Celebrating 350 Years Of Notable Scientific Papers To celebrate its 350th birthday, the Royal Society of London selected 60 of the most notable scientific papers it's published over the past four centuries. And it's posting them online — with images of the original manuscripts. These are many of the biggest names in scientific history — Isaac Newton to Ben Franklin to Stephen Hawking. Host Guy Raz reviews a few of them with Michael Thompson, the man in charge of choosing from the society's 60,000-paper collection.
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Celebrating 350 Years Of Notable Scientific Papers

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Celebrating 350 Years Of Notable Scientific Papers

Celebrating 350 Years Of Notable Scientific Papers

Celebrating 350 Years Of Notable Scientific Papers

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To celebrate its 350th birthday, the Royal Society of London selected 60 of the most notable scientific papers it's published over the past four centuries. And it's posting them online — with images of the original manuscripts. These are many of the biggest names in scientific history — Isaac Newton to Ben Franklin to Stephen Hawking. Host Guy Raz reviews a few of them with Michael Thompson, the man in charge of choosing from the society's 60,000-paper collection.

GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Isaac Newton is best known for the laws of motion. But when he was still an obscure scientist in 1671, he published a groundbreaking study into the qualities of refracted light.

Mr. JOHN LESKO (Actor): (Reading) Therefore, it comes to pass that whiteness is the usual color of light, for light is a confused aggregate of rays endued with all sorts of colors.

RAZ: The words of Isaac Newton as read by actor John Lesko. Newton's study was published by the Royal Society in London, the premier scientific academy of its day. The society is about to turn 350 years old. And in celebration, leading scientists have picked 60 papers published over the course of its history and put them online in the original manuscript form.

Michael Thompson is a fellow at the Royal Society and he headed up that committee that chose the papers. He is in Cambridge, England.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. MICHAEL THOMPSON (Royal Society): Hello. Pleased to be with you.

RAZ: Tell me, how did you come up with this list of 60 papers?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, we had a small committee, altogether about 16 people, and we got our heads together. And we were trying to cover pretty well everything that had been published, which, of course, you realize is an enormous task. But we went for what we thought were intriguing and novel and also the big, solid ones. We have, for example, a paper by Stephen Hawking on black holes.

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THOMPSON: Now, that's not the sort of thing you would read in the train in the morning.

RAZ: Right.

Mr. THOMPSON: In fact, I don't think you would read it all. It's full of mathematics.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Well, let's start with the oldest paper that you chose. It's by Robert Boyle. And he was actually one of the creators of the Royal Society, right?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yes, that's right. Mm-hmm.

RAZ: And in this paper, he is talking about using experiments of blood transfusions from dogs.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LESKO: (Reading) Whether by this way of transfusing blood, the disposition of individual animals of the same kind may not be much altered, as whether the blood of a mastiff being frequently transfused into a bloodhound or a spaniel will not prejudice them in point of scent.

RAZ: Michael Thompson, this, of course, was written in the 17th century by Robert Boyle. But to basically paraphrase what he's saying, he's saying if you take the blood from one animal and put it into another, you might be able to alter that animals behavior, you know, change a spaniel into a mastiff, for example.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: This was pretty sophisticated science at the time, right?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, yes. These were the sort of things they were trying out. In fact, the early years of the Royal Society's publications were full of things like this. They didn't really know which were the things, in a sense, really worth doing. And they were trying everything, looking at all sorts of curiosities.

RAZ: There's another paper. This is actually a letter that Benjamin Franklin wrote that was published by the Royal Society, and he is talking about an experiment with a kite and lightning. I want to play some tape of our actor, John Lesko, this time I should note without the fake British accident.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LESKO: (Reading) The kite is to be raised when a thunder gust appears to be coming on, which is very frequent in this country. And the person who holds the string must stand within a door or window, or under some cover, so that the silk ribbon may not be wet. As soon as any of the thunderclouds come over the kite, the pointed wire will draw the electric fire from them, and the kite with all the twine will be electrified.

RAZ: So, Michael Thompson, this is a famous story that every schoolchild in America learns about, Ben Franklin�

Mr. THOMPSON: That's right, yes. Mm-hmm.

RAZ: �you know, tying a key to the end of a kite string.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. Incidentally, I just wanted to comment that, as I'm sure in the USA, the U.K. has a lot of worry these days about health and safety.

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THOMPSON: And I was very amused that the Royal Society added to one of its documents that some of these experiments are dangerous and should not be repeated.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: Now, he may have had this one in mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Yeah. Michael Thompson, I want to end with Mozart because I found it curious that a description of Mozart as this young musical genius is actually in the Royal Society's collection of papers.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LESKO: (Reading) Whilst he was playing to me, a favorite cat came in, upon which he immediately harpsichord, nor could we bring him back for a considerable time. He would also sometimes run about the room with a stick between his legs by way of horse. I found likewise that most of the London musicians were of the same opinion with regard to his age, not believing it possible that a child of so tender years could surpass most of the masters in that science.

RAZ: That's a very, very interesting letter written by Daines Barrington. Was this normal? Was it common to sort of write profiles on people who were thought to be geniuses because this isn't really scientific inquiry, is it?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, I suppose it was and I suppose you could argue that it is. In fact, as I say, in those days, science hadn't really settled down into its rather, well, possibly even straight-laced approach these days. It wasn't quite clear what was valid to be studied. And given that this was the great spirit of inquiry era, when it was decided to test everything by experiment and see what there was in the world, and this was just the sort of thing they were doing. You just sense the excitement, I think, really by reading some of these early volumes of the transactions.

RAZ: Michael Thompson is a fellow of the Royal Society.

Michael Thompson, thanks so much for taking the time.

Mr. THOMPSON: Many thanks, indeed.

RAZ: And before we let you go, do you like Marmite?

Mr. THOMPSON: I'm not a tremendous fan of Marmite, no.

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