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Seeing Further    edited by Bill Bryson order for
Seeing Further
by Bill Bryson
Order:  USA  Can
William Morrow, 2010 (2010)
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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Fellows of the Royal Society include such giants of scientific discovery as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking. The Society's 350th anniversary takes place on November 28, 2010, and Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society is a tribute, edited by Bill Bryson and with contributions from such respected scientific and science fiction writers as Margaret Atwood, Neal Stephenson, Richard Dawkins, Richard Holmes, James Gleick, Martin Rees and Gregory Benford.

In his Introduction to the Royal Society, Bryson describes its founding in 1660 'to assist and promote the accumulation of useful knowledge.' He tells us that the Society 'invented scientific publishing and peer review ... systematized experimentation ... brought together the best thinking from all over the world ... created modern science.' He tells us that 'three things have always set the Society apart' - it was and is international; being well born was not necessary to be a part of it; and it's still there after all this time.

What follows is a series of accessible scientific essays (wonderfully illustrated with photos and documents from the Society's archives), from Gleick's At the Beginning: More Things in Heaven and Earth (on the 'boundless curiosity' and 'exuberance of enquiry' of early meetings) and Atwood's Of the Madness of Mad Scientists: Jonathan Swift's Grand Academy (on the origins of 'the mad scientist stock figure') to Benford's Time: The Winged Chariot ('Time is a fundamental, its nature slowly glimpsed') and the Conclusion: Looking Fifty Years Ahead (and emphasizing the need for 'wise choices') by Royal Society President Martin Rees.

Along the way we read about serious matters like the 'divisions in thought which marked the scientific revolution', Eugene Wigner's quote of 'the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the physical sciences', and 'the troubles of the public trust in science.' But there are also lighter moments, touching on topics like ballomania and apocalyptic fears, as well as witty comments like Maggie Gee's 'To call human beings 'stewards' of this planet is like accepting Jack the Ripper is the right man to start a Home for the Care and Protection of Fallen Women.'

It's quite a collection, requiring slow and careful reading, and offering new perspectives on the world and our place in it. Seeing Further, edited by Bill Bryson, includes twenty-one in-depth, thought-provoking essays, whose contents examine science in the context of history, personality, conflicting approaches and philosophies, and the evolution of theory and practice. It would make a perfect gift for someone on your holiday list with a scientific bent - or keep a copy for yourself, and kindle your own imagination.

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