The Notebook

The Notebook August 25, 2014

In his Notebooks, English Virtuosi, and Early Modern Science, Richard Yeo further dispels the myth of the lone scientific genius. Early modern science made its advances because of collaboration among researchers. And they used the highest of contemporary high-tech to pass around their research – the notebook. It was as important a piece of equipment as the air pump.

According to the TLS reviewer, “Hooke was one of many late seventeenth-century Englishmen who emphasized co-operation as they investigated the natural world and struggled to create conditions in which individuals could trust observations they had not witnessed themselves. Subverting the image of the scientist as a brilliant eccentric transcending his peers, Hooke presaged modern science’s latticework of laboratories populated by disciplined white-coated technicians. . . .They devised mechanisms to ensure that their community of virtuosi witnessed and understood phenomena in the same way that they did, and they portrayed their ability to enforce public consensus as proof of truthfulness. . . . Bound volumes of blank sheets may seem like a banal solution to the harrowing epistemological problem of how to credit evidence one did not produce, and the notebook hardly seems to rival the microscope or air-pump as an instrument of scientific breakthrough.”

By giving permanent form to moments and events in the lab, “notebooks gradually emerged as standard registers of ephemeral experience that facilitated the accumulation and exchange of information on the scale envisioned by advocates of empiricism like Francis Bacon.” Some, like Bacon and Samuel Hartlib, “aspired to ease the sharing of such memorials by standardizing protocols for note-taking.”

While commending Yeo for highlighting the role of the notebook, the review faults him for failing to put early modern science fully in its historical context: “One will not encounter the political, theological and social dislocations that often prompted scholars to idealize collaboration. Similarly, there is no mention of the combativeness of many of Yeo’s subjects: the notoriously quarrelsome Hooke, for example, squabbled with Newton, Christiaan Huygens and Henry Oldenburg.”

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