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The Spirit of Inquiry: How One Extraordinary Society Shaped Modern Science

Gibson Spirit Inquiry2019 is the bicentenary of a quintessentially British story of how a few like-minded souls managed, against the odds, to set up an organisation that fostered a wider movement, which in turn overcame institutional apathy and some downright hostility to change. The like-minded souls were three geologists—Adam Sedgwick, John Stevens Henslow and an ageing dilettante collector and bon viveur Edward Daniel Clarke. The organisation was the Cambridge Philosophical Society. Their parent institution was the very one the trio wanted to reform—the ancient University of Cambridge, whose teaching programmes and examination processes had become intellectually moribund.

Susannah Gibson’s The Spirit of Inquiry tells the fascinating story of how the foundation of this provincial society helped shape the emergence of modern science in Cambridge and beyond. It might sound a tall claim but 200 years ago, in the small market town of Cambridge, this geological trio managed to establish a new university-based elite and selective forum for the communication of new scientific discoveries. Despite its 18th century sounding name, the Cambridge Philosophical Society was a much more modern foundation. Its founders took as their model on one of the most successful scientific societies of the early 19th century—the Geological Society of London.

The Spirit of Inquiry recounts how, with the changing spirit and culture of the early 19th century, an idea that happened to chime with the times was quickly transformed into a successful reality. In the early 1800s, there was growing criticism of the ‘antediluvian’ and inward looking scholasticism of British university education, compared with Europe.

Within a year, that idea had become a functioning and growing society that attracted eminent scientists, such as Herschel, Babbage, Whewell and Farish. They were frustrated by the prevailing academic culture, which excluded science from its outmoded syllabus and system of examination.

As part of its bicentenary celebration, the Cambridge Philosophical Society commissioned historian of science Susannah Gibson to tell the story of the Society’s foundation, its rise, decline and resurrection. She has managed the difficult task of bringing together the many different strands, which were part of the wider story of the development of science, and made it very readable. The book also supports a substantial exhibition about the Society in the Cambridge University Library.

Reviewed by Douglas Palmer

, by Susannah Gibson 2019. Published by Oxford University Press, 2019. 377 pp. ISBN 9780198833376 (hbk) List Price: £25.00 W: