Astronomer Royal on science, environment and the future

12 September 2013

This is a transcript of a speech given at the British Science Festival in Newcastle on September 12.

It’s always a pleasure to speak at the British (Science) Association, but there are two special reasons why I’m glad to be here today. I was myself the Association’s president last time the Festival was held here, in 1996. But the first time the BA (which it was called then) came here was back in the 1830s – when a highlight was an open-air geological lecture, given on the beach, by Adam Sidgwick. It’s recorded that he spoke to 3000 “colliers and rabble”.

We can’t gather such crowds today for live lectures – but that decline is compensated by the multitudes that can now follow us via the internet. Someone who certainly has a huge following in all media is this year’s president, Lisa Jardine. And the second reason I’m glad to be here is that she’s an old friend, whose energy and achievements I hugely admire.

I’m mainly going to be scanning future horizons, but I’ll start with a flashback – to the 17th century, on which Lisa writes and broadcasts with vivid expertise. The Royal Society was founded in 1660. At their regular meetings its Fellows peered through newly-invented microscopes; they heard travellers’ tales. They experimented with airpumps, explosions, and poisons. And some meetings were more gruesome. Samuel Pepys recorded in his famous diary a blood transfusion from a sheep to a man - who, amazingly, survived. (Health and safety rules render Royal Society meetings duller these days!)

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