Steve Connor: A great British meeting of minds

Science Notebook: Lord Kelvin was reputed to have said that there is nothing new to be discovered in physics

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The British Science Festival is in full flow at Surrey University in Guildford this week. Many people will know of the meeting under the old name of the British Association for the Advancement of Science – another example of re-branding.

The annual meetings, where some of the best British scientists display their research to the public, go back to the 1830s and are almost certainly the longest-running science festivals in the world. Although no doubt someone, probably in Italy or Germany, will correct me on that.

The most famous meeting was in 1860, the year after the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, when Thomas H Huxley defended evolution – successfully, it is said – against an attack by the Bishop of Oxford, "Soapy" Sam Wilberforce. It led to Huxley's brilliant riposte to Wilberforce's jibe about whether it was through his grandmother or grandfather that he claimed descendency from an ape.

"If I am asked to choose to be descended from the poor animal of low intelligence and stooping gait, who grins and chatters as we pass, or from a man, endowed with great ability and splendid position, who should use these gifts to describe and crush humble seekers after truth, I hesitate what answer to make," Huxley said.

Another notable occasion was in 1889 when Francis Galton described his research into fingerprints, showing that they do not change substantially from when people are babies. "Babies are the most difficult to deal with, the persistent closing of their fists being not the least of the difficulties," he said.

Perhaps one of the most misconceived assertions ever to emerge from the meeting was in 1900, when Lord Kelvin was reputed to have said that there is nothing new to be discovered in physics, and all that remained was more measurements. This was just a few years before a young patent office employee was to turn physics upside down. His name: Albert Einstein.

If only Baker had been right

Talking of famous predictions from the science festival that were not realised, it reminds me of one made by Kenneth Baker when he was Information Technology minister in 1982. Mr Baker, now Baron Baker of Dorking, was so enthused by the age of the silicon chip that he predicted that most people in 2000 would be working a four-day week and have three months' holiday a year. It may have worked out to be true for MPs, but not for the rest of us.

Lost in space

Still, Ken is in good company. Stephen Hawking said in 1984 that the "missing mass" of the Universe would be discovered within 10 years. A quarter of a century later, cosmologists are still looking.

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