U.K.'s Royal Society Buys a Piece of Science History

Britain's leading scientific academy paid $1.75 million on Tuesday for a 17th-century manuscript that details the beginning of modern science. The Royal Society bought the manuscript on the eve of a public auction. Alex Chadwick speaks with the Steven Cox, chief executive of the Royal Society, about the big purchase.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

More science now, and we are going by telephone to London and the head of Britain's leading academic institution, that's the Royal Society and Steven Cox. Mr. Cox, welcome to DAY TO DAY.

Mr. STEVEN COX (Chief Executive The Royal Society): Hello.

CHADWICK: You've just acquired something called The Journal of Robert Hooke, which the BBC describes as a lost manuscript that charts the birth of modern science. What is the Hooke journal?

Mr. COX: Well, the Hooke journal did disappear from the Royal Society back in the 1670s. It is the actual record of meetings of the Royal Society written down by Robert Hooke at the time and Robert Hooke was the secretary of the Royal Society. He was also a very famous experimentalist scientist of very considerable repute.

CHADWICK: Explain the role of the Royal Society at the time, would you?

Mr. COX: Yeah, of course. We were a new organization, just been set up by the king to work out how to view the world from the perspective of observation, experimentation, and so on, and basically, the beginnings of modern science as we know it today.

CHADWICK: And who was sitting around in the society talking things over then?

Mr. COX: The sorts of people sitting around the table were people like Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Samuel Pepys, Halley as in Halley's Comet and so on and so forth. These are people who really started science as we know it today and the work they did and the discussions they had were what set us off on the modern scientific revolution.

CHADWICK: And the development of microscope and the whole idea of gravity, this is all happening in the Royal Society?

Mr. COX: This is all happening at meetings of the Royal Society, yes.

CHADWICK: What happened to Mr. Hooke's journal?

Mr. COX: We think, we don't know actually, but we think he or his biographer took them away from the Royal Society and they never came back. We know they're missing because we have a gap in our record here and they suddenly turned up about six months ago at the bottom of somebody's wardrobe in Hampshire, which is in southern England.

CHADWICK: An auctioneer had gone to look through some things and found this manuscript in this cupboard, essentially?

Mr. COX: It's one of those classic occasions that you don't think really ever happens, but that is exactly what happened, yeah.

CHADWICK: You've just bought it at an auction for a million pounds, is that it? What is that in dollars, a million and a half dollars?

Mr. COX: It's about a million and a half dollars, yeah. So, quite a lot of money for a manuscript, but something that is really so important because it shows things like the first time the word cell, as in C-E double L was used, the details of the arguments that took place between Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke about the nature of gravity and about the way in which the world works...

CHADWICK: Mr. Hooke and Mr. Newton didn't actually get along, did they?

Mr. COX: No, they didn't. In fact, they were at loggerheads all the time. Isaac Newton wrote in a letter to Robert -- Robert Hooke was a very, very small man and everybody made fun of him, and Isaac Newton put something about standing on the shoulder of giants, so it was sarcastic, and they really didn't get on. There's a lovely story about Newton destroying all of Hooke's portraits. We have eight or nine portraits of Newton, but none of Robert Hooke, so we never knew what happened to those either.

CHADWICK: If this journal has been missing for all these hundreds of years Mr. Cox, how do you know exactly what's in it?

Mr. COX: Well, we don't, that's the fascinating thing about it. We know some of what's in it, because there are other records, of course, from the same period, but we haven't yet got it physically, and scholars and the Royal Society are looking and waiting with baited breath to find out exactly what is in it, and what new things we're going to discover about that period.

CHADWICK: Steven Cox, chief executive of the Royal Society in London. Thank you Mr. Cox.

Mr. COX: Thank you very much indeed.

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