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Seeing Further: The Story of Science & the Royal Society, edited by Bill Bryson

In November 1660, the world was a mysterious place. There was no explanation for the rise and ebb of the tides. Air was a puzzling, invisible fluid with unexplained properties. There was no known way to measure the height of a mountain. Minerals were produced by "certain subterranean juices through veins of the earth".

A small group of men who began meeting at Gresham College that month and formed a society to promote experimental knowledge (the royal charter came in 1662; the first women fellows were elected in 1945) listened to strange reports from Iceland of smoking lakes and fire in the sea. They wondered why winter was colder than summer, and they speculated on the spontaneous generation of life in the absence of "certain seminal principles".

They did more than wonder: they experimented. They choked chickens, gagged fish, strangled dogs and dissected living cats. They transfused blood from a sheep to a human. They tried to imprison a spider inside a circle of powdered unicorn's horn. They also suffocated mice; but according to their first chronicler, they themselves breathed "a freer air" and conversed quietly "without being ingag'd in the passions, and madness of that dismal Age". These men lived in a world of plague, fire, war, public execution, witchcraft, alchemy, religious hatred, political ferment and precarious patronage: but they made it a rule to discuss neither God nor politics, nor news "other than what concern'd our business of Philosophy".
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