Royal Society Celebrates 350 Years of Discovery

Sunday, 29 Nov 2009 07:21 PM

 

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LONDON -- Sometimes, history's turning points come in blood and gunfire, and sometimes in pen and ink.

Dozens of epoch-changing moments are preserved in the library of Britain's Royal Society, an academy of scientists founded in 1660 to gather, discuss and spread scientific knowledge -- a role it still fills today.

Its members, dedicated to discovery through observation and experiment, form a roll-call of scientific fame: Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking. All contributed scientific papers that together recount what geneticist Alec Jeffreys --_ the father of DNA fingerprinting and a current member of the society -- calls "this amazing journey over the past 350 years."

The society is marking its 350th anniversary in 2010 by putting more than 60 of its most important scientific papers online, alongside commentaries by modern scientists. The site goes live Monday, launching a year of anniversary activities.

To the nonscientist, a collection of academic writings might sound a bit dry. But the fascinating -- and, in the early years, often handwritten -- accounts bring science's "eureka moments" vividly to life.

Among the papers, whose originals are held at the society's elegant London headquarters, is a 1672 work by Newton --_ described as "Professor of the Mathematicks" at Cambridge University -- detailing in tiny handwriting his discovery that white light is made of many colors.

In a letter from 1752, Franklin recounts in his spidery scrawl how he flew a kite in a storm to prove that lightning is electricity -- not a supernatural force, as many people then thought.

In keeping with the scientific principle that experiments must be repeatable, Franklin describes clearly how to carry out the feat, from building a kite from silk rather than paper -- "fitter to bear the wet" -- to sheltering in a doorway against the rain.

"It's brilliant to have Franklin's own account of one of the key moments in science, and a scientific anecdote that has gone down the ages," said Keith Moore, the Royal Society's head librarian.

Other papers include Francis Galton's 1891 discovery that fingerprints are unique, Hawking's early work on black holes in space and a series of experiments conducted on 8-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to determine whether he really was a child musical genius. Researcher Daines Barrington declared "his genius and invention ... most astonishing."

Also online is explorer Capt. James Cook's description of how he kept his crew free of scurvy on an 18th-century voyage to Australia by feeding them malt and sauerkraut, which he extolled as "a wholesome vegetable food (which) spoils not by keeping."

Membership in the society is still considered one of Britain's top scientific honors. There are currently about 1,400 fellows, elected by their peers.

Jeffreys, whose discovery that patterns of DNA are unique to each individual revolutionized crime-solving, said joining the society at the age of 36 was "one of the most emotional moments in my life."

"Part of the admission ceremony is you have to sign the book, established by King Charles II, that has been signed by every member of the Royal Society," he said. It was, he said, "a truly magical moment, and slightly scary."

The society, which serves as Britain's national science academy, lobbies the government _ climate change is a major current concern _ and promotes science education.

It hopes to use the anniversary year to raise the profile of science as a vital part of Britain's cultural life. In the society's early years, science and art influenced one another. The society's journal, the Philosophical Transactions, was read and admired by poets like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Today, the two worlds rarely meet. Moore said one of the society's goals was "to get to the point where people are as comfortable talking about the latest developments in science" as about the last movie they saw.

"Newton, Franklin _ these men have entered the popular consciousness," he said. "And it should be the same today."

One modern-day role model is physicist Hawking, probably the world's most famous living scientist and author of the best-selling "A Brief History of Time."

"He's a very great scientist, but he has also written a popular book," Moore said approvingly. And what's more: "He's been on 'The Simpsons.'"

___

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