April 24, 2012
How a book about fish nearly sank Isaac Newton's Principia
Ian Sample in The Guardian:
It was a salutary lesson for the Royal Society and made clear that the formidable intelligence of its scientific membership was no guarantee of sound business judgement.
The debacle played out in the 17th century when the country's most prestigious scientific organisation ploughed its money into the lavishly illustrated Historia Piscium, or History of Fishes, by John Ray and Francis Willughby.
Though groundbreaking in 1686, the book flopped and nearly broke the bank, forcing the Royal Society to withdraw from its promise to finance the publication of Newton's Principia, one of the most important works in the history of science.
Today, digital images from Historia Piscium, including a stunning engraving of a flying fish, are made available with more than a thousand others in a new online picture archive launched by the Royal Society.
The images span the society's 350-year history and include highlights from Robert Hooke's 17th century engravings of objects under the microscope; a committee member's doodle of Thomas Huxley from 1882; and the first sighting of a kangaroo, or perhaps a wallaby, by James Cook and the sailors aboard the Endeavour expedition in 1770. Notes accompanying the latter picture state: "it was of a light mouse colour, and in size and shape very much resembling a greyhound."
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