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Dining with the Royal Society


Image: Jon Sullivan

I enjoyed this description of the Royal Society - the great scientific society whose motto Nullius in Verba roughly means, Take nobody's word for it - dining together prior to hearing a lecture on integral calculus. The year is 1814 and the fictional description comes from Patrick O' Brian's Yellow Admiral. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin have hurried along to the tavern where Fellows of the Royal Society gathered to dine before the formal proceedings at Somerset House, in what was generally called the Royal Philosophers' Club -

The Philosophers were not a particularly ascetic body of men: few of them had ever allowed philosophy to spoil their appetites - their president weighed over fifteen stone - and they now set about their dinner with the earnestness it deserved.

'I do wish I could persuade you to drink some of this porter.' said Jack, holding up his tankard. 'It goes admirably well with roast beef.'

'If you will forgive me,' said Stephen, 'I believe I shall wait for the wine.'

He did not have to wait long. When the beef, admirably carved and gratefully eaten with horseradish, mustard, turnips, potatoes and cabbage, had all disappeared, the cloth was drawn and the wine appeared together with warden pie, treacle tart and every kind of cheese known in the three kingdoms. Stephen seized upon a variety as they trundled by, Stilton, Cheddar and Double Gloucester, a decanter of claret (probably a Latour, he thought) and some crusty bread:

he drank to all those who called out 'A glass of wine with you, sir,' bowing to him, but he raised his glass only to Sir Joseph and once again to a new member, a mathematical duke from Scotland. He came away therefore perfectly steady on his feet, which was more than could be said for all the Fellows and their guests, particularly Jack Aubrey, who had kept steadily to port, never leaving a single acquaintance out of his toasts. However, it was quite a walk from the Mitre to Somerset House: virtually all the Fellows were reasonably philosophic by the time they got there, and the hard benches, and the arid nature of the paper read to them. . .sobered them entirely.

In the previous post, a Fellow of the Royal Society looks at global warming and biotechnology.