President of the Royal Society

Addendum to Letter to the Editor,

Electronics World,

February 2004,

p46 by Ivor Catt


Why should Huxley have to be a master of his subject?

Andrew Huxley, past President of the Royal Society

Who will rule the Royal Society?

Daily Telegraph, 11aug04.

The ‘election’ of President of the ancient scientific institution compares with the selection of a new pope in its Byzantine procedures – and the influence of the successful candidate. Roger Highfield reports.

A battle for the most prestigious post in the scientific establishment is about to begin. Like the selection of a monarch, a prime minister or a pope, the election of the next president of the Royal Society will be marked by intrigue, politics and backstabbing.

When a conclave of cardinals elects a pope, the event is marked by a puff of white smoke. The news that a successor has been found to Lord May, the present incumbent, will be less dramatic but visible to anyone on the planet with internet access, being marked by a terse announcement on the website of the world’s oldest scientific academy.

Interest will be intense. Since the first president – Viscount Brouncker – was elected in 1662 the post has been occupied by many historic figures, such as Christopher Wren (1680-1682), Samuel Pepys (1684-86), Isaac Newton (1703-1727), Humphrey Davy (1820-1827) and Ernest Rutherford (1925-1930). But the post is more than ceremonial, having serious political clout.

From the society’s swanky offices near Trafalgar Square, the president is in effect the head of Britain’s scientific community. He (highly likely, given that the society is dominated by Y chromosomes) will be consulted about candidates for Nobel prizes or other prestigious scientific awards. Past presidents have often been appointed to the Order of Merit and handed peerages.

When he chairs meetings of the council, everybody stands as the ceremonial silver mace (a richly gilt gift of Charles II) is processed in and laid down in front of the president.

His main ceremonial job will be to admit new fellows to this most elite club with a shake of the hand and the declaration “I do by the authority, and in the name of the Royal Society of London for improved natural knowledge, admit you a Fellow thereof.”

Though unpaid, the job has many perks: an apartment that overlooks St James’s Park; the occasional invitation to have eggs and bacon with the Chancellor of the Exchequer; and endless opportunities to sit through formal dinners, awards and ceremonies.


The ballot would meet with the approval of Saddam Hussein. The fellows are presented with a single name and a single box to tick. It is the presidential candidate or no one.


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