Does Science Have a Soul? The Potential Sale of a Sacred Site of Science

This month we learned that 21 Albemarle Street in Mayfair, London, the home of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, is being considered for sale to a developer. This has sparked a row. Why should rational scientist be so nostalgic and sentimental about a building?
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Science communication is currently enjoying a degree of popularity both in traditional publishing and in the rise of interest in online courses, as exemplified by the success of TED talks. Science communication can trace its origin to a magnificent neoclassical building at 21 Albemarle Street in Mayfair, London, that is the home of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. This month we learned that the building is being considered for sale to a developer in order to free the Royal Institution of its debt and the crippling burden of maintaining an old building. This has sparked a row. Why should rational scientist be so nostalgic and sentimental about a building?

The Royal Institution, or RI, began at the end of the 18th century and has been home to some of the most important of Britain's many contributions to science and engineering: the discovery of 10 chemical elements, the first practical demonstrations of electricity, 14 Nobel prizes and countless inventions. In terms of science communication, the RI really rose to prominence under the vision of Michael Faraday, arguably one of the greatest scientists ever. Among his many discoveries, his work on electricity and magnetism is responsible for the invention of motors that power the modern world. What makes Faraday so important is that in addition to his scientific discoveries, he recognized that scientists had an obligation to communicate science and inspire the masses. He championed an annual Christmas lecture, intended for a general audience, that began in 1825 and has been delivered by some of the giants of science. Carl Sagan gave them in 1977. Apart from one year due to renovation work, these have always been held in the step Faraday lecture theater, which has become the iconic home of British science.

Since 1966 the Christmas lectures have been broadcast on national television to become a festive tradition. Most of us can remember sitting down to watch the lectures as children, with their emphasis on demonstrations to generate wonder and awe. If Albemarle Street goes, then so does Faraday's Lecture Hall, and so does the tradition of the Christmas lectures, and ultimately it will be the death of the RI.

Today, as a former Christmas lecturer who gave the series "Meet Your Brain" in 2011, I, along with 21 other lecturers, including such heavyweights as Sir David Attenborough, Sir Harry Kroto, Colin Blakemore and Richard Dawkins, signed an open letter to The Times, seeking to raise the issue of the sale as a nation concern. This has led to some divergent views on the role of science, sentimentality and ultimately the future of the RI. Why are scientists being so emotional? Even an editorial in Nature seems dumbfounded by the response and misses the point.

As far as I am concerned, Faraday's Lecture Hall in 21 Albemarle Street is a sacred site, a place that transcends a financial value, a cultural heritage that belongs to the world as much as Stonehenge. Every society needs sacred values, because without them, it means that everything has a price, and that ultimately anyone can be bought. All too often scientists are criticized as being soulless, but the truth is that scientists are some of the most passionate people around. We are driven by curiosity and the joy of discovery. What else could motivate individuals to enter an uncertain career that does not necessarily pay well and is often the butt of jokes?

Scientists need to lose the image that we do not care and show society that we can be just as irrational as everyone else when it comes to places that we value. Maybe that way, we will be understood to be just like everyone else.

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