A 17th Century Wish List

June 22, 2010

As I’ve mentioned here before, the Royal Society of London is celebrating its 350th year of existence; it is the oldest scientific society in the world.   It has been putting on a series of exhibitions, and making a collection of historic scientific papers available online, as part of its celebration.

Today’s Washington Post reports that, as part of a new exhibition at its headquarters in Carlton House Terrace, London, the Royal Society is displaying a document written in the 1660s by Robert Boyle, an English chemist who was a founder of the Society.

In the 1660s, English chemist Robert Boyle wrote an extraordinary document, a combination of wish list and predictions of what science might achieve in the coming centuries. Found in his private papers, the list is a centerpiece of the exhibition “The Royal Society: 350 Years of Science,” running until November at the society’s headquarters in London.

The list is fascinating as a glimpse of how an eminent scientist of the 17th century thought the future might develop.  Some of the items on the list reflect some fairly basic human wishes:

  • The Prolongation of Life
  • The Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour’d as in youth.

Some of them reflected problems of the day that have subsequently been solved, although not necessarily as Boyle envisioned the solution:

  • The makeing of Glass Malleable.  (Arguably addressed by plastics.)
  • The use of Pendulums at Sea and in Journeys, and the Application of it to watches.  (Accurate timekeeping at sea was vital to determining longitude.  The problem was initially solved by John Harrison, who invented the marine chronometer.)
  • The Art of Flying.

And there were a couple in which Boyle might have been channeling Dr. Timothy Leary:

  • Potent Druggs to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory, and other functions, and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams, etc.
  • Freedom from Necessity of much Sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and what happens in Mad-Men.

Some of these, of course, such as drugs for pain relief, have become commonplaces of modern medicine.

The exhibition runs until November.

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