1660 was a momentous year in English history. That was the year in which, amid great rejoicing, the Monarchy was restored by the coming to the Throne of King Charles II after several years of England being a tyrannical republic as a consequence of the Royalists losing the English Civil War. This republic, amongst other things, banned Christmas and football (the English have been suspicious of republics ever since).

In that year, Parliament declared 29 May a public holiday:
"Parliament had ordered the 29 of May, the King's birthday, to be for ever kept as a day of thanksgiving for our redemption from tyranny and the King's return to his Government, he entering London that day."

Ever since, 29th May has been celebrated as Oak Apple Day, named after the time in 1651 when the future Charles II hid in an oak tree in Worcestershire to hide from the Roundhead army.

But 1660 was also a momentous year for another reason. That was the year that the Royal Society was founded. It is the world's oldest learned society for science.

Its members have included such mighty figures in the world of British science as Sir Isaac Newton (discoverer of gravity), Charles Darwin (discoverer of evolution), Michael Faraday (discoverer of electricity), Robert Hooke (the father of microscopy who coined the word "cell") and Christopher Wren (architect and builder of St Paul's Cathedral).

The founding of the Royal Society was the birth of modern science.

The establishment of science

Jan 7th 2010
From The Economist print edition

Celebrating the 350th anniversary of the birth of modern science

More than Charles II reckoned on

THE streets surrounding St James’s Palace in London are dotted with gentlemen’s clubs, many of which now also admit women. This year, one such establishment is marking its 350th anniversary. The club in question is not merely a meeting place for like-minded members, however: it is the society that founded modern science.

Sir Francis Bacon

The first fellows of the Royal Society, as it is now known, were followers of Sir Francis Bacon, a 17th-century statesman and philosopher who argued that knowledge could be gained by testing ideas through experiments. On a damp and murky night in November 1660, a dozen of them met to hear a lecture by a 28-year-old astronomer called Christopher Wren, who would later become the architect who designed St Paul’s Cathedral. Inspired, they determined to meet every week to discuss scientific matters and to witness experiments conducted by different members of the group. In so doing, they invented the processes on which modern science rests, including scientific publishing and peer review, and made English the primary language of scientific discourse.

The French Academy of Sciences, founded in 1666, proved no great rival; the American Association for the Advancement of Science was not formed until 1848.

The first account of the Royal Society’s scheme of work, published in 1667, was accompanied by a frontispiece (see picture, top) showing Charles II, who granted the society its royal charter, with Sir Francis on his left and the society’s first president on the king’s right.

Sir Isaac Newton, who defined the laws of gravity, became president of the Royal Society in 1703. Its members (no more than 44 outstanding British scientists are elected to fellowship each year, along with up to eight foreign members) go on to win Nobel prizes; indeed, 74 of the society’s 1,300 living members are Nobel laureates. Before such honours were bestowed, many worthy of the accolade were fellows of the Royal Society, including Michael Faraday, who discovered electricity, Charles Darwin, who uncovered evolution, and William Thomson, who formulated the first two laws of thermodynamics.

Gresham College, off Holborn in central London, is unusual in that it enrolls no students and grants no degrees. It is where the Royal Society started

Such is the excitement at the Royal Society’s anniversary that Britain’s state broadcaster, the BBC, has created a year of science-related programming to celebrate it.

Bill Bryson, a popular American author (and an Anglophile who lives in Britain), has edited a book on the story of science that highlights the society’s role. The British Museum is holding a series of lectures on science’s contribution to the objects that it holds. The Royal Society itself is organising a festival billed as “a huge and splendid celebration of the joy and vitality of science, its importance to society and culture, and its role in shaping who we are and who we will become”. A proud tradition, indeed.

Last edited by Blackleaf; Jan 7th, 2010 at 02:48 PM..