Martin Rees: The Royal Society's Unstoppable Thirst for Inquiry

Roundup: Talking About History

[Martin John Rees, Baron Rees of Ludlow, OM, PRS, is president of the Royal Society, a Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and an cosmologist and astrophysicist.]

The Royal Society began in 1660. At its regular meetings, experiments were performed. Samuel Pepys became a Fellow in 1665: he recorded in his diary that at his first meeting he enjoyed demonstrations on "the nature of fire, and how it goes out in a place where the ayre is not free, and sooner out where the ayre is exhausted". He also recorded discussions of designs for a new type of coach, improvements to gunpowder, and experiments in which the blood from one dog was transfused into another – the first dog died quickly, the second lived, at least for a time. The significance was not lost on Pepys, who noted that the procedure "may be of mighty use to man's health, for the amending of bad blood by borrowing from a better body".

From the beginning, the wide dissemination of scientific ideas was deemed important. The society started to publish "Philosophical Transactions", the first scientific journal, which continues to this day. The society's journals pioneered what is still the accepted procedure whereby scientific ideas are – subject to peer review – criticised, refined and codified into "public knowledge". Over the centuries they published Isaac Newton's researches on light, Benjamin Franklin's experiments on lightning, reports of Captain Cook's expeditions, Volta's first battery and many of the triumphs of 20th-century science. Those who want to celebrate this glorious history should visit the Royal Society's archives via our Trailblazing website.

The founders of the society enjoyed speculation: they were, in Francis Bacon's phrase, "merchants of light". But they were also intensely engaged with the problems of their era: the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire; improvements to timekeeping and navigation; and the exploration of the New World....

As part of our 350th anniversary celebrations the Royal Society asked its fellowship what they saw as the most important questions facing us in the years ahead. We are holding discussion meetings on the "top 10" during the year. We discussed, last month, the prospects of extra-terrestrial life and what its detection might mean for science and society. Other issues include stem cell biology, the science of ageing, new vaccines, climate change and biological diversity. Whatever breakthroughs are in store, we can be sure of one thing: there will be a widening gulf between what science enables us to do, and what it's prudent or ethical actually to do. In respect of (for instance) human reproductive cloning, genetically modified organisms, nanotechnology and robotics, regulation will be called for, on ethical as well as prudential grounds....

The Royal Society aims to sustain Britain's traditional strength in science, but also to ensure that wherever science impacts on people's lives it is openly debated. Citizen scientists – with views spanning the entire political and philosophical spectrum – should engage more willingly with the media and political forums. In the words of a recent president, Michael Atiyah, "the ivory tower is no longer a sanctuary": scientists have a special responsibility.

In this anniversary year, we should aspire, like our founders, to "see further" into nature and nature's laws, but also to emulate their broad engagement with society and public affairs – no longer just in one city or one nation, but on global scales.

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