This is part of a series of posts inspired by the Royal Society’s One Culture festival of literature and the arts.

Guest post by Emily Roberts, Royal Society Events Officer 

By the sound of the title some people may have come to this event expecting to hear the newly discovered scientific writing of William Shakespeare! Alas no such writing has been discovered but just as fascinating was the talk given by Georgina Ferry as part of the One Culture literary festival.

Since the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary last year, much has been said about scientists from the 1600s to the present day. But as Georgina Ferry rightly said at her talk, “This is not where science began”. Even though the work of Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton, are just as famous now as they ever were, we must not forget their scientific forebears from the 1500s and earlier.

As she reeled off names of 16th century scientists (even though they did not call themselves scientists, this term wasn’t coined until 1833 by philosopher and historian of science William Whewell) I was surprised by the amount and the diversity of their work.

Among the many she discussed was an author called John Rastell, who between 1510 -1520 wrote a morality play entitled ‘A new interlude and a mery of the nature of the four elements’, roughly describing man’s quest for knowledge of natural philosophy, what nowadays we call science. With science writing represented in this format of a play it seems that we’re not all that far away from Shakespeare as we thought!

Another notable scientist of that time was Thomas Digges, a mathematician and astronomer. He was the first to translate an explanation of Copernicus’s theory of the universe in to English and even went beyond Copernicus to correctly argue an infinite number of stars at varying distances. Unfortunately he chose to publish this work as part of a collection of his father’s work (another mathematician called Leonard Digges) and therefore it went largely unnoticed. After the death of his father, Thomas was then brought up by John Dee.

John Dee, born in 1527, was an English mathematician, astronomer, astrologer and navigator. His high status helped him become adviser and tutor to Elizabeth I. At the same time he also studied alchemy and the occult. This strange combination of science and magic is perhaps why it is thought that William Shakespeare may have modelled the character of Prospero in The Tempest on Dee.

Also mentioned by Georgina was William Gilbert, born in 1544, a physician, physicist and natural philosopher. He is remembered today largely for being credited as one of the originators of the term electricity and is regarded by some as the father of electrical engineering and magnetism. It was Gilbert that first to argue that the Earth’s core was made of iron and that Earth itself was magnetic and that this was the reason compasses point north.

By the end of the hour I was amazed by the work of these men, which unfortunately are largely unknown to the general public. This lack of recognition for these early scientists was why Georgina Ferry wanted to write an account of them for her new book, Rough Magic which will be published by Bloomsbury in 2012. I advise you get a copy. I will.

I caught up with Georgina Ferry after her talk for a brief chat about her work – click here to watch our interview on YouTube.

Georgina Ferry at the Royal Society

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