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To hell in a handbasket

As the cathedral city of Guildford welcomes visitors to the annual British Science Association Festival this month, Nina Morgan discovers why the BA meeting in 1838 got one churchman very hot under his dog collar.

Geoscientist 19.9 September 2009

Guildford CathedralSince 1831 the annual meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS, now re-branded as the “British Science Association” but emphatically NOT the BSA), have drawn together large numbers of scientists and interested members of the public to discuss and debate the full range of scientific ideas of the day. The privilege of hosting a meeting was often highly contested among cities keen to benefit from both the intellectual and commercial stimulus that the meeting would bring (see Distant Thunder passim., Geoscientist 18.9, September 2008). But not everyone agreed that holding a BA meeting was a good thing.

Sir William Cockburn, Dean of York Minster, was so incensed at the prospect of holding the 1838 BA meeting in Newcastle that he published a scathing 'Remonstrance' directed at the Duke of Northumberland, then president of the BAAS. In this pamphlet Cockburn warmed up by expressing his regret at the Duke's intention “to preside at the next meeting of peripatetic philosophers at Newcastle” before turning up the heat to argue that: “These annual assemblies of Thespian Orators, while they confer no benefit upon science, have been, and are likely to be, injurious to religion”. Finally he burst into flames with the warning: “Let it be also especially remembered that there are among those who take a lead in such meetings, many persons ill-affected to Christianity, and who, like the Sadducees of old, to gain a little notoriety among their fellow-men, would give up all hope of hereafter”.

Thankfully, attitudes have now changed. This year's British Science Festival, based at the University of Surrey within sight of Guildford Cathedral, will be covering the usual broad range of science topics. But just to show that these issues never quite go away, it will be including a three and a half hour discussion entitled Science and Faith. For those possessed of a lively mind and a philosophical bent, it should prove a heavenly occasion.


Thanks to Jay Bosanquet, who is writing a PhD in the History of Science at Durham University, for alerting me to this story and for providing background information about William Cockburn as well as copies of the relevant pages of Cockburn's Remonstrance.

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* Nina Morgan is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford