Friday, February 12, 2010

350 years Royal Society

As Sabine has mentioned earlier today, this year is the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society, the british national academy of science. Going back to a gathering of a few men interested in "Experimental Philosophy" in London in November 1660, the Royal Society is one of the oldest scientific academies in the world.

Outside Britain, it may be best known for its 13th president, Sir Isaac Newton, and for the publication of the "Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society", the oldest existing scientific journal in continuous publication.

The Royal Society has set up a special website, and a very nice interactive timeline dubbed "trailblazing", which allows a brief virtual journey through the history of science since the 1650s.

Moreover, there will be several commemorative publications free to access over the anniversary year 2010, for example a special issue of the "Philosophical Transactions A". It features articles not requiring the reader to be a specialist to gain understanding of the content, ranging in topics from "Geometry and physics" by Michael Atiyah, Robbert Dijkgraaf and Nigel Hitchin to "Flat-panel electronic displays" by Cyril Hilsum.

And, most important, the Royal Society Digital Journal Archive will free until 28 February 2010 (two more weeks left only, unfortunately). This means full access to all issues of the "Philosophical Transactions" starting back in 1665!

So, for example, we can read about

  • Isaac Newton presenting his "New Theory about Light and Colors", with the description of his experiments with prisms and the spectrum (1671, 6 3075-3087),

  • Benjamin Franklin reporting his experiments "concerning an Electrical Kite" (1751, 47 565-567),

  • John Michell discussing "the Means of Discovering the Distance, Magnitude, &c. of the Fixed Stars, in Consequence of the Diminution of the Velocity of Their Light...", suggesting stars so massive that light cannot escape from them (1784, 74 35-57),

  • Henry Cavendish describing his "Experiments to Determine the Density of the Earth", or to measure Newton's gravitational constant with a torsion balance (1798, 88 469-526),

  • Alexander Volta reporting Galvani's experiments on electricity (the "frog" experiments - 1793, 83 10-44) and his own construction of the "Volta pile", the prototype of an electrical battery (1800, 90 403-431),

  • William Herschel discussing recent developments about "his" planet Uranus (1783, 73 1-3), reasoning "On the Construction of the Heavens" (1785, 75 213-266) and "the Nature and Construction of the Sun and Fixed Stars" (1795, 85 46-72), and describing his discovery of "Solar, and ... Terrestrial Rays that Occasion Heat", now known as infrared light (1800, 90 293-326),

  • Thomas Young arguing for the wave nature of light in "Outlines of Experiments and Inquiries Respecting Sound and Light" (1800, 90 106-150), and reporting the results of his interference experiments (1804, 94 1-16),

  • James Prescott Joule demonstrating the "Mechanical Equivalent of Heat" (1850, 140 61-82), and

  • James Clerk Maxwell introducing the principle of the RGB colour system in "On the Theory of Compound Colours" (1860, 150 57-84), presenting "A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field" (1865, 155 459-512) and contributing to the "Dynamical Theory of Gases" (1867, 157 49-88).

More findings are welcome in the comments! Have a great reading weekend!


    Thursday 4 June 1914

    "Sir Gerald Strickland, speaking at a meeting at the Royal Society's rooms undertook to give a definition of the word "wowser"...

    Oops! Wrong Royal Society. Apologies tendered. "8^>)

  2. 10 bucks says Phil Warnell and Plato are all over this one! :-)

    Phil has a nice piece about the lesser known Stephen Gray from that period here.

    What little I know of the era and the dawn of the Royal Society comes from Neal Stephenson's novel, Quicksilver. Good old Charles II. And Edward Teach as the notorious pirate, Blackbeard! Argh. :-)

    Those certainly were the days, Bee, but between pirates and horribly poor medical practices, they can stay in the past and good riddance.

    Modern medicine <== yet another great thing Physics has given us. And how do we repay them? With endless resume reviews of the unemployed PhD's. Oh well. Today, a hundred resumes to review and comment on, tomorrow a paper or two in PRD. All in a days work. At least if you get sick they won't bleed you with leeches.

  3. Hi Stefan,

    Many thanks for this nice post hightlighting the Royal Society’s and with it the 350th anniversary of the Philosophical Transaction’s. I can also assure you at least for my part you’re not going to be out ten buck’s, although I noticed you weren’t confident enough to have that be ten Euros:-) However, I have to confess that I wasn’t aware the journal has allowed free access since last November, for I certainly would have been poking around since then.

    With that said as you know I truly do wish that a way could be found to having all journals free and open access, without threatening their independence or financial underpinnings. I truly believe that a vital first step would be to have a reasonable (pooled)subscription fee for individuals that would give open access to all the major scientific journals, with perhaps a download limit that would reflect what a individual might be able to actually read, with no limit set for abstracts. I also think such fees should be based on a nation’s lowest mean income so that no person would find themselves excluded. Reminiscent of that article of mine about Stephen Gray you were kind to point out I was impressed that he devoutly read the Philosophical Transactions, yet only by way of a friend who was a member of the Royal Society as being a poor man who couldn’t have afforded a subscription.



  4. I hadn't thought earlier of the interesting and appropriate coincidence of the 350th of Royal Society and 400th of Galileo's most important findings (also celebrated last year, but close enough.) And Isaac Newton was born the same year Galileo died. In a similar premonitory coincidance (sic), Albert Einstein was born the same year as James Clerk Maxwell's death (but can't be reincarnation this time: overlap! ;-) I didn't know or forgot that JCM was a developer of the trichromatic color theory. Well, ahem - it turns out I was born the same year as Einstein's death! Uh, I'd like to think that means something ... decide for yourself ;-)'

    PS: Hey, we finally get to see the enigmatic Uncle Al's pic! tx.
    BTW Uncle Al, I predicted we could make Argon compounds in sci.chemistry a few years before it was done, and you thought I was being so silly! But good luck on your gravity theory.

  5. Does anybody know whether the older papers are still copyrighted anyway? I know next to nothing about copyright in the UK, but I think I vaguely recall in Germany copyright has a timeout after 70 years. Best,


  6. Khriachtchev, Nature 406 874 (2000) Trace HF in 7.3 K frozen argon matrix UV photolyzed, then HArF; 27 K decomposition. Uncle Al erred by 0.05 kcal/mole.

    Stephan's examples are eloquent. Science is discovery. Quantized gravitations, SUSY, the Higgs, dark matter (two detections? humbug) are unwell. Test the massed sector with opposite geometric parity atomic mass distributions (single crystals in enantiomorphic space groups P3(1)21 versus P3(2)21 or P3(1) versus P3(2).)

    1) Parity Eotvos experiment, quartz or glycine gamma-polymorph.
    2) Parity calorimetry, benzil.
    3) Parity gyroballs, quartz.
    4) Parity molecular rotors. Do vacuum-phase left-left, left-right, and right-right propellers on a rigid axle diverge their spin populations vs. time of day?

    Assumed truth that isn't true is devastating. Somebody should look.

  7. Hi Stefan,

    I certainly enjoyed the links to the papers you pointed to yet as you can imagine my feelings extend to those less likely to have ever been expected to have been able to contribute much to extending our understandings of the physical world. I think then it would hard to deny thet Stephen Grey and Michael Faraday would be amoung my favourites and interestingly enough are well represented within the pages of the Philosophical Transactions. As an example we have this paper here which represented Stephen Grey's most productive period which would lay the ground work for the investigations of electrical phenomena, from which all that followed would benefit. I particularly liked finding this paper of his written in conclusion (in old English):

    “By these Experiments we see, that an actual Flame of Fire, together with Explosion, and anEbullition of cold Water; may be produced by Communicative Electricity; and altho’ these Effects are present in minimis, it is probable, in Time there may be found out a Way to collect a greater Quantity of it; and confidently to increase the Force of this Electric Fire, which, by several of these Experiments (Silicet magnis compnere parva) seems to be of the same Nature with that of Thunder and Lightning.”

    So then Stefan your Ben Franklin turns out to be simply another reader of the transactions would one not think?

    Of course as a continuance we have Michael Faraday who although was never to have mastered calculus set the stage for Maxwell to use it to have his findings to be concisely codified to extend his findings and conclusions, many of which can be found within this paper here.

    So once again thanks very much Stefan as I feel like that kid that has found himself in the preverbal candy store;-)



  8. Hi Bee,

    I was curious if you ever submitted a paper to the Philosophical Transactions? In part why I ask is prompted by searching for paper’s by David Hilbert particularly to those related to General Relativity and also those by Roger Penrose in respect to his work on Black Holes. Unless I’m doing something wrong it appears neither had articles published in the journal. It had me to wonder if by that time that the Physical Review had become more recognized as the journal of first choice. If that being a fact I find this sad especially as it relates to the British as I would have assumed to have their work published in a journal in which Newton published.



  9. I am of course in agreement with some of Phil's thoughts,With that said as you know I truly do wish that a way could be found to having all journals free and open access, without threatening their independence or financial underpinnings.

    Title page of Opticks .... by Sir Isaac Newton, 1642-1727. Fourth edition corrected by the author's own hand, and left before his death with the bookseller. Published in 1730. Library call number QC353 .N48 1730.

    Most certainly we understand how progression in science has a historical background to today's positions.

    Why in our pursuits of science would this information not be accessible to all who are interested?


  10. Hi Phil,

    thanks for pointing out the papers by Stephen Grey ("Experiments and Observations upon the Light That is Produced by Communicating Electrical Attraction to Animal or Inanimate Bodies", 39 (1735) 16-24) and Michael Faraday ("Experimental Researches in Electricity. Twenty-Ninth Series", 142 (1852) 137-159)!

    When compiling the list I thought about including more papers on electricity, but I didn't think of Gray, and I couldn't decide which one to pick of the many papers of Faraday...

    Concerning Hilbert and Penrose:

    Hilbert's relativity paper was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Göttingen ("Nachrichten von der Königlichen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, Mathematisch-physikalische Klasse") - you can find scans here, the paper is called "Grundlagen der Physik", i.e. "Foundations of Physics".

    Penrose has published with the Royal Society, albeit not in the "Philosophical Transactions" but in the "Proceedings" - see here.

    Cheers, Stefan

  11. Hi Phil,

    concerning your remark about access to papers - I think the most natural way to organize online access to scientific journals and archives would be via university libraries.

    At least in Germany, it is possible for anyone to use, for a very moderate annual fee or even for free, the library of your next university.

    Unfortunately, this allows access to online journals only on-site, remote access via athens or similar means is restricted to members of the university - i.e. students and teaching and research staff.

    I really wonder why university libraries do not offer online access for registered non-student users, for a reasonable annual fee, thus carrying the existing model into the online world.

    Maybe just more people should ask for this option?

    Best, Stefan

  12. Hi Stefan,

    Yes I also think universities would serve as the best conduit for journal access by the general public, then of course there would have to be some mechanism and formula for sharing the revenue with the journals themselves. In as it would be via computer access the share could be determined by the download ratios relevant to the respective journals.

    Of course there are other pressures out there, as for instance Google’s ongoing development of their data cloud concept. I’m however somewhat sceptical of such efforts, not from the access side yet rather the revenue side of the question. That coupled with being more than a liitle uncomfortable with the new age library of Alexandria being in private hands. Then again such things being run by governments is not such a appetizing thought either. That I find to the greatest challenge we face today with expanding information in general, as how do you have it serve the individual and society in more generally without realizing the world of George Orwell in the process.



  13. Hi Phil,
    No, I've never submitted a paper there. I publish most of my papers in Physical Review D, Physics Letters B, or Classical and Quantum Gravity, depending somewhat on the content of the paper and/or its length. Best,


  14. Hi Bee,

    So basically are you saying the PT is not the proper place for what you work on, or rather those other mentioned are the ones more popular and thus most likely to have the work noticed as to be recognized? Also I wondered as consistent with the dialogue between me and Stefan, if it ever crossed your mind that someone several hundred years from now could be reading one of your papers and what thoughts it could have provoked. As in the one I noted of Stephen Grey we have the archaic language and politeness that borders on the extreme to first have noticed. However, more than this his talking about electricity at a level that today seems so naive and primitive and yet have one to understand from such beginnings the understanding of it and its utility for communications was born. So have you ever thought of that someone in the future when they read your papers to considering them the same?

    Yours and Backreaction’s Most Obedient Humble Servant,

    Phil Warnell

    Sorry I just couldn’t resist salutating in the style of our most venerable Stephen Grey :-)

  15. Hi Phil,

    The choice of journals is to a very large extend a community issue. You just (try to) publish in journals where most other people also publish, simply because that's the journals they pay attention to and that they will recognize. If you look at other arXives than hep-th/gr-qc, you'll notice that other journals dominate.

    In any case, yes of course I sometimes wonder what people in 350 years might think about what questions we are concerned with right now. I hope with the knowledge in 350 years they will think the answers are obvious. The less optimistic extrapolation is of course, and we've discussed that a few times already, that instead we are headed into a dark age and people in 350 years actually lack the knowledge to understand what we're talking about. This possibility is one of the reasons we should be very careful with how we store information. Best,


  16. Hi Bee,

    ”This possibility is one of the reasons we should be very careful with how we store information.”

    Yes I’ve had similar thoughts especially with the concept of “the data cloud” which I mentioned to Stefan. That is it might be prudent to still have things in what you call desd tree format as this to me seems more vulnerable than the fabled library of Alexandria. That is what would be the utility of discovering one of these archives for a civilization that had technically regressed. This is reminiscent of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 where people’s memories alone stood as being able to preserve past knowledge as being living books. So then if such a responsibility were handed to you to have one preserved which would you deem the most important and to have passed on?



  17. A yearning for Truth must be embedded within the society which seeks to garner that truth?

    The library if thought in a "wider perspective" as a place for information storage what was to have thought access to this would have been impeded by the cost of the very industry of the internet provider to secularize it to a cost basis?:)

    So, should one limit the speed for which access is throttled so that you can only get so much info according to the "written word" or shall we be granted a total informative access to YOutube and such, as an evolutionary discourse on how we shall proceed with the evolution of that information??

    There should be no discrimination as to the poorer wo/man on the


  18. I did a quick search on Backreaction site with the key words "on line journals" so one can be exposed a bit to the thinking we've gone through the years here.

    This is important I think to understand where we have been and where we are going.

    guys, just a brief comment before that wireless breaks down again. I keep wondering why nobody mentions what's to me completely obvious: if you want open access, scientific publications become a public service. public service has to be financed by governmental support. financing models like page or author charges are doomed to fail because they are just inappropriate. either way you turn it, it will go on the expenses of unbiased and high quality publishing for the merits of profit optimization. if you think about it more than three seconds you'll notice both isn't compatible with each other, that's the reason why science journalism is tumbling down into making and hyping sensations (just check Peter's 'This week hype's).

    Random Browsing: Online Access to Physics Journals

    Amara lets us know that IEEE Spectrum is making all of their articles available for free, online. Apparently they have more online than what is listed on that page, articles which are not indexed yet. Thanks, Amara!

    Nice quote by Confucius there too.

    "Tell me and I'll forget. Show me and I'll remember. Involve me and I'll understand."
    ~ Confucius

    Free the Facts

    Peer Review III

    Here is the blurb that I came up with:

    Times are changing. In the earlier days, we used to go to the library, today we search and archive our papers online. We have collaborations per email, hold telephone seminars, organize virtual networks, write blogs, and make our seminars available on the internet. Without any doubt, these technological developments influence the way science is done, and they also redefine our relation to the society we live in. Information exchange and management, the scientific community, and the society as a whole can be thought of as a triangle of relationships, the mutual interactions in which are becoming increasingly important.

    Taking stock of where are today is a good reminder of the principles by which we stood yesterday? We leave traces historically everywhere we go. Form neurological maps. Use search functions now to access parts of the brain that have move to new routes?



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