A redoubt of learning holds firm

Michael Powell / New York Times News Service /


Published Sep 4, 2012 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

LONDON — To stroll out of Carlton Gardens into the elegant confines of the Royal Society is to find a trove of centuries-old wonders, from Sir Isaac Newton’s reflecting telescope to the first electric machine to fantastical illustrated catalogs of fish and birds.

Then you enter the sunlight-suffused office of the society’s president, Sir Paul Nurse. With his spiky mass of white hair, broad nose, ready smile and thick work boots, he looks the part of old-fashioned knight of science ready to tramp through the fens. But this Nobel Prize winner in medicine offers a very 21st-century lament.

“Policy debate these days involves trying to rubbish the science, and that is dangerous,” Nurse says. “Global warming denialists, those who oppose genetically modified crops and vaccinations, or the teaching of evolution: Their trick is treat scientific argument as if it’s a political argument and cherry-pick data.”

Nurse feels this danger more passionately than most, for the society he presides over was the crucible of the scientific revolution that formed the modern world. The society conducts studies, consults on government panels and has 1,450 fellows, about 80 of them Nobel winners. Yet theirs is, at times, an embattled world.

Founded in 1660, the Royal Society is the world’s oldest continuous scientific society. Newton, Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle and many more came together in a spirit of revolutionary if at times eccentric inquiry. Magic and alchemy greatly fascinated the society’s founders.

King Charles II granted the society a royal charter in 1662, and for centuries it hitched a ride on the back of Britain’s imperial ambitions. Explorers, scientific-minded military officers and colonial officials, and merchants — not just British — collected specimens, mapped unknown lands and recorded observations in every corner of the globe. And they shipped all of this, with accompanying essays, to the Royal Society.

The society no longer occupies that globe-dominating perch. The United States casts a much longer shadow, with billions of dollars spent on research and industrial might; U.S. scientists dominate many disciplines. And other nations, not least China, are gaining.

But the Royal Society’s journals, particularly The Philosophical Transactions and The Proceedings of the Royal Society, remain vibrant. And British scientists often achieve a written elegance and synthesis of argument that sometimes outstrips their U.S. counterparts.

Ask the chemist Martyn Poliakoff, the society’s foreign secretary, if it and British scientists in general are still relevant, and he gives a tight welterweight’s smile.

“You conflate quantity and quality,” he says. “We punch above our weight class.”

The society’s leaders take pains to emphasize that they are not trapped in the amber of old accomplishment. The British government pays for much of the society’s work, and its leaders join the robust debates of the day, on matters like global warming and genetically modified crops, which they view as a sensible answer to global scarcity.

A 2010 report from the society urged the government to invest in science, education and innovation to fuel economic development. It generated much press. But the global economic downturn thrust a dagger to the heart of its most ambitious proposals.

A current society fellow, an evolutionary biologist of fine repute who asked not to be quoted by name, says he greatly enjoys the conversation at the society’s dinners (he fortifies himself for the rounds of wine and port by drinking a quart of milk beforehand). But ask if the organization has much effect on the intellectual battles that roil his discipline, and he shakes his head.

“I can’t say that the society is a great presence in my field,” he says. “It’s a challenge: How do you muck your way through and remain relevant?”

At the beginning, the question facing society fellows was more elemental: How to challenge a worldview in place for thousands of years?

Mermaids, too

“And this is Sir Isaac.”

With that, the society’s librarian, Keith Moore, tall, thin with a great crown of silver hair, points to the shutter-eyed and formidable visage of Isaac Newton, an early president of the Royal Society. This is his death mask, fashioned from a cast of his face, sitting on a table in front of me.

We will pass the next hour traipsing through the society archives, an expanse of 4 million books and journals and maps and weather charts, along with pieces collected by merchants in Azerbaijan, 18th-century traders plying the coast of Brazil and the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, and fishermen bobbing in the swelling North Atlantic.

Moore rattles off the specimens and curios that constitute the society’s haul. Most are cataloged, a few lost. A whale skeleton, a mammoth tusk, a mermaid. He wants to go on, but I raise my hand.

A mermaid?

He shrugs.

“How did the mermaid get on? Where is it today? Anyone’s guess.”

The society took root in the soil of revolution. More than half of its founding members favored the Parliamentary cause in the 17th-century civil war that cost Charles I his crown and then his head. During that intoxicating century, nearly everything holy, from royal rank to economics to science to the immortality of the soul, was challenged. In the early days of the Royal Society, knights and earls sat shoulder to shoulder with metalsmiths and merchants.

Although rationalists, these scientists viewed God as central to their universe and their work. As Edward Dolnick, author of “The Clockwork Universe,” an entertaining history of the early society, noted, the founders viewed the laws of nature and God as inseparable. They were mapping his universe.

The historian Christopher Hill termed this the “stop in the mind.” The scientists, philosophers and politicians of any era confront limits to their consciousness. How do you imagine a world, or even know what questions to ask, when you lack reference points?

And there is that question of magic. Society members lived in a time shadowed by apocalyptic dread, from plague to fire to war. They were fascinated by alchemy, unicorns’ horns and magic salves, and they often experimented on themselves.

“They researched these phenomena a lot, and they weren’t all wrong,” Moore noted. “They knew there was an invisible world.”

Critics attacked Newton as an occultist for theorizing about gravity, as it was unseen and not mechanical. (Over his lifetime, he would write far more pages on biblical hermeneutics and occult studies than on math and science.) Still, he dominated the society’s early years.

Many members considered themselves popularizers, in the best and most important sense of the word. Not Sir Isaac. Diffident, most comfortable roaming the recesses of his own mind, he cared not a whit for vox populi. He wrote his grand work on physics, “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica,” in Latin. A copy sits in the Royal Society archives.

“Newton thought that knowledge belonged to those who were learned enough to use it,” Moore said.

The society’s influence has waxed and waned. As the founding members and their revolutionary enthusiasms passed into history, lords and earls reasserted intellectually deadening class privileges. (Although women made important if surreptitious contributions in the 18th and 19th centuries and even earlier, the society did not elect its first two female fellows until 1945.)

But always there was a hunger to find new discoveries, to record tides and temperatures, to discover new corners of a still wondrous world.

Explorers like James Cook were ardent collectors, as were many American colonialists. Benjamin Franklin joined the society, and its archives hold many of his papers. Even the early Puritans, wary of royalty, yearned for entry.

“Cotton Mather was desperate to get in,” Moore said. “He sent an account of a mastodon skeleton.”

Could this happen in Kansas?

That Nurse spends the first 20 minutes of an interview about the Royal Society talking about the role of the United States is perhaps not surprising. He served a stretch as president of Rockefeller University in New York City. What happens to science in the United States, for good and ill, is too important to ignore.

He wonders how it is that a nation that produces the wonders of Silicon Valley and great research centers in New York, Boston, Baltimore and Rochester, Minn., to name just a few, has large stretches where the theory of evolution is not taught.

“You don’t hear these debates in New York City or indeed on either coast,” he says. “I wonder if American science would thrive if it were based in Kansas.”

Still, he reminds himself that he is a foreigner looking in the window.

“Americans tend to like extremes. It’s either ‘We are on top of the world!’ or ‘The world is falling apart!’”

Some of those battles have started to jump the Atlantic with more vigor than in the past. Not long ago, it was rare to hear a political challenge in Europe to the scientific consensus around global warming. Not anymore.

Nurse is careful to emphasize that skepticism is the lifeblood of science; the verities of one age can become the superstitions of another. But he can’t hide his impatience with those who deny a strong human hand in global warming. You want to argue that the evidence points to only moderate warming? Brilliant; let’s examine the research. But to deny it altogether? The stakes are too high to play political games, he says.

“They say: ‘Well, no one believed Galileo.’ As if what? That’s an arrogant argument. Galileo prevailed very rapidly, as did Newton, as did Einstein,” he says. “The denialists have completely lost it.”

The leaders of the Royal Society conceive of themselves as a collective Cerberus, the mythical three-headed hound, guarding the doors of British science.

“We are protected against creationism and the like by our national curriculum for now,” Nurse said. “But we should keep a very close eye on education. The American experience tells us that we must respond robustly to challenges.”

More broadly, he doesn’t fret about U.S. dominance. That is just the way it is. Perhaps some cultural differences even accrue to the British side of the ledger.

“The USA has a very strong work ethic, and you keep a very close eye to the cutting edge,” he says. “We are a bit lazier. We drink more. But sometimes the science we produce is rather quirkier and more innovative.”

To walk the halls of the Royal Society is to feel the ancient excitements of science seep into your pores. But the society’s real challenge, Nurse says, is to point to the more magnificent unanswered questions that remain and so light a spark.

He recalls, as a child in Norwich, running down a dirt road in his pajamas, looking at Sputnik 2 track a distant path in the predawn sky.

“I feel utterly privileged to be a scientist at this society,” he says. “To be paid to think and talk about such questions?

“Astonishing.”