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Thursday, February 28, 2019

The City of Dreaming Science: the Oxford Philosophical Club, the scientific revolution and beyond | Science and Technology - Oxford Student

Adam Mellul, Science & Tech at Oxford Student reports, Through the first half of the seventeenth century, Britain was heading towards a scientific revolution.
Photo:  Wellcome Collection (CC by 4.0)

Francis Bacon, educated in Cambridge and rejecting Aristotelian philosophy, is credited with developing the scientific method, and in Oxford, advances too were being made. The flourishing of members of a forward-thinking network shaped the future of scientific study in the centuries that have followed.

John Wilkins studied at Oxford at Magdalen Hall (later refounded as Hertford College), graduating with an M.A. in 1634. He returned in 1648 as Warden of Wadham College, and under his leadership, the college prospered. Wilkins went on to marry Robina French née Cromwell, the younger sister of Oliver Cromwell, and also became Master of Trinity College in Cambridge: he was one of the few people to have headed both an Oxford and Cambridge college. Despite never achieving any particular scientific breakthroughs, his influence in Oxford was incredibly important for the advances of scientific knowledge in Britain.

One of the many people Wilkins attracted to Wadham was Christopher Wren, in 1650. Of course Wren became an incredible architect; his second project was the design of the Sheldonian Theatre, and St Paul’s Cathedral, completed in 1710, is regarded as his masterpiece. At Wadham Wren studied Latin and Aristotle’s works, but it was his association with Wilkins that led to the flourishing of scientific developments, with his strength in geometry.

Wilkins led a group, the Oxford Philosophical Club, mainly operating from 1649 to 1660, consisting of natural philosophers and mathematicians amongst other virtuosi. This club was following on from the Gresham College group, or the “1645 group”, in London, which included Wilkins and focused on experimental science. In total 50 names have been mentioned as being in the group, including Wren. They would meet regularly in the Warden’s Lodgings at Wadham to discuss the natural sciences and encourage experimentation, free of political distinctions and influenced by Francis Bacon’s works on the scientific method.

Another famous member was Robert Boyle. In 1654 Boyle arrived in Oxford, having moved from Ireland which he called “a barbarous country where chemical spirits were so misunderstood and chemical instruments so unprocurable”. Regarded as the first modern chemist, Boyle pushed forward the ideas of the experimental scientific method: his seminal work, ‘A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature’, looked at distinguishing physics from metaphysics. The name ‘Chemistry’ in modern science, originated from Boyle’s work ‘The Sceptical Chymist’. On the walls of University College you will find an inscription marking where Boyle lived between 1655 and 1668. It was here that he discovered the famous Boyle’s Law, describing the relationship between pressure of a gas and the volume it occupies.

On the same inscription, Robert Hooke, Boyle’s assistant, is mentioned. Hooke was slowly recruited into the group that Wilkins had formed, after arriving at Christ Church in 1653, and becoming assistant to Boyle by 1658. Hooke’s contributions to science are varied and include the spring balance, spring suspension for vehicles and the photocopier...

Nowadays many view Cambridge as the university for science, and Oxford as the university for the humanities. After all, Cambridge has 83 Nobel laureates of Medicine, Chemistry and Physics, to Oxford’s 32. But if you look further back in time, you’ll see just how incredibly important and influential the events that unfolded, just some of which are covered here, in Oxford have had on the scientific world.

Source: Oxford Student