Lord Rees: The curiosity of our founders will inspire us for centuries more

Tuesday 01 December 2009 01:00
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Back in the 1660s, the Royal Society's founders met regularly to discuss scientific ideas and perform experiments – experiments with air pumps, trials of different poisons on animals, improvements to gunpowder and to pendulum clocks. And sometimes rather gruesome experiments in which the blood from one dog was transfused into another.

Discussion and publication – the core of the Society's activities from its beginnings – have become the accepted procedures whereby scientific ideas are criticised, refined and codified into "public knowledge". Over the centuries our journals have published Isaac Newton's researches on light, Benjamin Franklin's experiments on lightning, reports of Captain Cook's expeditions, Volta's first battery, Talbot's pioneering photographs and of course, more recently, many of the triumphs of 20th-century science. Sixty highlights from our publications, with commentary and background, appear today on our new Trailblazing website.

Last year we invited our Fellows to suggest what would be the highlights of the coming decades. We have used the "top 10" to guide our choice of topics for Discussion Meetings in 2010. So we will be discussing some big themes: biodiversity, ageing, web science, global health, climate, brain science – and the search for extraterrestrial life. The "ingenious and curious gentlemen" who established the Royal Society enjoyed speculation and sought enlightenment: 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; the maintenance of forests; and the exploration of the New World.

Science has been utterly transformed during the last 350 years – and the world has been transformed by science. Nonetheless, some values endure.

Our ambition for the next 50 years must be to sustain the curiosity and enthusiasm of our founders. To aspire, like them, to "see further" into nature and nature's laws, but also to emulating their broad engagement with society and public affairs – no longer just in one city or one nation, but on global scales.

This is an edited extract from a speech given by the President of the Royal Society yesterday, to mark the 350th anniversary of the society's founding

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