Reviewed by: The Singular and the Making of Knowledge at the Royal Society of London in the Eighteenth Century Deborah Needleman Armintor Palmira Fontes Da Costa. The Singular and the Making of Knowledge at the Royal Society of London in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars, 2009. Pp. xvi + 214. $59.99. Nowadays, scientists hoping to publish their findings in top journals like Science or Nature must convince the editors that the results of their experiments are repeatable and non-anomalous. Articles must therefore show that each experiment has been replicated at least three times, has yielded identical or similar results each time, and will yield identical or similar results under hypothetical future repetitions performed under identical or similar circumstances. In this study, Ms. Da Costa argues that precisely the opposite was true for the premier scientific publication of the 1700s, the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, which valued anomaly—”The Singular” of Ms. Da Costa’s title—over repeatability. For the eighteenth-century Royal Society and its Philosophical Transactions, Ms. Da Costa maintains, singularity of occurrence was far from a liability to scientific research and publication, but an asset. Why would eighteenth-century readers care to learn of something so dully ordinary as to be infinitely repeatable, when they could read about phenomena so “extraordinary” (a key word for Ms. Da Costa) as to have happened only once and perhaps never happen again—a successful attempt at alchemy, for instance, or the birth of a three-headed child? Ms. Da Costa’s book has two central aims: the first, to disprove the myth that, between the invention of the microscope in the seventeenth century and the ground-breaking microbiological innovations of the nineteenth, the eighteenth-century Royal Society was in a state of scientific inaction or decline; the second, to dispel the popular belief that Enlightenment thought had reached such a peak by the 1700s that the respectable kind of serious natural philosophy represented by the Philosophical Transactions had abandoned the old obsessions with monstrosities, magic, and other superstitious and “singular” phenomena. Ms. Da Costa does [End Page 133] well on both points; but, disappointingly, one of the supposed myths that she claims to debunk is a straw man. After all, only the most ill-informed student today would maintain that the Enlightenment actually succeeded in ridding the scientific literature of supernatural nonsense. To know as much, one need not be familiar with the relevant scholarly literature (Barbara Benedict, Katharine Park, and Lorraine Daston); a quick EEBO or Google search for eighteenth-century monstrosities, magic, and irregular births will do. Ms. Da Costa’s book shines, however, in explaining the Royal Society’s counterintuitively scientific fascination with unscientific anomalies. Cabinets of singular curiosities were kept not only by bungling amateurs (drawn as Sir Nicholas Gim-crack, protagonist of Shadwell’s The Virtuoso) but also by the Royal Society itself, which displayed and discussed them at meetings and in its Philosophical Transactions. Particularly useful is Ms. Da Costa’s detailed examination of writers for the Philosophical Transactions: “[M]ore than fifty percent of the authors who contributed reports of extraordinary phenomena of nature . . . were not Fellows of the Royal Society”; most were uninvolved with the Royal Society. Surprisingly, “a significant number of [Royal Society] authors (22.6%)” were not only unaffiliated with the Royal Society but were also relatively uneducated and socially ordinary in both class and status. Her “everyman” profile of these contributors impedes her well-intentioned attempt to reestablish the scientific credibility of the eighteenth-century Royal Society. After all, if any bumpkin could be an author, how could it be a scientifically (rather than culturally) valuable publication? Yet Ms. Da Costa details the rigorous processes used by the Royal Society to validate the claims of potential contributors with the opinions of established doctors, surgeons, and others within the medical community. This validating singular scientific discoveries through a medically sanctioned vetting process is enlightened as is Ms. Da Costa’s informative and well-written book. Deborah Needleman Armintor University of North Texas Copyright © 2012 Roy S. Wolper, W. B. Gerard, E. Derek Taylor, and David F. Venturo

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