’s early international communications and, more broadly, shared learning between China and the West.

 

Table from ‘An Explanation of the New Chronological Table of the Chinese History’ by Jean-François Foucquet, Thomas Dereham and Eustache Guillemeau. Phil. Trans. 36, 1729, pp. 397-424

 

It is a table relating to the chronological history of China and was drawn up by Jean-François Foucquet as a learning aid for Westerners. Foucquet was a Burgundy French Jesuit, bishop and scientist who was active in the Jesuit China missions between 1699 and 1721. Foucquet spent most of his time in China studying ‘I Ching’, mathematics and astronomy in Beijing at the invitation of the Kangxi Emperor. He made ​​important contributions to the communication of scientific, technological and cultural issues between China and the Western world. The table was presented to the Royal Society by Sir Thomas Dereham FRS (c.1678-1739), who lived in Italy and sent regular reports to the Royal Society on varied scientific and cultural subjects.

This table was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1729 (volume 36). Philosophical Transactions is the world’s longest-running scientific journal, and was started by Henry Oldenburg in 1665. Oldenburg was the Royal Society’s first Secretary and, in common with many of the early Fellows, was a prolific letter-writer with a thirst for acquiring and sharing knowledge with correspondents around the globe. The year 2015 will mark the publication’s 350th anniversary, an occasion which will be marked with a series of events and activities.

While the first of the two gifts relates specifically to China, the second is an interesting insight into the scientific priorities of 17th century natural philosophers. It is a list of hopes for science compiled by the chemist Robert Boyle FRS (of Boyle’s Law fame). Boyle was a Founder Fellow of the Royal Society and is an important figure in the Society’s history; he was present at Christopher Wren’s lecture on 28 November 1660 at which the Royal Society was formed.

You can see an image and transcription of the full document in this earlier blog post. The list, written in Boyle’s own hand, includes ‘The Acceleration of the Production of things out of Seed’ and ‘The Cure of Diseases at a distance or at least by Transplantation’.  The items on the list are of varied scope and scale; solutions have been found for some, and others remain as ongoing challenges, but Boyle’s list shows how eager the early Fellows of the Royal Society were to make discoveries that would change the lives of ordinary people for the better, still a key driving force behind scientific research today.

This image shows Dr Julie Maxton, Executive Director of the Royal Society, approving the finished products before they were packed up ready for shipping:

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We hope the recipients will be pleased with their gifts and will perhaps display them in their buildings for all to enjoy!

 

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