They're some jolly good fellows

Metals and the Royal Society

June 23, 2000

It is an established rule of the Royal Society... never to give their opinion, as a Body, upon any subject, either of Nature or Art, that comes before them." Thus ran an advertisement in each issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society up to 1950. Thankfully Metals and the Royal Society does not follow the above rule, but is full of the authors' stimulating opinions on a huge range of topics, from the beginning of metallurgy through alloy development to some of the causes of Britain's industrial decline.

Metals and the Royal Society is a magnificent and monumental book. It is in two linked parts. The first contains 19 beautifully written chapters on metals, broadly defined. The following eight appendices give the biographies of more than 500 fellows and foreign members of the Royal Society, out of about 8,000 elected since the society was founded in 1660. The 500 fellows selected are those who have been involved with metals and other materials and range widely; they include Newton and Faraday, for example.

The biographies, which cover both living and dead fellows, are extremely useful and the book is well worth buying for these alone. However, it is the perceptive and sometimes trenchant comments in the first part of the book that mark it out as exceptional and a delight to read. Let me give some typical instances illustrating the very wide range of this book and the carefully crafted sentences. In a section headed "Some causes of Britain's industrial decline" the authors write: "There are as many explanations of Britain's disastrous industrial performances during the past century and a half as there are commentators"; "Even today there is a belief in many circles that a knowledge of the humanities is of first importance for developing leadership qualities compared to broadening young people with a technological education"; "From the point of view of industrial health Britain suffered from an excess of conservatism before the (second world) war and an excess of socialism afterwards." Readers may agree or disagree with such comments, but they will certainly be stimulated by them. The book is also a source of key quotations from other books. For example, on Britain's recent investment in research and development, Will Hutton's The State We're In is quoted: "While the world's top 200 companies spend three times more on research and development than on dividends, Britain's top innovators' research spend was a miserable two-thirds of what they hand out in dividends." In research and development, as in many other areas of life, you usually get what you pay for and the book correctly identifies the low priority the UK gives to science and technology.

The breadth of the book can also be illustrated from a section on nuclear power headed "Choice of reactor system - the big mistake". The authors write: "Almost without exception the leaders of the nuclear industry have been scientists of world class, and yet the annals of decision-making with respect to civil nuclear power is a catalogue of missed opportunities and major errors of judgement. Perhaps the biggest mistake can be traced to the decision in 1965 to base this country's nuclear future on the AGR [Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor], which was a design unique to this country and for which the only operating experience related to that of a completely inappropriate so-called prototype - the Windscale AGR." The authors write from personal experience and go on to describe in detail just why the AGR choice was such a big mistake. What does not clearly emerge from this book is the role of the Royal Society in promoting the development of metals and materials. Has it had any role? Did it enable the 500 fellows whose biographies are presented here to perform better science? Did the Royal Society arrest or influence by one jot or tittle Britain's industrial decline that is lamented in this book? I suspect the answer to all these questions is no.

The scholarly quality of the book emerges in many places. For example, in a section titled "Alchemy's influence in science", we read: "Its links with metallurgy are very strong, indeed its name derives from the Arabic alkimia where al is the definite article and kimia is believed to come from the Greek chyma , meaning to fuse or cast a metal. The first alchemists were probably metallurgists. The miners and the metallurgists, like the agriculturists, were seen to accelerate the normal maturation of the fruits of the earth, in a magico-religious relationship with nature."

Many illustrations punctuate the pages, both portraits of famous scientists and rare photographs and drawings of scientific objects, for example the first turbine-driven ship, a photomicrograph of meteoric iron, Hooke's microscope image of the edge of a razor, etc. Here is a treasure trove of useful illustrations for public lectures.

This is a remarkably comprehensive and yet very readable book, which is beautifully printed and produced. It should be in the libraries of a wide range of universities and industries. Equally important, it should be in personal libraries, both to read and to dip into for reference material. I know that I will use my copy a lot. It is a pleasure to have read and now to recommend this outstanding book.

Colin Humphreys is professor of materials science, University of Cambridge.

Metals and the Royal Society

Author - D.R.F. West and J.E. Harris
ISBN - 1 86125 028 2
Publisher - IOM Communications
Price - £40.00
Pages - 787

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