John Aubrey and the Development of Experimental Science

Image-01-Aubrey-002_WEBThere is no one word we can use today to describe John Aubrey (1626–97). We might call him variously an antiquary, mathematician, scientist, archaeologist, ethnologist, biographer, historian, astrologer, botanist, chemist, educationalist, collector; and we might wonder what one man was doing pursuing all these interests together, and whether for him they were connected or not.

Aubrey was one of the founders of the Royal Society of London. This exhibition celebrates the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society’s first gathering in 1660, and also marks Aubrey’s place in that tradition. But it also explores the sheer variety of intellectual interests shared by the earliest British scientists, some of which may surprise visitors used to modern ideas about what is and is not the business of a ‘scientist’. Actually, the term was not used by Aubrey and his colleagues. They called themselves ‘experimental philosophers’ – philosophers committed to doing experiments rather than merely reading books. They were also called the ‘virtuosi’ by the wider London public, often a term poking fun at the perceived eccentricities of the men who weighed air and looked at fleas through microscopes.

Yet we may trace the origins of the Royal Society back to Oxford itself, especially the experimental philosophy clubs across the colleges in the 1640s and ’50s. Oxford was also home to important developments after the Restoration, most notably the opening of the Ashmolean Museum in 1683, where Aubrey chose to deposit most of his papers. They are held in the Bodleian today.

Aubrey is an ideal and entertaining guide to these developments in English science. As he wrote of himself, ‘My wit was always working ... my idea very clear, fancy like a mirror, pure crystal water which the least wind does disorder and unsmooth’.

The exhibition has nine themes:

A book which accompanies the exhibition is also available for purchase. John Aubrey and the Advancement of Learning by William Poole, paperback, 112 pp, 75 colour images, £25, ISBN:  978 1 85124 319 8

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