The Royal Society: Dilettantes to DNA via cuckoos and kites

It began as a talking shop for rich intellectuals but 350 years later, the Royal Society is the de facto national academy of science
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Sir Christopher Wren is remembered today for the architectural wonder of St Paul's Cathedral, but he was also one an architect of one of the oldest scientific institutions in the world, the Royal Society, which today begins a celebration of its 350th anniversary.

It was in 1657 that Wren gave a seminal lecture to the assembled intellectuals of Gresham College in the City of London, where he was professor of astronomy. He talked of the new scientific vistas opened by the invention of those dual wonders, the microscope and telescope. "Imagine how much the ancient laborious Enquirers would envy us," he said.

Three years later, on 28 November 1660, Wren gave another of his increasingly famous Gresham College lectures, and this time he and the 11 other men who assembled after the lecture for "mutual converse" decided to establish a "college for the promoting of physico-mathematico experimental learning". It was the birth of the Royal Society.

An "invisible college" of natural philosophers had already started having secretive meetings in the 1640s to discuss the revolutionary ideas of that earlier English philosopher, Francis Bacon. But it was the 1660 meeting, after the restoration of Charles II, that put the gathering on a semi-official footing – the Royal Charter came a year later.

What began as a talking shop for intellectuals and wealthy gentlemen has today become the UK's de facto national academy of sciences. Next year marks the 350th anniversary of its founding on that night in Gresham College, and over the next 12 months the society intends to make it clear that it has a future as well as a past.

"If we look ahead to this century, we can certainly say that young people today will grow up in a world even more determined by the way we apply our science than was the case for any previous generation," said Lord Rees of Ludlow, the current president of the Royal Society.

"This is going to be a century when we will have a challenge to provide food and energy for an expanding world population without degrading the environment. As science advances, it offers more choices in applying it wisely and avoiding ethically problematic areas," he said.

"Our expertise is in science and there are going to be few important issues in the future that do not involve science – think of food, climate, energy, pandemics, education. They all have a scientific dimension and so it's crucially important to have bodies such as the Royal Society that have the credentials and the credibility to provide the best evidence and advice. It's their duty to make that evidence as widely accessible as possible and to make sure it gets on the right policy-maker's desk," Lord Rees said.

The 350th anniversary begins today, with the launch of a website where the public can peruse some of the Society's most important discussions in the august pages of Philosophical Transactions, the oldest continuously published scientific journal in the world. The papers range from Robert Boyle's discussions on blood transfusions to Stephen Hawking's on the problems of black holes in space.

"There's a charming thing from the records when the child Mozart came to London and a group of scientists met him and tried to form a view of whether he really was a genius or some kind of fraud," said Lord Rees.

It was evident that Mozart was at heart like any other eight-year-old. "He was at a harpsichord and then a cat came into the room, and they had to go and get him back from playing with it," he said.

"In these old papers, everything was hand written before going to the printers, and you see more directly the personality of the scientist than you would do with a modern paper, and of course they wrote their papers in a more personal, anecdotal style."

But he emphasised that the Royal Society is about the future as much as the past. In addition to a programme of public lectures, debates and discussions, it will host a nine-day science and arts festival next summer at the South Bank in London. It will be mark a historic accord between the two worlds.

Three-and-a-half centuries of discovery

1666: Transfusion of blood

Physicist Robert Boyle gave an account of one of the first blood transfusions, in this case between two dogs. Human transfusions were subsequently banned because of adverse reactions, explained more than 200 years later with the understanding of blood groups.

1672: Isaac Newton's theory on light and colours

Isaac Newton is considered one of the most brilliant English scientists, and this study of how a shaft of sunlight through a glass prism can be broken up into the colours of the spectrum shows him at his best. Not only did he explain the nature of white light, he used the findings to build better telescopes made from mirrors rather than lenses – a basic design still used today.

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1677: Observation of 'little animals' in rainwater

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who ground and polished his own lenses, pioneered the field of microscopy with his observations of "little animals" in drops of rainwater, the surface of pepper and teeth.

1727: An account of a boy whose sight was restored

William Cheselden was one of the finest surgeons of his day and his most famous operation was on a 14-year-old boy who had been blind since birth with congenital cataracts. Cheselden restored his sight in an operation that had caused him some anxiety beforehand.

1752: Flying a kite in an electrical storm

In the mid-18th century, electricity was a largely unknown and mysterious force. Benjamin Franklin showed with the help of a kite that lightning bolts in a storm were in effect electrical discharges that could be collected and channelled, an experiment that was as dangerous as it was insightful. It was a discovery that he put to good effect by designing lightning conductors for churches and tall buildings.

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1755: Account of inoculation with small pox

An early form of vaccination was variolation, originally practised by the Chinese as early as the 10th century, when powdered smallpox scabs were applied to a small cut on the skin. Sir Hans Sloane, physician to the royal family, described introducing the procedure on six condemned criminals, followed by six charity children.

1763: The success of willow bark in the treatment of fever

An Oxfordshire vicar called Edmund Stone described the use of powdered willow bark in the treatment of fevers. The active ingredient was later identified as salicylic acid, and, more than a century later, scientists synthesised acetylsalicylic acid, sold under the trade name Aspirin.

1769: Observations on the transit of Venus

The movement of Venus across the face of the Sun was a widely anticipated event, with a special scientific committee appointed to observe it. In addition to calculating the distance between the Earth and the Sun, the observations also led indirectly to the discovery of Australia by Captain Cook who was sent to the Pacific to make his own observations.

1770: Mozart: a very remarkable young musician

When the eight-year-old Mozart came to London the RS could not resist testing whether he was a fraud – was he for instance older than claimed? Mozart performed the tasks they set with ease, only to interrupt his harpsichord work when a cat walked into the room which he couldn't resist playing with, just like any other child of his age.

1776: Captain James Cook's methods for preserving the health of his crew

As many as two out of every three sailors were lost to scurvy in the early 18th century, from vitamin C deficiency. Captain James Cook described how none of his men succumbed to the condition after a diet rich in malt, sweet-wort, "sour krout", and oranges and lemons.

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1788: Cuckoo chicks eject baby birds from the nest

Edward Jenner is known as the father of vaccination but his election to the Royal Society came after his detailed observation of how baby cuckoos manage to eject the eggs and chicks of the host species it parasitises. His views were met with incredulity and it was only in the 1920s that scientists produced unequivocal evidence in the form of film footage

1816: The invention of the Davy Safety Lamp

Sir Humphry Davy was a chemist but also an inventor. His safety lamp, which covered a naked flame with a fine wire mesh to allow gases in but keep the flame from escaping, arguably saved many lives from the build-up of explosive gases in coal mines.

1826: Mathematical theory of suspension bridges

Davies Gilbert, an accomplished mathematician, showed that the proposed suspension bridge across the Menai Straits had to be modified to take into account the variation in the stress on the hanging cables. The bridge had a then record-breaking span of 580 feet.

1851 A relationship between gravity and electricity?

Michael Faraday can be remembered for many things, but his experiment showing that there was no link between gravity and electricity is not one of them. Yet these "null results" are often just as important to science as those demonstrating a positive finding. Faraday was considered a scientist's scientist for his theoretical insight and practical skills.

1865: Theory of the electromagnetic field

James Clerk Maxwell produced one of the most important studies in the history of physics with his theory of electromagnetism. It describes how electricity and magnetism are just two different aspects of the same underlying phenomenon, and that light consists of electromagnetic waves – explaining in one leap all classical optics.

1891: The proof that fingerprints are unique

Francis Galton, a cousin of Darwin, was the first scientist to describe a classification system for fingerprints, still used today by the police. This scientific paper's almost obsessive cataloguing and classification was typical of Galton, who was fascinated by measurement of everything from the weather to the mind.

1920 Eclipse expeditions: testing Einstein's Theory of General Relativity

Two expeditions left Britain in 1919 to study the total solar eclipse, and test the prediction of Albert Einstein's Theory of General Relativity that light would be bent by the gravitational field of the Sun. Arthur Eddington's observations from the island of Principe near Africa provided remarkable confirmation – but not definitive proof – of the theory.

1940: The development of penicillin

Alexander Fleming may have discovered the microbial penicillin mould in 1928 but it was not until 1940 that scientists were able to isolate the active compound, leading to the development of a new class of powerful, antibiotic drugs.

1954: The discovery of the structure of DNA

The DNA double helix was first described by Francis Crick and Jim Watson in 1953 but it was in a subsequent scientific paper published a year later that they gave the sort of detail that their colleagues needed to assess it properly. For such an immensely important breakthrough, it took several years for scientists and the public to realise its significance in explaining the fundamental building block of life.

1956: Natural selection in the peppered moth

The rise in frequency of the melanic (black) form of the peppered moth since the Industrial Revolution is a widely cited example of natural selection. J B S Haldane raised questions about the precise mechanisms of heredity and properties of the genes that led to this shift.

1965: Continental drift: how Africa and South America drifted apart

The German explorer Alfred Wegener suggested in the early 20th century that continents were not fixed but moved over geological timescales. Continental drift finally came of age in the 1960s, exemplified by a study by Sir Edward Bullard on the matching fossils and rock magnetism between Africa and South America.

1970: Are there black holes in space?

Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose demonstrate the implications of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. General Relativity predicts black holes: regions of space where the gravitational attraction is so great that even light cannot escape. Hawking and Penrose showed that, within the boundary of a black hole, space becomes so strongly curved that the production of a true singularity is inevitable.

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2008: Geoengineering: big ideas to battle global warming

In 2008, the Royal Society gathered together some of the world's most influential scientists to discuss the possibility of "geo-engineering" the climate if other means of controlling man-made emissions of greenhouse gases fail. Jim Lovelock, who developed the Gaia theory, suggests we should move away from the discussion of "human rights" to talking about "human obligations" to preserve the planet as a habitable place.