Science is an ongoing process and today's scientists build on the knowledge and research of scientists working years, decades and centuries ago. The Royal Society archives contain a record of thousands of pictures, reports and objects from scientists across the centuries.

Have a look at the images with your class. These have come from the archives of the Royal Society and can be found on the picture library site. Here are some questions you might like to discuss as a group.

Why were scientists sending this information to the Royal Society?

The Royal Society was founded in 1660. A group of scientists regularly met to exchange ideas, conduct experiments, and debate scientific theories. But not all scientists could be there in person. Scientists living in other places - especially those abroad - could join in the exchange of ideas by writing letters to this central organisation. They might also send books, pictures and objects. All this material now forms the Royal Society's archive.

Why do scientists draw diagrams?

Diagrams might be used because they are more effective ways of describing new objects or places. They often help convey complex information so it is easier to understand, or allow information to be transmitted with a high degree of accuracy. Sometimes the diagram is the whole finding (eg the bean sprouting); sometimes it is a small part of larger written theory (eg Newton's letter); sometimes the diagrams need written explanation as well (eg the Parthenon diagram).

Can scientific pictures be works of art in their own right?

You may have seen beautiful pictures of plants or animals, highly detailed and vibrantly coloured. You may even have some decorating the walls of your school! These were not just produced as a work of art, they were accurate representations of new species.

Who drew the images?

Often the images are drawn by the scientists themselves, but you can see from the examples above that some were more talented than others! Other scientists had help. William Buckland, a palaeontologist, asked his wife Mary to draw the discoveries he made. You can find out more about Mary Buckland at: /ks2/rock-stars.aspx

How do scientists communicate their ideas now?

Scientists still write down their findings, and often use diagrams. In formal situations - when publishing findings in a journal - these are less likely to be drawn by hand, but are probably done on a computer, or they might be photographs. Scientists communicate their discoveries in many other ways. They might write for magazines, newspapers or a website, speak on the radio, or appear on TV.

Activity instructions and answers

If you use the search feature on the picture library site to look images from the 17th century (i.e. 1601-1699) you will be shown a subset of pictures - look for the one that is shown in the resource. This will have accompanying information that will allow you to answer the quiz questions.

1. Who is the scientist?

Marcello Malpighi.

2. What are their birth and death dates?


3. What does this picture show?

The pictures show a bean germinating. First it puts out a root, then the shoot starts to grow, and then finally the leaves open out.

4. Which scientific subject is this image relevant to?


5. How many other images are there on this subject?

Click on 'botany' and this will show you the answer. Note that the number of pictures in the library will increase all the time, so you will need to check this answer yourself before running the activity.

6. What instrument did the scientist use to investigate what is shown in this picture?

A microscope

7. How many other images of that scientific instrument can be found on the picture library site?

Search for 'microscope' in the picture library. Note that the number of pictures in the library will increase all the time, so you will need to check this answer yourself before running the activity.

8. Why do you think the scientist made this sketch?

In this series of drawings, Malpighi was investigating how plants grow. He was interested in using microscopes to discover the structures of plants and animals. Nowadays, it is possible to take photographs of the images seen under microscopes, but back then, anything the scientist observed had to be carefully drawn by hand.

9. Why do you think he put letters next to different parts of the drawings?

Malpighi used letters to show the different stages of the bean's growth. 'A' shows the bean at the beginning of the cycle and 'M' shows the bean at the end of the germination cycle, with a new bean sprouting from its roots ready to start the process from the beginning again!

10. What else did the scientist discover?

Click on Malpighi's name and see other pictures connected with him, such as a silk moth and a chicken embryo. He was also famous for discovering blood capillaries - the tiny blood vessels that link arteries and veins.


Curriculum Links

What's the story?

Working scientifically

Scientific attitudes

  • understand that scientific methods and theories develop as earlier explanations are modified to take account of new evidence and ideas, together with the importance of publishing results and peer review.
  • The development of Church, state and society in Britain 1509-1745
  • Ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain 1745-1901


What's the story?

Vernon_parthenon_350Click on the picture to enlarge it. Some of the scientists who were the first Fellows of the Royal Society were travellers who went all over the world and reported back about what they had seen. They may have written letters, or kept diaries and notebooks. Francis Vernon travelled around Europe and had many adventures - he was even captured by pirates! One of the places he visited was the Parthenon in Athens - an ancient Greek temple over 2000 years old.


Modern_parthenon_350This is what the Parthenon now looks like. Francis Vernon wanted to find out more about this temple, and produce an accurate diagram with its size and shape. He didn't use a giant tape measure to do this! Instead, he used maths to work out how tall parts of the building were, and to map the rest of the area around the temple. He wrote down all his findings, and drew diagrams with comments on them to explain what he had drawn.


Newtons_letter_250Click on the picture to enlarge it. Here is a letter written by Isaac Newton to the Royal Society. If you look at the enlarged version, you might be able to read "Mr Newton's letter" at the top of it. Can you read anything else? If you can, then you are an excellent Latin scholar! In the 17th Century, a lot of people communicated in Latin, not English.

If you need to tell someone something complicated, it's sometimes easier to use a diagram, as Newton has done here in his letter to the Royal Society. This is a drawing of what happens when light passes through a prism and forms a rainbow. You can find out more about Newton and rainbows here.


Activity - Investigation

Using the picture library site, can you find this sketch by an Italian Scientist in the 17th Century (1600-1699)?


When you have found the image on the picture library site, see what else you can find out!

Record your answers on the worksheet.

Or test yourself with this online quiz.