A Redoubt of Learning Holds Firm
- 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,” Dr. 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.”
Dr. 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.[more] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/04/science/royal-society-holds-firm-amid-political-challenges-to-science.html?hp