At the end of the summer I had the good fortune to come across a very readable account of the life of James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), one of the most influential scientists to have come out of Scotland. Amongst Maxwell’s scientific achievements were his mathematical contributions to the kinetic theory of gases, his proposal that light was a form of electro-magnetic radiation and, motivated by his interest in the perception of colour, the taking of the first permanent colour photograph – appropriately of a piece of tartan ribbon. Einstein described Maxwell’s work as the “most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton”.
My interest in Maxwell is in part because at different times we both worked in Marischall College, a large and imposing granite edifice in the centre of Aberdeen. I, however, left the University of Aberdeen of my own accord to take up a position in the USA, while Maxwell was actually made redundant from his professorship when Marischall and King’s Colleges combined to form the University of Aberdeen. Mind you, he was made an FRS a year later and went on to hold chairs at King’s College, London and at Cambridge University, where he set up the Cavendish Laboratory.
For most of his adult life Maxwell combined running the family estate in Kirkcudbrightshire in the south west of Scotland with his academic responsibilities. Indeed, it is suggested that he found teaching students in London such a chore that he resigned and went back to his estate to carry on his research. Maxwell firmly believed that much of his scientific thinking was performed by his subconscious and that his outdoor activities as a laird facilitated the development of his scientific theories. This reminded me of a withering comment the eminent economist Sir Austin Robinson once made to me on hearing that I was too busy in my laboratory to play hockey in a midweek afternoon match – ‘You young chaps today work much harder than we did in my day… but I think you achieve much less.’
Over the last month I have received a number of emails from David Colqhoun (UCL) on the subject of the new regulations issued by the Medicine and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) that allow homeo-pathic products to be marketed alongside conventional medicines while exempting them from providing scientific evidence of efficacy. David was concerned that the BPS had not submitted a response to the initial MHRA consultation and wanted us to rectify the situation by supporting the Sense About Science statement on the importance of evidence-based medicine and how it is lacking in relation to homeopathic remedies.
As a result of David’s urging, the BPS has not only signed up to the Sense About Science statement but has e-mailed all members urging them to sign up as individuals to the statement (see http://www.senseaboutscience.org.uk) and have put on our own website the view of our Society on homeopathic remedies.
I highlight this to provide an example of how, as individuals, all members should take an interest in what the Society is doing on their behalf. Where appropriate, BPS members should feel that they can put forward suggestions on what the Society should be doing or could be doing better. It should not only be an old codger with an FRS who bullies the President and the Society into action! After all, the BPS is ‘your society’.
You can also provide much needed financial support for Sense about Science. If you intend to purchase anything on line from Amazon then first click on the SaS website and use the connection in the bottom right to log into Amazon. Each time you make a purchase via this link Sense About Science receives a small donation.
The culmination of our 75th Anniversary celebrations will be the Winter Meeting in Oxford. There can be few members who are unaware of the significance of holding the meeting in Oxford, where the Society was founded all those years ago.
This Winter Meeting will also be the last organised by our tireless Vice President (Meetings), Steve Hill. Steve’s goal when he took over responsibility for our meetings was to broaden and enhance the quality of the scientific programme. He has certainly achieved that with the programme for the Oxford Meeting. Now he is off for a well-earned rest, if you can call serving on an MRC board a rest.
Thanks, Steve - you’ve done a marvellous job.
I look forward to seeing as many of you as possible in Oxford.
 The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell by Basil Mahon. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, UK, 2003.