Tales from the Royal Society

The world’s oldest scientific academy, the Royal Society, has made its historical journal, which includes over 8000 scientific papers, permanently free to access online.

The plague, the Great Fire of London and even the imprisonment of its editor – just a few of the early setbacks that hit the Royal Society’s early editions of the Philosophical Transactions. But against the odds the publication, which first appeared in 1665, survived. Its archives offer a fascinating window on the history of scientific progress over the last few centuries.

Nestling amongst illustrious papers by Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin are some undiscovered gems from the dawn of the scientific revolution, including gruesome tales of students being struck by lightning and experimental blood transfusions.

RTFA – more important, visit the site. Enjoy wandering through the history of many minds in the quest for knowledge.

Schoolkids’ bee research published in science journal

A scientific paper written by British schoolchildren about bees’ ability to recognize colour patterns and spatial characteristics has appeared in a prominent journal. The paper, published Wednesday in Biology Letters, includes handwritten data tables and coloured-pencil diagrams.

“We discovered that bumblebees can use a combination of colour and spatial relationships in deciding which colour of flower to forage from,” the paper said. “We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before.”

The paper was prepared by 28 boys and girls, ages eight to 10, at Blackawton Primary School in the village of Blackawton, Devon, England, under the direction of their head teacher, Dave Strudwick, and Beau Lotto, a researcher at the University College London’s Institute of Ophthalmology.

“The aim was to get it published because it was an original finding, not because it was written by kids,” Lotto said Wednesday. “I wanted to challenge the idea of science and who can do science and who can make a genuine contribution to science.”

The research found that bumblebees looking for food seem to take into account colour patterns and the placement of food sources representing flowers. It showed that some bees chose the “flowers” based on a familiar colour pattern while others chose them based on where the food sources were located after taking both colour and location into account…

He insisted that because the paper was written by kids, it was something the scientific journals needed to take into account when evaluating it. Unlike other scientific papers, it doesn’t include any detailed statistical analyses or references, but Lotto believes those are not crucial elements.

Finally, he got the paper reviewed by four independent researchers, and submitted the reviews and the paper together to Biology Letters. He suggested publishing the paper with a commentary from two of the reviewers.

Brian Charlesworth, editor of Biology Letters, admitted it was difficult to persuade scientists to review the paper, but he believes the journal’s extra efforts were worthwhile.

We did feel that it’s something we want to involve people in — seeing that science is something that’s fun to do, not just something you read about in text books,” Charlesworth said. “We feel quite pleased for having done this…”

“The experiments are modest in scope but cleverly and correctly designed and carried out,” it said. “The resulting article is a remarkable demonstration of how natural scientific reasoning is for us.”


Newton’s apple story goes online

Daylife/AP Photo used by permission

The original version of the story of Sir Isaac Newton and the falling apple has been made available online.

Newton recounted the story that inspired his theory of gravitation to scholar William Stukeley. It then appeared in Stukeley’s 1752 biography, Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life.

The UK’s Royal Society converted the fragile manuscript into an electronic book, which anybody with internet access will now be able to read…

Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of the history of art at Oxford University’s Trinity College, UK, said that being able to see the manuscript in its original form, rather than rely on a transcript, was “incredibly valuable to historians”.

“We needn’t believe that the apple hit his head, but sitting in the orchard and seeing the apple fall triggered that work.

It was a chance event that got him engaged with something he might have otherwise have shelved.”

The society will, at the same time, make other treasures from its archive available online. These include Thomas Paine’s iron bridge design, the philosopher John Locke’s contribution to an early American constitution, and rare natural history illustrations from the 17th through to the 19th Centuries.

The feel and look of the time adds to the telling of the tale.