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Seeing Further: 350 Years of the Royal Society and Scientific Endeavour [Hardcover]

Bill Bryson
2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Product Description

Quill & Quire

How will this fadge?

My master loves her dearly;

And I (poor monster) fond
as much on him;

And she (mistaken) seems
to dote on me.

This is from Twelfth Night, at the point where the penny drops for poor Viola. Disguised as a boy, she has been delivering love messages from Duke Orsino to Countess Olivia, but things are getting messy.

The plot devices of gender confusion and courtship via a third party that worked so well for Shakespeare are given a run for their money in Only in the Movies, a light-hearted young adult novel from William Bell of Orillia, Ontario.

Jake Blanchard is a new student at a fine arts school with a passion for filmmaking and a skill for set design and construction. Right off the bat he meets two girls. Alba is the standard object of teen crushes: tight sweater, strawberry blonde hair, no zits. She’s an actor, and a few bricks short of a load. (She thinks Shakespeare is known as “the Bard of Avonlea.”) Vanni, on the other hand, is homely and smart. Naturally, she’s a writer. Jake enlists Vanni to write love letters to Alba and feed him lines of dialogue when he arranges to meet the blonde bombshell on a bridge with Vanni hidden underneath. (Echoes of Cyrano de Bergerac.)

Complications ensue. Turns out that Vanni is a lesbian and, in the act of writing to Alba, also falls for her. (Or so Jake thinks.) And what of Alba? Her heart pines for Chad – rich, a hunk, even more bricks short of a load. Thinking that Jake is such a good writer, Alba enlists him to feed her lines to say to Chad – and it works! Chad falls for Alba, but then Chad starts two-timing her with Snowy. Then Jake has a big revelation, realizing he has loved Vanni all the time. She reveals that she isn’t a lesbian after all and has set her cap on Jake from day one, and they quote John Donne at each other (just in case we were getting tired of Shakespeare). Needless to say, it all ends well.

All of this is a lot of fun. Bell captures the group nature of teen romance: the idea that, in school cafeterias everywhere, a girl is asking another girl to find out if a guy she has a crush on has really broken up with some third girl. Thriftless sighs and women’s waxen hearts – Shakespeare got it, and so does Bell.

The novel, however, takes a long time to find its feet. In the book’s prologue, Jake ends up, by chance, on a film set, and realizes, suddenly and profoundly, that the movies are to be his life’s work – despite his father’s wish that he join the family carpentry business. All of this preliminary action is less sparkly than the scenes that follow. He writes some of his experiences as screenplays and makes references to classic films, but we just don’t believe his passion. Far better realized, ironically, is his feel for carpentry:

There was a rhythm to it: fit the shingle, hold it in place, nail it to the wall with a pneumatic power stapler – whap-whap! Every few minutes the air compressor would kick in, rattle away for a bit, then cut out with a sharp hiss. There was a light breeze off the river, and the cedar gave off a fragrance that always reminded me of summer.

In this small, poetic moment, we learn more about Jake than in the whole first act, with its heavy-handed set-up and explication. Even in the comic moments, Jake is more contractor than movie buff. In one of the funniest passages, he tries to resist Alba’s charms by conjuring mental images of strength: “stout concrete pillars, thick steel girders, those robust braided cables they use on suspension bridges … thick oak planks glued and bolted together. Cast-iron stanchions. Cement roadbeds.” By the time we get to Kevlar and titanium mesh we think Jake is going to succeed, but then Alba kisses him. Farewell, man of steel.

There is a mannered quality to all the characters in this drama, as though they were created from a collage of predetermined elements rather than allowed to grow naturally. The particularities of Vanni, for example – her combined Irish and South Asian heritage, her passion for poetry, her big nose, her lippy approach to teachers – never really coalesce. Every so often she says “eejit” or “didjever” as though to remind us of her Irishness.

This kind of farce requires a light, witty touch, and Jake’s story suffers from initial sogginess. Once the story starts to move, however, Bell’s gift for comedy (especially classroom hijinks), slapstick, and loveable nerdiness is given room to breathe.


“Bill Bryson is as amusing as ever . . . As a celebration of modern science, Seeing Further is a worthy tribute.” (The Economist)

“Traces the Royal Society’s unparalled contributions to science, celebrating not just the famous members like Isaac Newton but also the oddballs.” (Discover magazine (Hot Science))

“Bill Bryson exhibits a wealth of essays on the scientific discoveries and exploits of the Royal Society” (Vanity Fair)

“A treasure trove for lovers of science and history. These pages brim with revolutionary discoveries.” (Minneapolis Star-Tribune (A Best Book of the Year selection)) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From the Back Cover

Join Bill Bryson on an unforgettable exploration of scientific genius, discovery, and invention. Edited and introduced by Bryson, with original contributions from “a glittering array of scientific writing talent” (Sunday Observer), Seeing Further tells the spectacular story of modern science through the lens of the international Royal Society, founded on a damp November night in London in 1660. Isaac Newton, John Locke, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking—all have been fellows. Its members have split the atom, discovered the double helix and the electron, and given us the computer and the World Wide Web. Gorgeously illustrated with photographs, documents, and treasures from the Society’s exclusive archives, Seeing Further is an unprecedented celebration of the power of ideas.

Featuring contributions from more than twenty of the world’s greatest scientific—and science-fiction—thinkers, including:

Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene; The God Delusion), James Gleick (The Information), Neal Stephenson (Cryptonomicon), Richard Holmes (The Age of Wonder), Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale), and Martin Rees (former President of the Royal Society).

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

BILL BRYSON is one of the best-selling and best-loved authors writing in English today. His books include A Walk in the Woods, Notes from a Small Island, In a Sunburned Country, Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors, and a memoir of childhood, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. His exploration of scientific knowledge, A Short History of Nearly Everything, earned him the 2004 Aventis Prize. Bryson lives in Britain with his wife and children. The Royal Society, the national academy of science of the UK and the Commonwealth, is at the cutting edge of scientific progress. It supports many leading young scientists, engineers and technologists, influences science policy, debates scientific issues with the public, and much more. It is an independent, charitable body which derives its authority from its over 1,400 Fellows and Foreign Members: distinguished the eminent scientists, engineers and technologists from the United Kingdom, other Commonwealth countries and the Republic of Ireland.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

James Gleick
At the Beginning: More Things in Heaven and Earth

James Gleick last visited the Royal Society when researching his recent biography Isaac Newton. His first book, Chaos, was a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist and an international bestseller, translated into more than twenty languages. His other books include Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything and What Just Happened: A Chronicle from the Information Frontier.
The first formal meeting of what became the Royal Society was held in London on 28 November 1660. The dozen men present agreed to constitute themselves as a society for ‘the promoting of experimental philosophy’. Experimental philosophy? What could that mean? As James Gleick shows from their own records, it meant, among other things, a boundless curiosity about natural phenomena of all kinds, and something else – a kind of exuberance of inquiry which has lasted into our own day.
To invent science was a heavy responsibility, which these gentlemen took seriously. Having declared their purpose to be ‘improving’ knowledge, they gathered it and they made it – two different things. From their beginnings in the winter of 1660–61, when they met with the King’s approval Wednesday afternoons in Laurence Rooke’s room at Gresham College, their way of making knowledge was mainly to talk about it.
For accumulating information in the raw, they were well situated in the place that seemed to them the centre of the universe: ‘It has a large Intercourse with all the Earth: … a City, where all the Noises and Business in the World do meet: … the constant place of Residence for that Knowledge, which is to be made up of the Reports and Intelligence of all Countries.’ But we who know everything tend to forget how little was known. They were starting from scratch. To the extent that the slate was not blank, it often needed erasure.
At an initial meeting on 2 January their thoughts turned to the faraway island of Tenerife, where stood the great peak known to mariners on the Atlantic trade routes and sometimes thought to be the tallest in the known world. If questions could be sent there (Ralph Greatorex, a maker of mathematical instruments with a shop in the Strand, proposed to make the voyage), what would the new and experimental philosophers want to ask? The Lord Viscount Brouncker and Robert Boyle, who was performing experiments on that invisible fluid the air, composed a list:
• ‘Try the quicksilver experiment.’ This involved a glass tube, bent into a U, partly filled with mercury, and closed at one end. Boyle believed that air had weight and ‘spring’ and that these could be measured. The height of the mercury column fluctuated, which he explained by saying, ‘there may be strange Ebbings and Flowings, as it were, in the Atmosphere’ – from causes unknown. Christopher Wren (‘that excellent Mathematician’) wondered whether this might correspond to ‘those great Flowings and Ebbs of the Sea, that they call the Spring-Tides’, since, after all, Descartes said the tides were caused by pressure made on the air by the Moon and the Intercurrent Ethereal Substance. Boyle, having spent many hours watching the mercury rise and fall unpredictably, somewhat doubted it.
• Find out whether a pendulum clock runs faster or slower at the mountain top. This was a problem, though: pendulum clocks were themselves the best measures of time. So Brouncker and Boyle suggested using an hourglass.
• Hobble birds with weights and find out whether they fly better above or below.
• ‘Observe the difference of sounds made by a bell, watch, gun, &c. on the top of the hill, in respect to the same below.’
And many more: candles, vials of smoky liquor, sheep’s bladders filled with air, pieces of iron and copper, and various living creatures, to be carried thither.
A stew of good questions, but to no avail. Greatorex apparently did not go, nor anyone else of use to the virtuosi, for the next half-century. Then, when Mr J. Edens made an expedition to the top of the peak in August 1715, he was less interested in the air than in the volcanic activity: ‘the Sulphur discharg[ing] its self like a Squib or Serpent made of Gun-powder, the Fire running downwards in a Stream, and the Smoak ascending upwards’. He did wish he had brought a Barometer – the device having by now been invented and named – but he would have had to send all the way to England, and the expense would have come from his own pocket. Nonetheless he was able to say firmly that there was no truth to the report about ‘the Difficulty of breathing upon the top of the place; for we breath’d as well as if we had been below’.
No one knew how tall the mountain was anyway, or how to measure it. Sixteenth-century estimates ranged as high as 15 leagues (more than 80,000 metres) and 70 miles (more than 110,000 metres). One method was to measure from a ship at sea; this required a number for the radius of the Earth, which wasn’t known itself, though we know that Eratosthenes had got it right. The authoritative Geographia of Bernhardus Varenius, published in Cambridge in 1672 with Isaac Newton’s help, computed the height as 8 Italian miles (11,840 metres) – ‘quae incredibilis fere est’ – and then guessed 4 to 5 miles instead. (An accurate measurement, 3,718 metres, had to wait till the twentieth century.) But interest in Tenerife did not abate – far from it. Curiosity about remote lands was always honoured in Royal Society discourse. ‘It was directed,’ according to the minutes for 25 March, ‘that inquiry should be made, whether there be such little dwarvish men in the vaults of the Canaries, as was reported.’ And at the next meeting, ‘It was ordered to inquire, whether the flakes of snow are bigger or less in Teneriffe than in England …’
Reports did arrive from all over. The inaugural issue of the Philosophical Transactions featured a report (written by Boyle, at second hand) of ‘a very odd Monstrous Calf ’ born in Hampshire; another ‘of a peculiar Lead-Ore of Germany’; and another of ‘an Hungarian Bolus’, a sort of clay said to have good effects in physick. From Leyden came news of a man who, by star-gazing nightly in the cold, wet air, obstructed the pores of his skin, ‘which appeared hence, because that the shirt, he had worn five or six weeks, was then as white as if he had worn it but one day’. The same correspondent described a young maid, about thirteen years old, who ate salt ‘as other children doe Sugar: whence she was so dried up, and grown so stiff, that she could not stirre her limbs, and was thereby starved to death’.
Iceland was the source of especially strange rumours: holes, ‘which, if a stone be thrown into them, throw it back again’; fire in the sea, and smoking lakes, and green flames appearing on hillsides; a lake near the middle of the isle ‘that kills the birds, that fly over it’; and inhabitants that sell winds and converse with spirits. It was ordered that inquiries be sent regarding all these, as well as ‘what is said there concerning raining mice’.
The very existence of these published transactions encouraged witnesses to relay the noteworthy and strange, and who could say what was strange and what was normal? Correspondents were moved to share their ‘Observables’. Observables upon a monstrous head. Observables in the body of the Earl of Balcarres (his liver very big; the spleen big also). Observables were as ephemeral as vapour in this camera-less world, and the Society’s role was to grant them persistence. Many letters were titled simply, ‘An Account of a remarkable [object, event, appearance]’: a remarkable meteor, fossil, halo; monument unearthed, marine insect captured, ice shower endured; Aurora Borealis, Imperfection of Sight, Darkness at Detroit; appearance in the Moon, agitation of the sea; and a host of remarkable cures. An Account of a remarkable Fish began, ‘I herewith take the liberty of sending you a drawing of a very uncommon kind of fish which was lately caught in King-Road …’
It fought violently against the fisher-man’s boat … and was killed with great difficulty. No body here can tell what fish it is … I took the drawing on the spot, and do wish I had had my Indian Ink and Pencils …
From Scotland came a careful report by Robert Moray of unusual tides in the Western Isles. Moray, a confidant of the King and an earnest early member of the Society, had spent some time in a tract of islands for which he had no name – ‘called by the Inhabitants, the Long-Island’ (the Outer Hebrides, we would say now). ‘I observed a very strange Reciprocation of the Flux and Re-flux of the Sea,’ he wrote, ‘and heard of another, no less remarkable.’ He described them in painstaking detail: the number of days before the full and quarter moons; the current running sometimes eastward but other times westward; flowing from 9½ of the clock to 3½; ebbing and flowing orderly for some days, but then making ‘constantly a great and singular variation’. Tides were a Royal Society favourite, and they were a problem. Humanity had been watching them for uncounted thousands of years, and observing the coincidence of their timing with the phases of the Moon, without developing an understanding of their nature – Descartes notwithstanding. No global sense of the tides could be possibl...
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