New Year greetings from the Royal Society Library team. Our doors are now open again after the festive break, and we look forward to welcoming you, whether you’re coming to do in-depth history of science research, visiting the building on one of our Library tours, or just popping in to say hello after watching some of our Objectivity videos.

Of course, interspersed with the many gems and breakthroughs in our archives, there are other trivial observations which have not, to put it politely, set the scientific world aflame. Here’s a ‘seasonal’ one I came across recently, in the Royal Society Journal Book for 7 January 1702 – it follows Christopher Wren’s account of digging foundations in London, and was therefore the second item on the Society’s New Year agenda. The full text of the Journal Book entry is as follows:

Mr Molesworth said, that Mr Haistwell’s brothers servant having lately lost his Hat in a Storm, in an East-India-Voiage: some 30 Leagues off, the next day, in a calm, they took a Shark, in which they found the Hat.’

Thank you, Mr Molesworth (a distant ancestor of this fine fellow, I’d love to think). Of course, there may be later entries in which statistics are gathered on hat retrieval from fishy stomachs, and plotted as graphs which lead to a breakthrough scientific theory on shark swimming velocities in storm conditions, in which case my snickering is very wrong. But maybe not – we have to face the possibility that it’s just an anecdote about a hat-related coincidence, and nothing more.


‘The blue shark’, from ‘The Royal Natural History’ edited by Richard Lydekker, 1896


However, such observations, while rather trivial to modern eyes, do show how genuinely interested the Society’s early Fellows were in all phenomena relating to the natural world – and for every ridiculous report, there are glimpses of the sublime, new discoveries on the horizon, or at least the building blocks for later theories. Another of my favourite Journal Book entries is this brief note from 24 July 1661, less than a year after the Society’s foundation:

‘A Circle was made with powder of Unicornes horne, & a Spyder sett in the middle of it: but immediately it ran out.’

Thereby proving that unicorn’s horn isn’t much of a spider-repellent? This quirky experiment does at least hint at an ongoing scientific debate, explored by one of our fellow scientific academies just a few years ago; as a mild-to-moderate arachnophobe myself, I’m hoping someone comes up with a workable solution before too long, whether it’s conkers, unicorn’s horn or… anything, really!

Anyway, I digress – we look forward to seeing you and hearing from you in 2017 as we continue to bring our rich historical archives, full of the great and the quirky, into the public eye. Happy New Year!


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