The Royal Society celebrates 350 years and a new president
England has a fine way with tradition and ancestral offices. To this day the admiral appointed to be Second Sea Lord of the British Admiralty hoists his flag aboard the HMS Victory, over the same deck that ferried Admiral Horatio Nelson to naval glory. Presidents of the Royal Society, the oldest scientific society in the world, take over the title and chair once possessed by a line of predecessors that defines the eras of science: Sir Isaac Newton, the botanist explorers Sir Joseph Banks and Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, Sir Humphry Davy, Lord Kelvin, Sir William Crookes of the cathode rays, Sir J. J. Thomson.
On December 1, 2010, geneticist Sir Paul Nurse will become the 62nd president of the Royal Society as it celebrates its 350th year. Nurse won the 2001 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for discoveries regarding the control of the cell cycle. Among his many other honorifics is one bestowed by The Sun of London—the David Beckham of science. The title suitably captures his charisma and energy, and the amount of ground he covers as a playmaker. In fact, he will have two new jobs when he leaves his current position as the president of the Rockefeller University in New York City. He is also taking the reins as the first director and chief executive of the London Super Lab—the massive U.K. Centre for Medical Research and Innovation, which will house 1,250 scientists when it opens in several years in a facility that will cost nearly $1 billion. This newest ornament of British science will be the largest research institution in Europe.
Looking back three and a half centuries to the founding of the Royal Society, we see a collection of what might be called scientific amateurs— except the words have no meaning for a time when there were no scientific professionals. What the founding members had in common was a desire for community and a forum to discuss “Physick, Anatomy, Geometry, Astronomy, Navigation, Staticks, Magneticks, Chymicks, Mechanicks, and Natural Experiments” (but absolutely no current affairs or divinity).
In the modern era of scientific specialization, the role of a scientific society is to offer a venue for practitioners to speak in their own discipline and to hear from the other disciplines, from those “addicted to, and conversant in such matters” (from the first issue, in 1665, of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, the oldest scientific journal in the world).
Sigma Xi (125 years old in 2011) and American Scientist (100 in 2013) admire the commitment to research of the world’s most venerable scientific conclave. The Royal Society’s new leader lives up to its heritage when he says that despite wrangling two of the highest-profile jobs in British science, he also plans to set up a lab for his own research in London.