The History of Public Engagement with Science – Part I

The act of science communication is a prime example of two great hallmarks of humanity – the desire to discover and explore and the desire to communicate with those around us. It’s not too hard to imagine early man discovering fire and then excitedly – or perhaps in a bit of a panic – hooting to his fellows about what he’d found. Throughout history there are examples of men and women undertaking ground breaking research and then enthusing their peers with their discoveries and what they might mean for the future. And often, those that are best at communicating their enthusiasm and passion for what they do – and why it’s important – are the ones that gain the recognition and support to go further.

Any ‘big name’ scientist from history – that is, one you’ve probably heard of – has left a mark in history because of the discoveries they’ve made. That’s not all they’ve left, however. There’s likely also letters, publications, and other evidence of their processes, their thoughts and ideas. Isaac Newton published numerous treatises on his various areas of studies, including the Principia Mathematica, which lay the foundation for an entire technological revolution to come. He was also a subject of popular science writing, both for adults and for children, as in John Newberry’s 1761 The Newtonian System of Philosophy starring Tom Telescope explaining a wide array of subjects.

All our ideas, therefore, are obtained either by sensation or reflection ; that is to say, by means of our five senses; as seeing, hearing smelling, tasting, and touching, or by the operations of the mind. Before you proceed farther, says Mrs, Twilight, you should, I think, explain to the company what is meant by the term Idea.?

Not only did Newton and his fellows desire to explain their findings to the public but also the scientific mindset itself – important to grasping the concepts and ideas they were exploring was the notion of inquiry, of curiosity, of meticulous experiments and proof. Robert Boyle was devoted to the Baconian method, Gottfried Leibniz advocated the setting up of scientific societies across Europe and encouraged the cataloguing and indexing of titles from across the globe. as well as the creation of an empirical database across all of the sciences. Coffee houses, debating societies, salons and lodges all sprung up around the idea of allowing people to come together to hear and discuss the great ideas of the day, and it was in such venues that the Enlightenment truly took off.

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