by Brendan

Coat of Arms of the Royal Society

Last Friday, one of the RSES leading scientists, Professor Hugh O’Neill was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society, alongside a small group of scientists from around the world, including the 2011 Nobel Laureate in Physics, Professor Brian Schmidt, from the ANU’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics. This prompted me to do a little bit of research into the history of the Royal Society and some of the other learned societies in the scientific world.

Hugh O’Neill is an experimental petrologist, originally from the United Kingdom where he studied geology at Oxford and then received a PhD from Manchester University, looking at the phase transition from spinel to garnet in the mantle. He has spent a large portion of his career at RSES over two periods, as well as in Arizona and Germany, currently he is Professor and leader of the experimental petrology group.  He work has examined a variety of topics including, but not limited to the composition of the Earth, the formation of the Earth/Moon system and the relations between thermodynamics and redox in the earth’s mantle.

The Royal Society was founded in London in 1660 with a purpose of recognising, promoting and supporting excellence in science. Members of the Society are known as Fellows, which is a traditional term used in academia, particularly in the United Kingdom to denote senior members of an academic organisation. Some of the most famous scientists in history including Charles Darwin, Douglas Mawson and Albert Einstein were fellows whilst Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Joseph Banks, Lord Kelvin and Ernest Rutherford were President of the Society. Current fellows include Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Peter Doherty and even Sir David Attenborough. Fellows of the Royal Society are entitled to use the letters ‘FRS’ after their name to denote the honour.

As well as the Royal Society, many other national and/or discipline specific societies exist, in the earth sciences, these include the Geological Societies of London (1807), America (1888), Australia (1952), the Geochemical Society, American Geophysical Union and the European Geosciences Union. In some societies, such as the Royal Society, the only grade of membership is as a Fellow, and fellows are elected based upon their professional reputation by the fellowship, whilst in other societies, such as the Geological Society of Australia, there are numerous classes of membership with the title of Fellow reserved for senior members who are again nominated by their peers as a reward for their career achievements, whilst other membership grades include students, members and retirees. These societies have many aims, including the promotion of science and assisting their members however the two most visible roles are the publication of peer reviewed journals and the organisation of conferences.

Peer reviewed journals are definitely the common way we publish and distribute our work and range from weekly multidisciplinary journals such as Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science) through to less frequent discipline specific publications such as Geology (Geological Society of America) or the Australian Journal of Earth Sciences (Geological Society of Australia). Kelly wrote an interesting post about how we deal with all these journals and the constant influx of new articles.

Conferences are definitely the most enjoyable activity organised by these societies and again show significant variation in breadth and size. They offer great opportunities to meet with colleagues from around the world and hear them talk about their work, as well as giving students, like myself, a chance to present pour work and meet the people that we previously only knew as a name on a journal article. They also provide a great way to socialise with other people from within the field (and visit many parts of the world). In June this year, I will be attending the Geochemical Society’s Goldschmidt Conference in Montréal, Canada, alongside approximately 3000 geochemists with presentations ranging from cosmochemistry, mantle petrology, geomicrobiology, ocean chemistry and even the evolution of life. I’ll be sure to post about this conference in the future.

In short, learned societies have allowed the scientific world to develop from individuals and small groups spread throughout the world into a diverse, interconnected community which shares results and communicates with each other.