Celebrating The Royal Society Britain's premier science institution, the Royal Society, turns 350 this year. A new collection of essays called Seeing Further, edited by Bill Bryson, looks at the society's history. Writer Richard Holmes and outgoing society President Martin Rees discuss the institution.
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Celebrating The Royal Society

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Celebrating The Royal Society

Celebrating The Royal Society

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Three hundred fifty years ago, a dozen men gathered in a room at a college in London to hear a lecture on astronomy by Christopher Wren, and by the end of the evening the men had formed what was that night simply called the Society.

Two years later, thanks to Charles II, the group became the Royal Society and went on to change the face of science, credited with inventing scientific publishing and peer review, making experimentation systematic, choosing English as the primary language of scientific communication.

The Royal Society, which has endured as Britain's premier scientific institution, is the subject of a new book of essays, edited by Bill Bryson, called "Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery and the Genius of the Royal Society." And that's what we'll be talking about this hour.

Our number, 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. And surf over to our website at sciencefriday.com and join a discussion there.

Sir Martin Rees is the outgoing President of the Royal Society and Britain's astronomer royal. He is professor of cosmology and astrophysics and master of Trinity College at University of Cambridge. He joins us from the BBC in Cambridge. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Sir MARTIN REES (University of Cambridge): Good to be with you.

FLATOW: It's a pleasure to have you. Richard Holmes is the author of "The Age of Wonder" and a fellow of the British Academy. He joins us from BBC Norwich. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. RICHARD HOLMES (Fellow, British Academy): Great to be here.

FLATOW: Richard, let's start with you. Could you give us a little bit about the history of the Royal Society? What was going on in that room that day?

Mr. HOLMES: Alright, well, it was a group based on a place called Gresham College, and it was decided that it was time to have discussions about secular subjects, non-political, non-religious subjects. And it was - went to Francis Bacon's definition of science, that it should bring enlightenment. It should find out the truth about the physical universe. And it also should be for the benefit of man's estate.

There's two great leading ideas, which then expanded out. There have been, I think, between now and then, something over 8,000 fellows. Just to give you a little focus, at the moment I think there are about 1,400 of them, among whom there are 69 Nobel Prize winners. So it's quite a society.

FLATOW: So you had, as I mentioned earlier in the hour, you have famous people like Isaac Newton, Darwin, even Benjamin Franklin.

Mr. HOLMES: Very much Benjamin Franklin, who it may come back to, but also people you might not - Samuel Pepys was an early member, and Lord Byron, the poet, was a member in the Romantic Period.

FLATOW: Martin Rees, that is one of the most interesting things about the society, was that people were allowed to be members even though they were not scientists or academics, natural history people.

Sir REES: Well, of course there weren't many professional scientists back at those times. They went to astronomers and a few doctors. But all the others were amateurs. But of course, for the last 100 years or so, it has been really dominated by professional academic scientists and people at industry and engineers and such like. We can't all be polymaths today, unfortunately.

FLATOW: So what is the role of the society today then? How is it different from 300 years ago?

Sir REES: Well, in some respects it's the same, in that as Richard Holmes has just said, it has two aims. One is to foster science and discovery and do experiments and encourage excellence. And the other is to ensure that science is used for human benefit. So it's involved very much in practical applications of science and discussing energy, climate change and health and all those issues. So those are the things we have in common.

But of course it is now a gathering of professionals. We are in regular contact in particular with the NASA Academy of Sciences, which is your counterpart, as it were, and with others around the world.

FLATOW: Richard Holmes, the book is a collection of essays by different scientists and writers, and your essay in the book is about ballooning. Why ballooning?

Mr. HOLMES: That's right. It's a collection. I think it's 22 essays. And if I can just say, I mean, they are a wonderful collection: Richard Dawkins, for example; Stephen Jones(ph); Henry Petroski, wonderful engineer - I think from Duke University, a wonderful thing about building bridges; John Barrow(ph), who is a science historian. A wonderful selection of people.

So my rather eccentric production is about ballooning in the 18th century, and I chose it, first of all, to tell you the truth, because it's such a wonderful subject to write about, the adventure of ballooning, and I love the storytelling element in science. So that was one of the things that drew me to it.

The second is that it's a very good example of pure science then being applied. So we're in a period when the air is being analyzed. It is discovered it's full of what they called artificial gases - nitrogen, for example; or, more relevant, hydrogen, the lighter-than-air gas.

So you have a series of pure experiments both in England, people like Cavendish(ph) and Black; and in France the great Lavoisier. And they're making these discoveries, and then the question is how do you apply them.

They applied them in different ways. One was an attempt to cure tuberculosis using nitrous oxide. But what I followed up was the use of lighter-than-air hydrogen to inflate balloons and then to fly. And this is the first generation, the first people who ever rose above the Earth. Astonishing effect.

You have to imagine this, the impact it had, not merely physical but the philosophical implications, being able to rise above a city or to cross water. They crossed - there was a great race to cross the British Channel. That's a story I follow very closely.

I should add that the British balloon, which crossed first - the French balloon, I'm afraid, crashed in flames, but the British balloon was actually piloted by two men, one of whom was a Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, and the other was American, Dr. John Jeffries - typical example of wonderful combination of science.

So I chose it for those reasons, and finally, just to repeat, I think it's a very good example of where science starts to have social and philosophical implications. For example: Could ballooning be used in warfare? Could it revolutionize transport or weight-carrying? Could it tell us, which it definitely could, something about the upper atmosphere? The science of meteorology begins at this time, and I link it, of course, to things like painting. Suddenly clouds appear in the paintings of Turner and Constable, all contemporary.

So it's a very, very rich topic and exactly the kind of thing I like to write about.

FLATOW: Didn't Ben Franklin weigh in on ballooning himself?

Mr. HOLMES: Ben Franklin was marvelous. He was at this time - we're talking about the 1780s - he was the American ambassador in Paris. Of course the Brits had been at war with the Americans a little bit previously. But Benjamin Franklin had very good relations with the Royal Society. Indeed, he was a member.

FLATOW: Even during the American Revolution?

Mr. HOLMES: This - well, that was a little bit earlier. We're now talking in the 1780s, okay? But actually, there's an important point here that one of the things that the Royal Society really tried to do was establish international relations despite warfare.

So later on, when the Napoleonic Wars with the French were going on, there was still communication between French and English scientists. Indeed, Humphrey Davey(ph) actually went to France on a special passport.

Franklin, just back to Franklin, he followed the early (unintelligible), the French ballooning experiments over Paris. And he wrote brilliant letters to Sir Joseph Banks, who was then the president of the Royal Society over here in London, slightly teasing Joseph Banks, saying you Brits are being a bit slow about this; my French friends are advancing, experimenting, taking great risks; what are the British doing about it?

And there is one wonderful exchange, where Banks writes back and says: We cannot, the Society cannot immediately see the practical applications of ballooning. This is a form of French ballon-mania(ph). And Benjamin Franklin replies: Well, sir, I cannot immediately see the practical use of a newborn baby. A great remark.

FLATOW: That's a great remark. Martin Rees, your essay in the book asks the question: What will we understand in the year 2060? Where do you see us in 2060?

Sir REES: Well, yes, my essay is one of the ones looking forward, and of course, we are looking through a very cloudy crystal ball. And what I say in this essay is that there are some things we can be fairly confident about - for instance, the world will have a bigger population, it'll be warmer. But we can't predict the technology, because if you just think of the technology change in the last 20 years, we couldn't have predicted the iPhone and its ubiquity 20 years from now. So we can't predict these things.

I also speculate about what scientific problems we will be puzzling about. I think we'll have solved some of the issues that perplex us today in cosmology, et cetera. We might understand the origin of life. We might, 50 years from now, know where there's life beyond the Earth.

But I really emphasize that science is an unending quest. As it advances, its frontier gets longer and new questions come into focus that we couldn't even have posed before.

So I really have an optimistic view about science, although I must say I'm not so optimistic about the political choices in how we apply our science.

FLATOW: Do you want to expound on that a little?

Sir REES: Well, I think we know that already we have enough scientific knowledge to deal with the grossest poverty in Africa and elsewhere, but we're not doing it. And therefore I do worry about whether the benefits of globalization and the benefits of the even more advanced technologies we'll develop will be spread around the world. So I think it is becoming more difficult to ensure that science is optimally applied.

But I think this is why academies are so important, because more and more of the decisions that politicians have to take have a scientific aspect to them, whether it's climate or energy or whether it's the ethical issues in biology et cetera. And I think it's very important that the decisions on how science is used should not be taken just by scientists, because scientists have no special ethical sensitivities, et cetera, and no special wisdom in economics, et cetera. But it's very important that those who make the decisions, with(ph) the politicians and all citizens, should be guided by the best science. And the Royal Society and your National Academy are therefore very concerned to ensure that the best scientific advice is available to our legislators.

FLATOW: What if our legislators don't pay attention to science?

Sir REES: Well, I mean, that is depressing, but I think then we have to go to the media and the public, because one of the reasons why we are concerned about scientific education is not that we want everyone to become a scientist but that people can't really participate in the debate about scientific issues unless they know that a protein and a proton aren't the same thing and unless they have some understanding of basic science.

And so that's why scientific literacy is so important, and that's why we in the Royal Society, who are primarily concerned with sort of university and advanced education, have now not decided that we need to take a greater interest in school-level education. And I guess in the U.S. there's a similar concern.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. Paul in Tucson. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

PAUL (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

FLATOW: Hi there.

PAUL: In light of the various anti-intellectual, anti-scientific public strains that we experience today, can we learn anything about how the Royal Society 300 years ago dealt with those issues? How did they fight the anti-intellectual, anti-scientific undercurrent of sort of, you know, common society?

FLATOW: Richard Holmes?

Mr. HOLMES: Yes. I'd answer this slightly from left field way. In this book, there's a wonderful essay by Margaret Atwood, the Canadian novelist, which is about the mad scientist and how science and scientists have been mocked traditionally, and she looks at it as a literary problem, starting with "Gulliver's Travels" - and some of you out there, I'm sure, will know the famous crazed Grand Academy of Lagado, which exists out there in "Gulliver's Travels," written in the 1720s, and this society of mad - not scientists but projectors, who were a kind of satire on the Royal Society.

And she follows in this very funny but very acute essay this tradition going up through Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, another mad doctor, but very interesting because actually in many ways committed, attempting to help mankind. It goes through do you remember Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," the very sinister Mr. Hyde and Jekyll, the medical scientist. And then it could go on to Dr. Moreau, from Jules Verne(ph), and even to "Dr. Strangelove," which we were all brought up with - Dr. Strangelove, with his wonderful glasses and his wheelchair and so on.

Now, that tradition that - what your caller calls the anti-intellectual tradition - has always existed. I have to say, I think it's quite a good thing because I think this is - this requires - the battle of ideas do require a critique and a response. And I think the Royal Society is now in a wonderful position. For example, it published a superb document on climate change, engaging with all the problems, looking at possible solutions - a document that would be immensely readable.

And I would actually say - I don't know what Sir Martin thinks about this - but if the two primary Baconian of the discovery...

FLATOW: Let me just - I have to just interrupt and remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, rudely interrupting Richard Holmes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: ...talking about science and the Royal Society. Go ahead, please. I'm sorry.

Mr. HOLMES: Yes. No, Richard Holmes getting completely carried away because it's such a great subject. My theory was that the two Baconian things, that science should find out the truth, should discover and invent, then science should be - apply for the benefit of mankind - I think there's a third one now, which is science and scientists have a duty to explain what they're doing, to educate the public. This is exactly...

FLATOW: Do they have a duty to speak out, not just to explain, but to be advocates?

Mr. HOLMES: Yes, I think that whole range - to educate, to popularize, and to speak out and take positions on certain issues - I don't know what Sir Martin thinks, but I do believe this.

Sir REES: I - if I can come in...

FLATOW: Please.

Sir REES: I certainly think that scientists should speak out. They should raise themselves above the parapet and participate. But they should also make clear when they are speaking as experts and when they're speaking as citizens, because on the scientific issues there can be a scientific consensus, whereas there may be different views on how we respond to science and its application. So we must distinguish where we're experts from where we're just citizens.

But I think I'd like to go back to what Richard was saying and emphasize that science is important not just because of its applications but because it's part of our culture. That's certainly the way that some of our founders in the 17th century thought of it, but even now I would say it's a cultural depravation not to be aware of the wonderful story whereby we have emerged as the outcome of a chain of process going all the way back to the Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago, you know, the formation of atoms, stars, planets, and then biological evolution on at least one planet. It's a wonderful story, and it's a cultural depravation not to be aware of that.

FLATOW: We're going to take a break and come back and talk lots more about science and society and with - and about the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society. My guests are Sir Martin Rees. He's the outgoing president of the Royal Society and Britain's astronomer royal - and Richard Holmes, author of "The Age of Wonder" and a fellow of the British Academy.

Our number, 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. We'll open the phones because I know so many people want to speak with Sir Martin. He hardly ever gets a chance to speak with us on SCIENCE FRIDAY, and we're very happy to have him. And I also want to ask Richard: Can you stay around for a little while longer?

Mr. HOLMES: Absolutely.

FLATOW: Alright.

Mr. HOLMES: I'm holding position.

FLATOW: Holding patterns everywhere, so stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society, and there's a really interesting collection of essays, a book called "Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery and the Genius of the Royal Society." It's edited by Bill Bryson, and one of the - couple of the people who have essays in that collection are with us today. Sir Martin Rees is the outgoing president of the Royal Society and Britain's astronomer royal. Richard Holmes is the author of "The Age of Wonder" and a fellow of the British Academy. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. If you'd like to get in on the conversation, you can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I.

Let's see if we can go to the phones, because a lot of people want to ask questions. Let's go to Ken in Nashville. Hi, Ken.

KEN (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi there.

KEN: My question is: Has the Royal Society ever had a discussion about the possibility of terraforming Mars or possibly one of the satellites of one of the planets by using a gas mixture of sulfur hexafluoride and oxygen, possibly other gases?

FLATOW: Sir Martin?

Sir REES: Not in immense detail. We have had lots of discussion about geo-engineering, which is the sort of Plan B for dealing with climate change. And also this year the first of the conferences we held - we had about a dozen conferences covering the real challenges of science in the coming decades - that was on extraterrestrial life. And we there, of course, did discuss the prospects of the future of human life. And I think many of us hope that some people now living will walk on Mars and then perhaps we'll terraform it.

So some of the people at the meeting were experts on this. We didn't discuss it in detail, but I think that's the kind of scenario we want to be discussing for the second half of this century.

FLATOW: Do you believe like Stephen Hawking does, that we - we have to leave this planet one of this days?

Sir REES: No. I think Stephen's views are very misguided on this point, as on others, to be honest...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sir REES: ...but - because I think we're kidding ourselves if we think the world's problems can be solved by escaping from them. We've got to solve them here on Earth. Going into space will be uncomfortable. There's nowhere in space as comfortable as even the top of Everest or the South Pole. But space exploration will be for adventurers going and accepting high risks and maybe even one-way tickets. I think that's the way it's going to start.

But if we look ahead to several centuries, then we can imagine perhaps terraforming taking place, and then, of course, we get to the post-human era, because we have to think that human beings are going to evolve in future not on the Darwinian time scale but on a much shorter time scale. And we may imagine that the people who are on Mars and in other places centuries from now, they will be post-humans rather than humans.

FLATOW: As a scientist who's outside the box - and I mean America - how do you look from across the pond and view science in America these days? Has it seen its best days or its best days behind it?

Sir REES: I would hope not. I think - I'd say the Brits are probably number two in science and maybe number one in brain for the buck, but the U.S. is number one in the volume of top-rate science. There's no doubt about that. But on the other hand, this is a perplexity to many of us over here that issues like creationism and climate skepticism are far more rampart in the U.S. than they are anywhere in Europe.

FLATOW: Why do you think that is?

Sir REES: Well, it would be presumptuous for me to comment, really, but I think obviously I know the National Academy feels that there are deficiencies in science teaching at the school level. We have the same problems over here, but I think in the U.S. there have been concerns about the level of science teaching.

FLATOW: Richard, do you - you have any comment on that?

Mr. HOLMES: Yes. A very interesting discussion. I spent this year quite a lot of time in American science archives. And one thing, America is wonderful at the history of science, which is very important, because to know where we're going we have to look back. The other thing that strikes me that was so characteristic, Martin's wonderful overview. We're not just doing science here. We're doing philosophy, really, in a certain sense.

One of the other essays in this book is by Paul Davies, who I think is from - an astrophysicist from Arizona State, I think. And that's a wonderful overview again of what he calls the Copernican revolution, by which he doesn't just mean that we know the sun is in the middle of the solar system, but why we're beginning to see much more clearly that we are in a very average sort of situation in a suburb of the Milky Way; what are the chances of our average situation being repeated outside to the planets in other systems which might bear life? He looks into that. Very interesting. The Goldilocks problem, the planet that's not too hot, not too warm. We now know since the mid-1990s there's been - I think it's now about 500 planets outside our own solar system being discovered. None of them looked exactly promising, but of course the great search is for water in some form, because that seems to be the basic requirement for life.

But also, in this wonderful essay, he looks at what we're discovering on the Earth and under the oceans and so on, about the nature of life, that actually life can live in a sulfuric acid context. It can live in extreme heat and extreme cold. So the possibilities of life existing out there are also growing. These are very interesting questions, partly speculation, partly pure science.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Ben in Silver Spring, Maryland. Hi, welcome.

BEN (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. It's great to be on the show. I just had a question. Given the substantial influence on, you know, human history from religion, what role does religion have in the society, you know, in science and in general?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. That's a good question, because a lot of these member of The Royal Society, from Isaac Newton on, were extremely religious, were they not?

Sir REES: They were, indeed, yes. I mean, if I can answer that, I think there can be peaceful coexistence between science and the mainstream religions. And I have scientist colleagues who many different faiths. And I would see science as a truly global culture which can be shared by people of most faiths, and of none.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You wrote a book which, for the U.S. market was called "Our Final Hour: A Scientist's Warning..."

Sir REES: Hmm. Yes.

FLATOW: ...Martin Rees, it's sort of a ominous title.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sir REES: Well, I should say that my original title was "Our Final Century?" with a question mark.

FLATOW: Uh-huh.

Sir REES: And the Americans changed the title. I guess you like instant gratification and, perhaps, the reverse, as well. So that was, I thought, a rather stupid title that the American publisher gave the book. But I was really emphasizing the point that the 21st century, which is the - it's the first century after the 45 million centuries which have elapsed on the Earth where one species, namely ours, has control over the entire future. So what we do as humans this century will determine the entire future of our planet.

And I was concerned with the collective impact we're having on the planet because of our greater number and greater consumption of resources, but also of the possibility of misuse of technology in a disruptive way. So I was concerned that there are going to be difficult problems because there are more people on the planet having more impact on the environments and more impact by technology.

FLATOW: But some people know so little about such basic science, you know. I mean, there was a very famous question about why is it hotter in the summer than it is in the winter? I talked about this a lot, asked some Harvard graduates, and 90 percent of them didn't know the answer. Could that be some of the reasons, or is this just - we don't - just don't some simple science questions?

Mr. HOLMES: Well, I think you just...

FLATOW: And I - knowing - and I know that you must get asked some really silly ones that might - must be totally embarrassing for you to have to answer. I know that you were asked on talk show recently, do we think we'll ever find Atlantis, as if that were a scientific question.

Sir REES: Right. Yes, yes. Well, it is true. It's depressing that many members of the public don't know what we would think as basic scientific ideas. But I don't think scientists should protest too much, because frankly, the public's very ignorant of other things. I mean, there are many people in America who I'm sure couldn't find Iran or Korea on the map.

FLATOW: Mexico, maybe, but...

Sir REES: Or maybe just about Mexico.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Sir REES: But they couldn't find Korea or Iran or Syria. And, of course, that's equally depressing, because that, again, means they can't participate properly in political discussions, which are important. So I think it's just general ignorance that education should try to remove. And, of course, H.G. Wells famously said that the 21st century will be a tussle between education and catastrophe, and we want education to win.

FLATOW: And speaking of looking forward, Sir Martin, what are your plans now that you'll be leaving your job there? What are you going to be up to?

Sir REES: Well, the presidency of The Royal Society is a sort of honoree, part-time post. So I've got a job in Cambridge and many other things to do. I am a member of the House of Lords, which is part of our parliament. So I've got plenty to do. And I should say that presidents now serve for five years, whereas back in the past, they have much greater stamina, as Richard Holmes mentioned, Sir Joseph Banks. And he was president for 42 years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Wow.

Sir REES: But he was a wealthy man, that he paid for the society most of that time. And I don't have to pay for the society, either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I understand that Sir Paul Nurse is from Rockefeller, over here on this side of the pond, is coming over there to be (unintelligible).

Sir REES: That's right. He has come back to the U.K., and he's got the job helping to build up a new major medical center in London. And he is my successor. He's a great guy. I'm absolutely delighted about that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And are you as optimistic as Sir Martin is about the future, or do you think that this is going to be a big struggle, Richard?

Mr. HOLMES: I'm just fascinated to listen to all of this. Yes, I think there will be a great - the first things I wanted to say there, I think we are actually living in a great age of scientific popularizing, wonderful books, wonderful television films being made in a way just wasn't so in 20 years. I think in America, this probably began with Carl Sagan and the "Cosmos" television series, which is also an outstanding book still in print. So I do think there is a growing sense we - that people want to know, we need to know. If I may say, I had a sort of personal conversion experience because I, brought up as a literary biographer and wrote about the romantic poets - Shelley and Coleridge and so on. And it then increasingly bore on me that I knew much too little about science, and so I began...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HOLMES: ...writing about science and scientists. And, of course, Coleridge, who was a great friend of Humphry Davy, which again has a direct connection to the Royal Society, that he was a kind of bridge for me. So I've had a kind of conversion experience that I hope would be shared. That's one of the reasons...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HOLMES: ...I write. So, no. I am basically - I think there are terrifying aspects of what may be waiting for us, but they're also beautiful and optimistic. And as before, we're walking on a kind of tight rope. And if you're doing that, it's good to have every kind of available way of keeping your balance.

FLATOW: All right. And that - those are good final words to end our discussion. Thank you, gentlemen, for taking time to be with us. Sir Martin Rees, outgoing president of the Royal Society and Britain's astronomer royal, also professor of cosmology and astrophysics and master of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. Richard Holmes, author of "The Age of Wonder" and fellow of the British Academy. And both their essays are in "Seeing Further," edited by Bill Bryson, "The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society." Some great essays in there.

Thank you, gentlemen. Have a happy holiday season.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sir REES: Thank you.

Mr. HOLMES: Thank you.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

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