Wednesday, 2 December 2009


Earlier this year, I (re)read Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. Stephenson piqued my interest in the early history of the Royal Society, and I followed up with Richard Holmes' hugely enjoyable Age of Wonder, James Gleick's biography of Newton, and am currently a couple of chapters into Lisa Jardine's Ingenious Pursuits - like Holmes' book, a history of mid-17th to mid-18th century science and invention told through the stories of the people who made them.

There's a romance to the period that I find irresistible: the way that the natural world seemed to unfold its mysteries at this time, the way literature and art and science and politics all intertwined, and the colourful characters who took personal and social risks to chase their dreams.

So when I saw yesterday in the Guardian that the Royal Society has released 'Trailblazing', an online library of its papers, to celebrate its 350th anniversary, I was stoked. Then I hit the site.

The (Flash) interface is designed as an interactive timeline - you pull it along, and hovering over little grey and red dots brings up pop-ups that contain a heading and a picture. Clicking 'More' gives you a small narrative about an article from the Royal Society's Transactions, and some links - one of which will take you to a PDF of the actual article, on another site.

The Guardian article notes:

There is the letter from the chemist Robert Boyle, asking the physician Richard Lower about the consequences of transfusing blood from one animal into another. Does a dog lose its quirks after transfusion and gain those of the donor? Does blood from a big dog make a small dog grow? Can you safely replace a frog's blood with blood from a calf, and might that change one species into another? The answers were no, no, no and no.

But how do I find it? Trailblazing doesn't have a search box. And if I did happen to find something I wanted to share, through clicking somewhat random red dots, there's no way of linking to it.

I understand the urge to build something 'interactive', although I'd argue that 'interactive' nowadays means being able to personalise a site to your tastes, or add your own information, not click and drag. And I understand the urge to give a browsable interface to what can be quite impenetrable texts. But I don't think Trailblazing makes as good a use of the awesome content as they could. Why not (a) use the people who made the science as your entrance points, rather than dates (b) make the deep content searchable along with the new narratives and (c) combine the two sites into one?

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