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Aubrey and the scientific revolution

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John AubreyI recently had the opportunity to visit 2010’s summer exhibition at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library.

Entitled “John Aubrey and the development of experimental science”, the free exhibition is based mainly on books and manuscripts from the museum’s collections.

You may think such exhibits will prove dull, but the displays offer a fascinating insight into Britain’s 17th century scientific revolution and should appeal to anyone interested in the history of science.

John Aubrey (1626–97) was a major scientific and cultural figure at the time and a founding fellow of the Royal Society, which is celebrating its 350th anniversary in 2010. He is best known as a pioneering biographer, whose ‘Brief lives’ gives vivid accounts of eminent thinkers of his time.

But he was also a mathematician, a chemist, a botanist, a natural philosopher, an archaeologist, an antiquarian, an ethnologist, a historian and an avid collector.

Among other things, Aubrey championed the radical and unpopular theory that fossils had once been living things, some even representing extinct species.

As an archaeologist, Aubrey was the first person to apply mathematical methods to the study of ancient megalithic sites such as Stonehenge and Avebury.

As a historian, he promoted the dating of old buildings by comparing their architectural style with known dated examples and using other clues such as the style of clothing depicted in church windows. He used similar methods for dating manuscripts.

Aubrey was also interested in educational reform and had revolutionary ideas about mathematics teaching, proposing that school pupils should be provided with their own sets of mathematical instruments.

Another of his interests represented in the exhibition was the proposed creation of an artificial language without the ambiguities of natural languages.

The exhibition continues daily until 31 October 2010. For those who cannot get to Oxford an online version is available.

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