I’ve spent some time searching through our card catalogue lately, a fascinating but occasionally bewildering resource. During one of these forays, I found my interest piqued when I came across this card:
Well, you know what they say about cats and curiosity … At the time, in the middle of three other things, I had no option but to take a quick snapshot and file it mentally for later interest. But given that I was still in the midst of exploring the card catalogue, it didn’t stay buried in my consciousness for more than a couple of weeks and I soon found myself trotting down to the archive room to investigate.
What I found was a collection of 25 letters (numbers 30-54 in Archived Papers, volume 10), all in response to the ‘irresponsible statement’, which one gentleman had been considerate enough to include in his letter:
Note that the article itself doesn’t explicitly say that the Royal Society itself offers the reward, but it can be read implicitly – indeed, no-one and nowhere else is mentioned in the short article. I suspect that if the offer of a medal and reward weren’t enough, some would be tempted to at least try the experiment to find out if they were more intelligent than all of the Royal Society’s Fellows – though they might not have thought it necessary to report their findings to the Society itself.
The responses range from one piece of paper in length to twenty-five sides of closely written handwriting and come from as far as America in their origin. For the most part they are carefully written, indicating a diligent application of the scientific method that the Society should have been proud of – ‘Nullius in verba’, after all.
My particular favourite, I have to admit, is the Professor of Mathematics of the Washington Institute, who responded with a detailed treatise on the topic. He requests of the Society, ‘Should my ideas on the subject be found incorrect, I shall still be happy, if you will be kind enough to inform me of it in a few lines.’ The reason that this is my favourite is his application of doodles in the margin to illustrate his work (click on the images to see them in more detail):
Unfortunately, the letters left no indication of who wrote the mysterious missive and placed it in the papers. It is hardly a malicious or slanderous piece of writing – it is a piece of gossip, a whisper in the reader’s ear written in a teasing tone. I’m not sure that the Royal Society’s secretaries would have regarded it as quite so playful – I suppose that having to respond to what amounted to them a silly waste of time would take the shine off the results a little. But the responses sent are for the most part intelligently constructed arguments, indicating the regard in which the Society was internationally held, and internationally known in the 19th Century. So maybe that’s worth a little frustration stemming from an irresponsible statement?