Monday, July 9, 2012

Visit of Randal Keynes part two

Following on from the previous post, Randal has now sent me the speech he gave while receiving his honorary doctorate. Here it is:

Deputy Pro-Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, my fellow Graduates, Graduands and guests,

My thanks first to Professor Raine for his citation tracing all my relations and explaining my interests in conservation and science heritage.

Fellow Graduands, I’ve come here today to join you in this wonderful ceremony with a strong sense of the excitement of Birmingham Biosciences in 2012, your success in your courses, and what now lies ahead for you all in all the different fields in which you’ll be putting to use all the knowledge and understanding you’ve gained here through your studies.

For myself, thinking of links with the past as I do so often in my work on science heritage, the Lunar Society of Birmingham comes first to mind. Among its members were Joseph Priestley, Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin, scientists, doctors, manufacturers and inventors, each with different interests and skills, and all glad to talk freely together about their many interests. There must now be many echoings of those discussions in the collaborations that take place between the many teams in the School of Biosciences as they work today across its wide range of interests. I guess the School is working so well now just as the Lunar Society did before partly because these open exchanges are good ways to do innovative, productive science.

But why should young scientists like you today bother with science in history? Why do I and others go on about Darwin and the other historical figures?

I can suggest many answers. I’ll give you one of them quickly now because for me it’s one of the strongest, it starts here in Birmingham, and numbers of you may perhaps recognize the point one day in some scientific investigation you carry out or hear about.

So, there’s one meaning of science - its conclusions, the body of latest knowledge. There’s another meaning – the process, how the explanations are developed, tested and agreed.

On the process, Joseph Priestley was living here in the 1770s and in his experiments on electricity and gases he always used equipment that was cheap and easy to obtain, and described his experiments clearly and simply so that anyone could repeat them or vary them as they wanted. He was hoping to find clear and simple explanations that anyone else could test so that they could carry on from there. And he felt that the more experiments could be done by more people, the better the conclusions would be. Also, the best explanations would often be the simplest ones because with simplicity often came greater explanatory power. The value and power of his classic experiments on both electricity and gases were linked with these features of his method.

Now Charles Darwin, in his experimental work on plants and insects at his home in Kent some eighty years later, followed Priestley’s method exactly in all these respects, including simplicity for explanatory power.

When we look at the two men’s achievements together now, we can see a valuable approach that was used with great effect in two outstanding contributions to science. Yes of course, science has come a long way since then, but I’d suggest that key elements of that approach may still have great value in many areas of science today.

Deputy Pro-Chancellor, I’m deeply grateful for the honour you have conferred on me today, and for the special link it gives me now with Birmingham and its heritage of science.