As the fifth day of July this year marked the 330th anniversary of the publication of Sir Issac Newton’s monumental Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, it seems appropriate that a new book about him should be published only a few days later. However rather than focusing on his mathematical ideas, this one takes his religious ones as its subject.
For those unfamiliar with the Great Stink of 1858, it was essentially the “perfect storm” of a human (and other) waste polluted Thames River combining with a blisteringly hot July and August to produce an incapacitating stench throughout the city of London. Londoners rarely left their homes in order to avoid the wretch-inducing smell. Basic elements of civic government came to a near stand-still. And people at all levels of society called for something to be done.
In an age where so many elected and appointed office holders have, shall we say, less than a sufficient knowledge of the relevant subjects necessary for them to do their respective jobs well, it is difficult to imagine a time when not only were such positions held by people who were not merely competent, they were genuine polymaths, well-versed in matters spanning a range so as to make their modern counterparts seem veritable cartoon characters by comparison.
Zoos are amazing places. At their best, the modern forms mix research and spectacle into a melange that has the power to both entertain as well as enlighten. At their worst… well, let us not dwell on that at present. And as to their history; in their previous existence as menageries and indeed, right up into living memory, some have not only been institutions of scientific study, but but also centers of far more social and political influence than we would likely think possible today.