August 31, 2012 7:35 pm

The List: Science and spectacle

A selection of highlights from The British Science Festival’s illustrious 19th-century past

The annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, founded in 1831 and attended by “300 gentlemen”, quickly became the leading scientific event in Great Britain, the place where important advances were announced and great issues debated. The British Science Festival, as it is now called, takes place in Aberdeen from September 4 to 9. Below Clive Cookson selects his highlights from the event’s illustrious 19th-century past and looks forward to next week’s festival.

1. A ‘scientist’ writes

The word “scientist” is believed to have been first used at a British Association meeting in 1834. According to the English scientist William Whewell, writing in 1839, members had been complaining about the lack of a good term for those in the profession. “Some ingenious gentleman proposed that, by analogy with ‘artist’, they might form [the word] ‘scientist’.” A year later, in his book The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Whewell once again championed the term: “We might say, that as an Artist is a Musician, Painter, or Poet, a Scientist is a Mathematician, Physicist, or Naturalist.”

2. Darwin’s bulldog

Thomas Henry Huxley©Getty

Thomas Henry Huxley

The most famous British Association debate took place in 1860, when the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, argued against Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, published in On the Origin of Species the previous year. Ill health prevented Darwin from attending, but his follower Thomas Henry Huxley memorably put down Wilberforce, who asked whether he claimed descent from “a venerable ape” through his mother or father. Huxley replied that he would rather be descended from an ape than from a man who used his “great ability and splendid position ... to discredit and crush humble seekers after truth.”

3. Great Victorian discoveries

The advances first announced at British Association meetings throughout the 19th century are a roll-call of Victorian science and technology. They include the discovery of the first inert gas (argon), by physicists Sir John Rayleigh and Sir William Ramsay in 1894; the first public demonstration of wireless transmission, by Sir Oliver Lodge in 1894; and JJ Thomson’s discovery of the electron in 1899.

4. Growing limbs

Dark matter, microwave biomass recycling and the economic benefits of happiness were among the highlights of last year’s British Science Festival. This year features another quirky line-up, including “No Head, No Problem”, a talk in which medical biologist Ann Rajnicek will reveal her recipe for growing missing limbs.

Clive Cookson is the FT’s science editor

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