Comparative Trajectories

Established in 1660, The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge is the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence. Its continuous history and the many significant contributions that its members have made throughout its existence provide it with a central place in the scientific community.[1] The Royal Society claims many prominent scientists as its members, scientists who have also been recognized by international scientific awards. Since the Nobel Prize’s establishment in 1901, Royal Society members have accounted for roughly a third of the total 863 winners. The length and continuous nature of the Royal Society’s history are reflected in its meticulous archives. The significance of the Royal Society’s membership records as a prominent historical dataset lies in its ability to convey narratives of historical trends such as the rise and decline of academic disciplines in the sciences. Because of the significance and longevity of the society, narratives of the development of disciplines in larger scientific communities can perhaps also be captured through the lens of the Royal Society’s membership.

The most striking image of the network is a comparison between the disciplinary structure of the society at its founding and its structure today (Figure 1). The two very different organizations presented below reveal not only how the Royal Society has evaluated scientific merit at these two moments in history, but also implies the disciplinary compositions of scientific communities at large. The current society has 11 sections or committees of specialization from mathematics to health and human sciences (Figure 1 right). However, in 1660 at the society’s foundation, the disciplinary distinctions within the society were very different. The earliest documented organization is documented at the time of the society’s founding in 1660 (Figure 1 left).

Disciplinary Organizations of the Royal Society in 1660 and in 2013

The tracing of changes between these two organizational structures provides us with insight into the disciplinary origins of particular modern day scientific specializations, and also document the demise of particular pursuits within the scientific community. This tracing is made possible by the election system of the Royal Society. The election of new members are possible only through the recommendation and endorsement of existing fellows. This internal system effectively links the present members of the society with its founders, and thus their modern day professions with historical ones. In this way, the scientists’ recommendations of others for membership are historically traceable links that, in aggregate, also reflect the emergences of scientific fields and subfields over time. This aggregation necessarily include relationships of both personal and professional nature. The resulting visualization includes a biographical perspective on scientific communities, and how science is practiced in history. It is productive to treat disciplinary boundaries found within the network not only as lines of division, but also cast separations and divergences of disciplines as points of interest. The evolutionary relationship within—and the biographical nature of—scientific communities are the two central themes of the story told by the Comparative Trajectory visualizations.

chronological and force directed network graph with central nodes highlighted in red
chronological and force directed network graph with characters from Darwin’s biography highted

For more project documentation, please read the article here.

[1] Information about the society are primarily from the society’s official website.