The Royal Institution must be saved
Losing this melting pot of science would be a tragedy, suggests Colin Blakemore.
What did the chattering classes of London do on a Friday night in the middle of the 19th century? Well, those who could secure a ticket would have been sitting in a steeply banked, uncomfortable lecture theatre in a neoclassical pile in the heart of Mayfair. Listening, spellbound, to the world’s leading scientists.
So popular were the regular Discourses at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, and so dense the clutter of carriages on a Friday evening, that Albemarle Street, which it dominates, was designated the first one-way street in London.
The published Proceedings of the meetings of the Royal Institution (the Ri as it is now known) read like a Who’s Who of discovery. From one volume of the Proceedings, chosen at random, I see that Chevalier Marconi gave a Discourse on Recent Advances in Wireless Telegraphy on 3 March 1905, while the next Friday, J J Thomson, Cavendish Professor from Cambridge and discover of the electron, spoke on The Structure of the Atom. What persuaded the great men of science to give up their Friday evenings? It wasn’t just to pass on a little of their genius to the well-heeled of Mayfair. It was because the Ri carried the imprimatur of the scientific establishment. And yet now the Ri finds itself in a financial crisis, which led to the departure of its director, Baroness Greenfield, and which threatens its existence.
The discussion between gentlemen scientists that led to the founding of the Ri took place in March 1799 in the house of Joseph Banks, then president of the Royal Society. An extraordinary feature of this new “Institution for Diffusing Knowledge” was that it was also an active centre for research of the highest quality. Humphry Davy, Michael Faraday, John Tyndall, James Dewar, William Bragg, Lawrence Bragg and George Porter all worked in the rabbit warren of labs hidden behind the classical façade of the Ri.
Ten of the chemical elements were discovered there. Fourteen of the Ri’s scientists won Nobel Prizes. And many of the most famous were also stars of the Ri’s public events. Faraday himself introduced both the Friday Discourses and the famous Christmas Lectures, of which he gave 19 himself.
Every generation sees science as the essence of modernity. Not surprising, then, that the history of science is too easily ignored. We think of public communication of science and engagement between scientists and the general public as a very modern enterprise.
In 1985, the geneticist Sir Walter Bodmer produced a report for the Royal Society that recommended greater effort to communicate the methods, achievements and benefits of science to the public. That challenge was taken up by the Royal Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Ri itself – three venerable organisations.
Since then, organisations, activities, centres, festivals and prizes for scientific communication and debate have proliferated.
Even the idea of putting public science centres in the heart of active research labs is all the vogue. The new Centre of the Cell, suspended above the biomedical research benches of the Blizard Building, Queen Mary, University of London, has won plaudits for its novel approach to the communication of science.
Well, if what the Ri used to do is now being done so innovatively elsewhere, would its closure be anything more than a matter of passing on the baton of scientific communication?
It would be a disaster. In the burgeoning landscape of science as cultural enrichment and entertainment, the actual contribution of the Ri might not be missed that much. But, symbolically, the loss of the world’s first melting pot of science and public engagement at a time when science has never been more important would be a tragedy.
Colin Blakemore is professor of neuroscience at Oxford and Warwick