As my time as an intern at the Royal Society comes to an end, I’d like to take the opportunity to share with you the highlights of what I’ve learned from working on Science in the Making, the Society’s project showcasing archival material relating to its long history of scientific publishing.

My role has dealt with the nuts and bolts of the project, notable for its emphasis on an Open Source structure, which more intrepid readers can explore in Digirati’s record of the creation process. I’ve also been examining and exploring the unique and fascinating material in Science in the Making, ranging from illustrations and correspondence to papers that have never been published.

The chosen themes create unique and fascinating points from which to embark on the exploration of the wealth of material presented, from being able to engage with the conditions (and penguins) of Captain Scott’s first expedition:

 

Antarctic penguin rookery, October 1902, by Reginald Skelton (ref. NAE/2/133)

 

to the sassy correspondence that followed the explorers’ return:

‘I cannot tell how the Royal Society office can have been led to adopt the belief that the material for publication was exhausted with the present volume, except that the wish may have been father to the thought.’ (Letter from William Napier Shaw, Meteorological Office, to Sir Archibald Geikie, Royal Society).

What I’ve found most interesting about the resource is this experimentation in allowing users to trace their own unique paths of discovery through the material, by visualising the links between the archival objects:

 

 

Most fascinating, for me at any rate, was to follow the animated letters that fuelled the controversy following Isaac Newton’s famous ‘Theory about Light and Colours – you know, the experiment with the prism that’s now a requirement for schoolchildren all around the world. I never knew this little rainbow had such an illustrious heritage…

There’s a subtle joy to deciphering the writings of these great men from ages past, spotting words and pulling back the curtain of time on the formation of ideas upon which our modern world is based. What’s more, this joy can be shared with others, as the project allows the reader to aid the advancement of human knowledge by transcribing what they see for others to build upon. And if you’re interested in a challenge, try your eye at the infamous scrawl of Robert Hooke.

Last, but far from least, what struck me most when first starting at the Royal Society, and what I’ve revisited and marvelled at time and time again, is the weird and wonderful variety of illustrations that were used to illuminate the scientific theories presented to the Fellows gathered so long ago.

 

Orkney seal skull, by William Clift. Plate 28 from the paper ‘On the difference in the appearance of the teeth and the shape of the skull in different species of seals’, by Everard Home, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, vol.112 (1822), pp.239-40.

 

This is only the beginning for Science in the Making, and I look forward to following the project as it branches ever further out into creative ways of exploring the development of science.

Thomas Kelly, UCL MA/MSc Digital Humanities

 

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