In the last few weeks I have written about several English icons that are "the oldest in the world" of their kind - a peal of bells in Suffolk, the Lord Mayor's Procession, the Ashmolean Museum. Today I am writing about another such, the Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, always known as The Royal Society, which is the oldest scientific institution in the world, and which in 2009/2010 is celebrating the 350th anniversary of its founding.
The Royal Society, the oldest and greatest of our learned societies, was founded by Charles II in 1660, and the reigning monarch has always been its Patron ever since. To be elected a Fellow is a great honour, since the main criterion for election is "scientific excellence", though since 2000 there has been a category for Honorary Fellows, and previous Prime Ministers have also had the honour of election - recently Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher. It is currently based in Carlton House Terrace in London.
The Society awards medals, prizes and lectureships, it funds scientific research and publishes scientific books. It funds young scientists early in their careers and encourages foreign collaboration. It provides science policy advice to the Government and generally promotes public interest in and understanding of science.
To mark its 350th anniversary, the Royal Society has made available online some of its published papers. The site is called 'Trailblazing', and the current president of the Society, Lord Rees, says: "The scientific papers on Trailblazing represent a ceaseless quest by scientists over the centuries, many of them Fellows of the Royal Society, to test and build on our knowledge of humankind and the universe".