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Opening Address, Session 1862–63

  • Forbes

Extract

Gentlemen,—I propose to address you on this occasion with reference to the following points:—

First, to recapitulate briefly the origin, the objects, and the Constitution of Societies similar to our own.

Secondly, to trace the rise and general history of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Thirdly, to consider what changes the progress of science and of society render necessary or desirable in the working of associations like ours, and how far such changes are safe and prudent.

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page 3 note * See Drinkwater Bethune's Life of Galileo, p. 37.

page 3 note † First meeting, 18th June 1657. Saggi, &c., Edit. 1841; Introd. p. 95. As its name imports it was an association for making experiments.

page 7 note * [By Lord Woodhouselee] two vols. 4to. Edin. 1807, vol. i. p. 174, and list of members, Appendix p. 50.

page 7 note † Since the reading of this address I have been indebted to Professor Fraser of the Edinburgh University for a reference to an interesting allusion to the “Rankenian Club,”contained in Dugald Stewart's First Dissertation on the Progress of Metaphysical and Ethical Philosophy, part ii. sect. 4, where he speaks of Berkeley's celebrated system of Idealism having “attracted very powerfully the attention of a set of young men who were then prosecuting their studies at Edinburgh, and who formed themselves into a society for the express purpose of soliciting from the author an explanation of some parts of his theory which seemed to them obscurely or equivocally expressed. To this correspondence the amiable and excellent prelate appears to have given every encouragement; and I have been told,” adds Mr Stewart, “by the best authority, that he was accustomed to say that his reasonings had been nowhere better understood than by this club of young Scotsmen.” To which Mr Stewart adds this note: “The authority I here allude to is that of my old friend and preceptor, Dr John Stevenson, who was himself a member of the Rankenian Club.…….” Mr Fraser justly remarks, that the dates tally well with this statement; Berkeley's “Dialogues” having been published in 1713, and the Bankenian Club having (as stated above) been founded in 1716.

page 8 note * An incidental notice, however, in the Introduction to the first volume of the Royal Society's Transactions, informs us that the secretary was the first Professor Monro, who was also a large contributor to the Essays.

page 8 note † Vol. xxii. p. 327.

page 8 note ‡ The date usually assigned is 1739. But from two letters of Maclaurin printed in the “Scots' Magazine” for June 1804, the earlier date is certainly correct. Mr David Laing has shown me a pamphlet (of sixteen quarto pages) containing the Regulations of the Society and a List of Members. The List of Members is dated 1739; but at page 3, the first Thursday of December 1737 is fixed as the first day of meeting.

page 8 note § The papers read at the Society were in part printed in the later volumes of the Medical Essays, in the Philosophical Transactions, and in Maclaurin's Fluxions. It appears from a notice in MrChambers's, R., Domestic Annals (Vol. iii. p. 477), that, in 1743, the Society advertised for specimens of stones, ores, saline substances, bitumens, &c., to be sent to their secretary, Dr Plummer, and it is stated that “the Society undertake, by some of their number, to make the proper trials at their own charge for discovering the nature and uses of the minerals, and to return an answer to the person by whom they were sent, if they are judged to be of any use, or can be wrought to advantage.” The quotation is from the Edin. Evening Courant, 22d Aug. 1743.

page 9 note * Henry Home, Lord Kames, became president about 1769, and contributed greatly to the success of the Society.

page 9 note † Dr Black's sole contribution was his celebrated “Experiments on Magnesia Alba,” Essays, &c. vol. ii. p. 157.

page 9 note ‡ See Life of Kames, i. 184, and Trans. Roy. Soc. Edin., i. p. 6.

page 9 note § The last survivors in our body of the Philosophical Society were, Professor James Russell and Sir William Miller, Lord Glenlee. The latter died so lately as 1846, in his ninety-first year. The Minute-Books of the Philosophical Society were expressly conveyed to the custody of the Royal Society (see Minute, R.S., of 4th August 1783); but they are, it may be feared, now irrecoverably lost.

page 10 note * Page 39 (30th Nov. 1782).

page 13 note * The last meeting at which Sir James Hall appears to have presided, was that of the 5th June 1820. He resigned the presidency in November following. His last paper printed in the Transactions, “On the Consolidation of the Strata of the Earth,” was read in March 1825.

page 13 note † Trans. R. Soc. Edin., vol. i. p. 6.

page 15 note * These instances are all taken from the early Journals of the Royal Society of London.

page 18 note * “Boswell is a very clubable man.” Johnson, in Boswell's Life.

page 21 note * To the two permanent functions of scientific associations mentioned in the text—namely, the printing and circulation of memoirs, and the promotion of personal intercourse amongst literary men—we may add a third, that of rewarding meritorious papers or discoveries by medals and other more or less honorary distinctions. Such have existed both in British and Foreign Societies from an early period until the present. They are of two classes: rewards offered by anticipation for researches on definite subjects proposed (this obtains mostly abroad); and premiums awarded to the best paper or most considerable discovery, either in science generally, or in some specified branch of it. This last form is more usual in this country; and such premiums are our Keith, Brisbane, and Neill medals. I think we must conclude that the foreign system has worked best. Many considerable memoirs of the last century on physical astronomy and similar subjects were offered in competition for such prizes. The stimulus is one which addresses itself variously to different minds, and on the whole seems to be less effective in these later times. One disadvantage of the award of medals for researches not previously defined, is the greater difficulty of awarding them without partiality or bias. A fourth kind of encouragement to science which our societies sometimes exert is the bestowal of funds for the prosecution of experimental investigations. This is frequently a stimulus of no small value. It was first systematically applied in this country by the British Association; and the Government of the country have wisely committed an annual fund for such purposes to be dispensed by the Royal Society of London.

page 24 note * I may perhaps be allowed to call attention to a striking change (on the whole) in the character of the publications of learned societies; I mean the great detail into which the papers generally run, especially in those on experimental Physics, mixed Mathematics, and Natural History. The bulk of these communications is, it may be feared, too often out of proportion to the intrinsic value of the matter which they contain. It is by no means without example to see the pages of Transactions (as well Foreign as British) occupied by a description of experiments of which the results were merely negative, and by mathematical investigations with no less indefinite conclusions. Such papers are rarely read by any one. They increase the bulk and expense of Transactions, and bewilder the unaided student. Even in cases less extreme they are encumbrances to scientific literature. An author, who has before him no fear of a printer's bill, or the remonstrances of an impatient publisher, is but too apt to please himself by expanding a small amount of matter over a goodly number of those handsome quarto pages, in which his lucubrations appear so advantageously to the eye. Even where numerical precision in the results is of primary consequence, excessive elaboration in printing the steps of calculation and instrumental corrections is often unnecessary, as well as extreme minuteness in describing forms of apparatus, and results of chemical reactions, especially where such details are not remote from common apprehension. A stricter editorial censorship than the Councils of societies usually venture to exert (similar in kind, though not in degree, to that which the editors of our leading periodicals exercise over contributors not less eminent in their departments), seems to be called for, by the expanding bulk of the volumes published by learned Bodies.

An evil nearly allied to this, is the fragmentary manner in which authors are apt to contribute the results of their inquiries. This is a consequence of the struggle for priority in even second and third rate results of scientific investigation, though these are often no more than corollaries to propositions well established, or assumed to be so. Such caveats are better adapted for the weekly or monthly journals, where they properly and reasonably find a place. It seems to be the business of societies to consult more than they usually do, the instruction and convenience of readers, and less exclusively the sometimes inconsiderate demands on the part of authors. There is. perhaps, no society to which these remarks do not more or less apply; but the case of the Comptes Rendus of the French Academy of Sciences supplies an example of excessive publication so generally admitted to be an embarrassing evil that it may be referred to as a warning.

page 25 note * I find by the old minute-books of this Society, that a paper by Biot on the Polarization of Light by Crystals, was read by Sir David (then Dr) Brewster at the ordinary meeting of the 15th January 1815.

page 26 note * 3 vols. 8vo. Paris, 1858.

page 26 note † Taken from the Memoirs of the Academy of Sciences.

page 28 note * Who died since the Annual Lists were made up.

page 29 note * In this work he made a benevolent and much required appeal on behalf of the miserable lot of women then employed in coal mines, under the name of “Bearers.”

page 31 note * In volume ix., “Account of a Mineral from Orkney,” and “Electromagnetic Observations and Experiments.” Vol. xiv., “On a New Writing Ink.” Vol. xv., “On Fossil Fishes found in the New Red Sandstone of Orkney,” and on “Berg-meal, or Mineral Flour of Degersfors, in Swedish Lapland.” In vol. xvi., “Memoir of Dr T. C. Hope.” In vol. xx. “On a Peruvian Musical Instrument.” In vol. xxi., “On the Torbanehill Mineral.” These titles give a good general idea of the varied subjects of Dr Traill's communications. His last contribution to the Society seems to have been that made on 15th February 1858, “Description of the Sulphur Mine of Conil [in Spain], preceded by a Notice of the Geological Features of the Southern portion of Andalucia.” An abstract appears in our “Proceedings,” vol. iv. p. 77.

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