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THE Royal Society of London has now existed for above 170 years, and, in that lengthened period, has assembled in its Transactions a vast body of valuable and brilliant facts, but which are lost to the community by being scattered through a library of expensive quarto volumes. Yet the Society is the highest authority in Natural Philosophy, and on such subjects we look for authority; while to read or study without the sanction of authority, is, in a certain degree, a waste of labour.
The present work is, at the same time, a popular Selection of popular papers, calculated to instruct and delight the uninitiated, as well as to interest the erudite reader. It is such a volume as every judicious Tutor will be proud of putting into the hands of his Pupils, and as every Father of a Family will desire that his sons and daughters should study. It presents a multitude of facts of the most striking character, and must have the effect of enlightening the mind, while it directs attention to subjects of exhaustless gratification and contemplation.
At the same time, although it is the most suitable book ever printed for the improvement of the rising generation, all ages may profit by its contents more than by any work within the knowledge of the Editor; and even the most learned, if they have not access to the Transactions at large, and have not bestowed on them the necessary study, may and will derive the highest satisfaction from the perusal of most of the articles.
Of course, many curious papers have unavoidably been passed over, or the work would have been extended to an inconvenient size and price, - for in popular books for the young, size and price are necessary features; but the articles selected will answer the desired purposes; and they will serve either as a companion to Blair's Grammar of Natural Philosophy, or excite the reader to pursue these studies further in some general work like Shaw's Nature Displayed. Taste and discrimination are the only qualities to which the Editor lays claim; and for his possession of these he is warranted in the expression of some confidence by the unequalled success of his two former publications.
Every Tutor must have been aware that some work of popular lessons in Natural Philosophy has long been a desideratúm in liberal education. The Author has been deeply sensible of it, but he has hesitated in regard to the plan. More eloquent writing might have been found in miscellaneous authors; but on this subject perspicuity and simplicity are more special recommendations; and indubitable facts, promulgated by the "highest authorities, are more important than rounded periods, flights of imagination, or dazzling generalisations.
Of the efficient services rendered to Science by the institution of the Royal Society, no one can doubt; and it is certain, that the meetings of its members, their interchange of communications, and the publication of their Transactions, were eminently useful in stimulating public and private exertions in the cause of Science. The first members were enthusiasts in their pursuits; and their zeal, industry, and emulation, rendered the early years of the Society peculiarly brilliant. It is, however, worthy
of notice, that from the want of that intellectual collision, which was 'one salutary effect of the Association, most of them were tinctured with vulgar and scientific superstitions. They were at once Astronomers and Astrologers; Chemists and Alchemists, in search of the Philosopher's Stone; Mechanics and Mathematicians, but engaged in the vain endeavour to discover the Perpetual Motion; and Metaphysicians, who practised the Black Art, and taught and believed in charms, omens, dreams, and enchantments. Such, however, were the Fathers of Science, and without association, they could scarcely be other than they were. Time changed the
Time changed the men, and experience and reason banished many of their grosser superstitions. If any still remain, they are either masked by the machinery of complex systems, or established on the hallowed authority of deservedly venerated names.
Every human institution has its alloys. Those inherent in the Royal Society are only like spots in the sun, yet it would be servile not to notice them. One is the circumstance, that in elections, one black ball in ten
is a vote of exclusion, and this necessarily proscribes the daring genius of originality, which piques pride while it presumes to correct errors, and makes at least one enemy of every ten contemporaries, while envy is more active thän liberality. Again, the non-limitation of the period of a Presidency, has, in successive generations, owing to the peculiar taste and pursuits of the Presidents, rendered the Society, for the time, either altogether Mathematical, Medical, Experimental, Chemical, or Botanical ; and the ascendency of one subject, as the Transactions will prove, has been accompanied by the depression of other pursuits, equally important. The other point, which, without great caution, is the attendant vice of all association, is the consentaneous deference paid to
authority, by which a sort of orthodox faith is established, fatal to free enquiry, and specially fatal to truth, in matters of science, when actively countenanced by so influential a voice as that with which this illustrious Society speaks to the civilised world. A more liberal law of electing a Presidency for only three, or at most seven years, and an axiomatic abhorrence of authority, on questions of Scientific Enquiry, would add still more to the acknowledged utility of the Royal Society, and enable it to keep pace with those improvements of the still improving age; many of which, it must be acknowledged, are its own offspring.
At this time most of the Sovereign Princes of Europe · are enrolled as Fellows of this Society. In like man ner, too, many of the distinguished nobility of these kingdoms are among its members. Kings and nobles are, however, themselves, honoured by admission, and their names may spread a halo round the Society; but looking rigidly at the subject, it might be wished, that no one should be admitted to such an Association without first affording some personal proof of his appropriate worthiness. To be a Fellow of the Royal Society should be a distinction higher than birth or title-deeds could bestow. It should be a badge of nobility of mind; and F.R.S. ought, through the civilised world, to afford unequivocal proof that he who was authorised to use it, deserved such pre-eminence for some attainments which no accidents of society could bestow.
The Engravings will add to the interest of the volume; and, to confer precision on the study of the work, the Editor has prepared Five HUNDRED QUESTIONS for the use of Schools, on its contents.