Discovery: 200 years of the Cambridge Philosophical Society

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Ed Potten was delighted to lead the curation of a major public exhibition hosted by Cambridge University Library, 8 March 2019 – 31 August 2019, celebrating the bicentenary of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. The exhibition attracted more visitors than any previous exhibition.

The exhibition was been three years in the making and tied in closely with the publication of a major new history of the CPS, The spirit of inquiry, by Susannah Gibson.

The Cambridge Philosophical Society was conceived 200 years ago during a geological field trip to the Isle of Wight. Its founders, Adam Sedgwick and John Stevens Henslow, wanted to create an environment in which new science could be encouraged, results shared, and talent nurtured. By providing new spaces and tools to support discovery, a forum for debating the latest innovations, and a means of communicating new discoveries to an international audience the Society helped seed many of the seminal discoveries of the past 200 years.

The Society soon became a place for the brightest young researchers to show off their discoveries, to meet like-minded colleagues, and to explore the boundaries of the world. Charles Darwin’s Beagle letters were first read out at its meetings and audiences flocked to hear the rising stars of science: John Herschel showing how light moved through a crystal; the enfant terrible Charles Babbage expounding on radical French calculus; John Couch Adams, the co-discoverer of Neptune, explaining meteor showers that lit up the night sky.  James Clerk Maxwell was just twenty-two when he first addressed the Society; Lawrence Bragg, Maxwell’s eventual successor as Cavendish Professor, was the same age when he introduced the astonishing new idea of x-ray crystallography at a meeting of the Society.

Today the Cambridge Philosophical Society continues to fulfil these same functions. Although the tools, methods and communication of science have changed radically, the Society still acts as a catalyst to scientific discovery, supporting new research, disseminating new ideas, and nurturing the scientists of tomorrow.

Exhibits included Newton’s own copy the first edition of the Principia, Darwin’s copy of the first edition of his On the origin of species, a draft of Stephen Hawking’s Brief history of time, the original charts marked by Jocelyn Bell Burnell with traces of the first pulsar discovered and 11,000 anthropometric cards, containing measurements of Cambridge students taken in the early twentieth century – the birth of big data.