The Royal Society's charter

Leading British scientists met at an "invisible college" in the 1660s to promote and explore scientific ideas. King Charles II approved of the venture, and on July 15th, 1662, he signed a royal charter that brought the Royal Society of London in existence. It still exists, and has enjoyed the support of every subsequent monarch. Charles II used to attend and enjoy its meetings, making intelligent contributions to the papers and experiments presented there.

It is the world's oldest scientific institution, and exists to promote science, to support it, to recognize excellence in the field, and to offer scientific advice bearing on policy matters. It still does all of these things. Historically the Society has been associated with great scientific achievements. It published Newton's "Principia Mathematica," Benjamin Franklin's experiments with electricity and lightning, published the first report in English on inoculation, backed Charles Babbage's differential engine, and published Chadwick's detection of the neutron.

The Society's motto, Nullius in verba, means "Take nobody's word for it." It expresses a determination to establish facts via observation and experiment rather than by taking them on authority.

The Royal Society provides a good example of how important patronage and status can spur scientists on to discovery and success, and the same principle works in other fields. It does not always take floods of public money, disbursed through grant-giving committees, to oil the wheels of scientific advance. Academic scientists like to receive grants, and many spend a great deal of time bidding for them. But some critics have pointed out that grants tend to go to proposals within the mainstream of current received opinion, rather than to the off-the-wall initiatives that might upset settled thinking. Private money from businesses and philanthropists tends to be more adventurous.

Today's science might well translate into tomorrow's business, so in 2008, the Society opened the Royal Society Enterprise Fund, with which to back new scientific companies, and to fund itself in future from the returns on its early investments. The Society's awards, prize lectures and medals all come with cash to finance future research.

There is a charming story told to illustrate the Society's emphasis on hard science as opposed to popular myth and superstition. It is reported that King Charles II once asked the members why it was that if he had two identical pails of water and placed a four-pound fish into one of them, it would not weigh more than the other. The scientists cane up with a variety of convoluted explanations until one finally said, "My Lord, I deny the fact." The King laughed and admitted it was a joke, but its lesson was to base theories on established facts.

It's an effective antidote today to conspiracy theories, in that the 'facts' behind them are usually false. Very often we are presented with alleged facts, whether about Bermuda triangles, moon landings, UFOs or bending spoons, that appear to leave no explanations other than supernatural or conspiratorial ones. The best response is to echo the scientist who stood up King Charles II, and to deny the 'facts' that are presented as real.