Maybe a lot of you will hold this against me, but I am not much of a local-patriot. As I child, I was practically in love with ancient Greece, myths, stories, epics and mostly through drawings by a British neoclassicist John Flaxman (York, 1755- London, 1826) gathered in a collection of retold ancient Greek epics and myths prepared by Gustav Schwab (Stuttgart, 1792 – Stuttgart, 1850), German writer and publisher. I fell in love with literature and fine arts through Flaxman's drawings and Schwab's Sagen des klassischen Altertums, however, almost at the same time I discovered The Beatles (through my mother), David Bowie (through my mother and the movie Labyrinth) and Queen (through MTV). The Rolling Stones and I have met some time later.

 
 
John Flaxman, “Penelope Surprised by the Suitors”, 1805.
 
 

Once you discover the British rock scene, you almost instantly find yourself in a historical and cultural whirlwind of punk, post-punk, alternative rock, new-wave and pop. So I've started listening (and still do) Led Zeppelin, Sex Pistols, Clash, The Sisters of Mercy (under the influence of some of my older friends), The Smiths, New Order, Depeche Mode, The Cure, Yazoo, Duran Duran, George Michael, Oasis, Pulp… I shouldn't even go further.


Of course, this obsession of mine with the British music scene lead to some other things. My mother is, for example, obsessed with historical fiction and movies portraying the Tudor era, especially the Elizabethan period, and she's not less keen on the House of Windsor. Her favorite movies are all those on Elizabeth I and King's Speech.

No, I haven't forgotten this is a blog about science.

My fascination with everything British went a bit further. When you study Biology, you can't miss the fact that Francis Crick is British. It is well known, in all stories about DNA, that he along with James Watson, an American, solved the problem of DNA structure, based on the photos taken by Rosalind Franklin. There is a lot of controversy regarding this case, because Watson and Crick saw these photos (taken by the method of X-ray crystallography) without Rosalind knowing, who died of ovary cancer in 1958 – four years before Crick, Watson and Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA structure.

 
Crick and Watson with their model of DNA
 

It is impossible to quantitatively assess the value of this discovery. The discovery of DNA structure has opened the path to a practically vast series of other discoveries and patents. And again, British scientists had a great role in discovering new worlds and accumulating global knowledge – everything that this civilization knows about itself and the world it inhabits.

Sir Alec Jeffreys discovered and perfected the method of “DNA fingerprinting” – DNA “fingerprints” differ for every person, and with that paved the way towards a highly sophisticated forensics (and the CSI series).

 
Alec Jeffreys, father of modern forensics
 
 
A team of scientists from Roslin University in Scotland led by Ian Wilmut managed to clone the infamous sheep Dolly, named after Dolly Parton.
 
Dolly and her daughter, Bonnie
 
 
Sir Robert Edwards, an English physiologist, made a lot of married couples happy. He was the pioneer at in vitro fertilization – the first “test tube baby” was born in 1978, and in 2010 Edwards was awarded with a Nobel Prize for the “development of in vitro fertilization”.
These are only a few contributions to the Biology field from British scientists and teams. And where is Tim Berners-Lee who is, together with his compatriot Donald Watts Davies, well responsible for the development of the World Wide Web; Lyn Evans in CERN; Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing?The history of science records hundreds of names from the British Isles. Let's remember a few more mega popular names of science and technology, from England, Scotland and Wales: Isaac Newton, Ada Lovelace (the daughter of Lord Byron and one of the first programmers – invented the forerunner to modern computers), Edward Jenner (we need to thank him for the existence of vaccines), Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, coryphaei of the industrial revolution James Watt and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, then Alexander Fleming, Alexander Graham Bell…

Ada Lovelace
 
 
As I now fear that this article may become just a list of names, let me draw your attention to two things that have originated from the British soil, and which to this day have an enormous impact on the world of science, technology and education.

All of the aforementioned scientists (along those I haven't mentioned) based their work on something we call the scientific method. Scientific method has its own deep historical roots in thirteen century thought, so long before Protestantism and Henry VIII, the Union of England and Scotland Act, before Great Britain was formed… Before all those political and geographical terms that confuse uninformed non-Brits.

Birth of the “Scientific Method”

Roger Bacon (1214 -1294) was born in Ilchester, Somerset – a year before Magna Carta was signed (it was signed in 1215, and in 2015- its’ 800 years anniversary was marked). Even though his thought did come too early to be understood, it represents a start of a grandiose turnaround in the general perception of nature. Roger Bacon, a member of the Little Brothers order, Franciscan monks, was  throughout his life known as “Doctor Mirabilis” gaining the reputation of someone who handles forbidden knowledge – he was practically a “model” for Faustus. All things that were considered to be “forbidden knowledge” in the late Middle ages are in fact the base of empiricism and inductivism – the base for what we call the scientific method.

I intentionally wrote “Roger”, and not only surname “Bacon” because the history of science has a special place for another Bacon – Francis Bacon (1561-1626). This born Londoner, Shakespeare's contemporary, servant of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I, continued what Roger Bacon started: Francis thought that science can help a man to tame the nature (which was, so we don't forget, at that time a very problematic segment of life). This perception of his was a reflection of humanism, even it may sound a bit naive to us now. However, Francis should be remembered for creating what we today call the methodology of scientific research, popularization of the inductive method and empiricism – which have taken their final form in his thought, ceasing to be mere contours they were in Roger Bacon's thought.

 
Fransis Bacon, 1618
 
 

“Christmas Lecture”

 “Christmas Lecture” is a series of traditional thematic lectures during Christmas organized by the Royal Institution (along Royal Society, one of the oldest scientific institutions in Britain – Royal Institute was formed in 1799, and Royal Society in 1660) with the aim of popularization of science, technology and progress.

Michael Faraday (whom we owe the find of the connection between electric and magnetic forces, as well as inventions of generators, transformers and motors) started the tradition of Christmas lectures in 1825, at the time being the member of the Royal Institute, to show the public how science can contribute to the world but also to fight irrational beliefs, illusionists, pseudo-scientists by demystifying their tricks. A lot of notable scientists after Faraday have held Christmas lectures, including Julian Huxley, Carl Sagan, David Attenborough…

 
Michael Faraday, 1867
 
 
 
A crucial scientific factor has been established in the British soil – the communication of science and scientists with the public, promotion and popularization of knowledge and rational thinking.
 

This duty today, serving the common good as excellent Science Communicators , is carried by Neil deGrass Tyson, Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins, Sean Carroll  and many others.


Brian Cox, British scientist and BBC's TV presenter
 
 
 
It is obvious that we shouldn't observe Britain just as a country of football, music, great literature, nor like an ex colonial power. It is intolerable to lose sight of the fact that its’ soil was the arena for some of the biggest battles and victories of science and that Britain is the place where principles of scientific work and research were established.
 
 
  Author:

Jelena Kalinić, MA in comparative literature and graduate biologist, science journalist and science communicator, has a WHO infodemic manager certificate and Health metrics Study design & Evidence based medicine training. Winner of the 2020 EurekaAlert (AAAS) Fellowship for Science Journalists. Short-runner, second place in the selection for European Science journalist of the year for 2022.

 

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