Peer Review

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Jan van Cleve 1668 Henry Oldenbourg

Today, it is 350 years since Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727) sent the world’s first journal article to Henry Oldenbourg (1615-1677), secretary of the Royal Society of London, on 1672-02-06. It was about telescopes, and optics more generally. While authorship is important, Oldenbourg is historically important for introducing the concept of peer review to scientific writing.

Newton writes, “To perform my late promise to you, I shall without further ceremony acquaint you, that in the beginning of the Year 1666 (at which time I applyed my self to the grinding of Optick glasses of other figures than Spherical,) I procured me a Triangular glass-Prisme, to try therewith the celebrated Phaenomena of Colours. And in order thereto having darkened my chamber, and made a small hole in my window-shuts [shutters], to let in a convenient quantity of the Suns light, I placed my Prisme at his entrance, that it might be thereby refracted to the opposite wall. It was at first a very pleasing divertisement [diversion], to view the vivid and intense colours produced thereby; but after a while applying my self to consider them more circumspectly, I became surprised to see them in an oblong form; which, according to the received laws of Refraction, I expected should have been circular. They were terminated at the sides with streight [straight] lines, but at the ends, the decay of light was so gradual, that it was difficult to determine justly, what was their figure; yet they seemed semicircular.”

Of course, if one looks hard enough one can always find predecessors to almost everything. Thus, most historians working in the area add the adjective, modern, to the noun, review. In this way they can forget about the more original contribution made by Adab aț-Ṭabīb, = Morals of the physician, where modern readers could use practical ethics to replace morals, in the title. It was a historical Arabic book written by Al-Ruhawi, a 9th-century (probably) Nestorian physician who regarded physicians as guardians of souls and bodies. The twenty chapters of the work encompassed various medical topics, influenced by the works of Hippocrates and Galen.

One Reply to “Peer Review”

  1. Patricia/ Trish sent me this note:
    “In the quote from Newton, the word divertisement is used. I have just had that word in my French lesson and in French it means entertainment. So I think Newton was meaning that his experiment was very entertaining.”

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