Curiosity-led scienceNews, Student news, Alumni news
From the invention of modern science in the 1600s where extraordinary people like Wadham’s Warden Wilkins experimented with new ideas and techniques, to today’s schoolchildren who aspire to become scientists to help answer some of the biggest questions facing humanity, curiosity is a uniting and guiding characteristic.
Curiosity’s vital role in the invention and development of science was celebrated in a science-focused day at Wadham College and the Sheldonian Theatre on Friday 17 October.
“Curiosity seems to have been the watchword,” said broadcaster Melvyn Bragg (1958, History) describing the experimental science which took place in the 1660s in Wadham’s gardens.
In front of the 850 strong audience filling the Sheldonian, panellists Sir Paul Nurse, Marcus du Sautoy and Jo Dunkley described their own curiosity which led to and fuels their passion for science.
“We have a lot to thank John Wilkins for…he was a founding member of the Royal Society London”, said Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society. Curiosity, respect for evidence and humour were all evident in Wilkins’s character – characteristics necessary for science, he continued. “Wilkins was unusually tolerant of a range of opinions and encouraged scientists to work together”, said Nurse, adding: “Curiosity is the main impetus of research for many scientists who want to know and need to understand”. Science draws its strength from consensual study and effective peer review and scientific issues should be settled by the strength of argument, based on evidence, not by hierarchy. Nurse also commented that ‘healthy scepticism’ was a key characteristic of the scientific community and an eye should be kept on the usefulness of science for the benefit of humankind. “Top down direction on what science should be done is ineffective,” he said.
Marcus du Sautoy (1983, Mathematics) commented that only by understanding science can we be empowered, and he described the importance of communicating science beyond the realms of academic institutions: “I try to find new and innovative ways of communicating science”, he said, adding “The Royal Society embodies the ethos of Wilkins, making discoveries and engaging others in their discovery.” As an undergraduate student at Wadham, du Sautoy told how he felt it was important to explain why he was studying mathematics to friends studying other subjects: “Most people get what geneticists are but I wanted people to know why I thought mathematics was important.”
“I have one of the best jobs in the world ...I’m a scientist…One of the brilliant things about being a scientist is that the unexpected happens,” astrophysicist Jo Dunkley told the audience. Describing how modern science enables her to look 14 billion years back in space to see the glow from the big bang at the beginning of time she outlined the excitement of working with an international team of scientists. “If you want to answer the big questions you will not be able to do it by yourself. You will build on the knowledge of previous generations of experts, and pass on your knowledge to the scientists who come after you,” she said.
Among the audience in the Sheldonian were some 300 secondary school pupils, 120 of whom spent a science aspiration day at Wadham College and in the science departments of the university.
Enthused by a day of lectures, seminars and scientific experimentation they posed challenging questions to the panel. “What is the current generation of scientists going to contribute to the world of science; the role of artificial intelligence in the future of science; and the place of politicians in guiding scientific experimentation were all considered by the panel.
The Aspiration Day and Invention of Modern Science event were held to mark the anniversary of 400 years since the birth of experimental scientist John Wilkins who was Warden of Wadham College in the 1650s. His experimental club, which included Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, met at Wadham College and its members went on to form the nucleus of the Royal Society. The Sheldonian event was introduced by the Warden of Wadham College, Ken Macdonald QC and the Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Professor Andrew Hamilton, brought the event to a close. Distinguished guests enjoyed a drinks reception at the Divinity School and dinner in Wadham College Hall, where John Wilkins himself looked down on the proceedings from his portrait on the wall.
Watch videos of the speaker event. Photos by John Cairns and Julia Banfield.