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Climate change and nuclear energy


Two offers of presidency of The Royal Society
Aaron Klug Scientist
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When I became President, it seemed to me that very little was being acted on. This was ten years later. I should say that I was on Council for two years. I hadn't realised that I'd been put on Council because I was offered the Presidency in... to succeed George Porter in 1990. Now in 1990 I'd only been in the lab for a little while, so I turned it down. I didn't know this at the time, but when I said, 'No' I was only the second person to turn it down after [Michael] Faraday. Faraday turned it down because he said it would... I don't remember his words, but the modern word would be: would blow his mind. He wouldn't be safe afterwards, or words of that sort. I think there was a class element to it as well. But at the time I had, of course, had experience by 1990 of four years in the lab and experience of Whitehall, but I... and I had a Nobel Prize, so the... but I decided that I was just setting up the neuroscience and I thought that... I really believed that... that it was more important to be in a lab than it was important to be Head of the Royal Society. That's a kind of... people say, it's a kind of arrogance, you see, to turn down something like that, and I was told... that it was my duty to become President of the Royal Society, because of the need for British science and all that, by various people, and... Duties, other duties... Duty, yes. So George Porter who had engineered this, I hadn't realised this at the time, was most upset.

Anyway, they found Michael Atiyah to succeed, a mathematician, and that turned out to be quite a success because there hadn't been a mathematician President of the Royal Society for a hundred years. The last one was George Stokes, you know, the famous man of Stokes' theorems, Stokes' formulae and all that, that same George Stokes. And I thought that was the end of it, but after Atiyah retired, I was approached again, but by this time... I never thought I would do it, because by this time I was 68, I would be turning 69, and I said, 'I'm too old to do this.' They said, 'Oh no, not at all. Lord Todd, the chemist, he became President when he was 69, and anyway, you have a lot of people who can help you and so on.' I was still Head of the lab, but I had another year to go, because I retired as Head of the lab in 1986 so there was one year, so to speak, between the two, and they said, 'Well, you can have light duties there.' So I became President. I was told very sternly it was my duty. If you've been brought up in the British school, an English school, the word duty... duty's one of those rallying calls like duty, loyalty, endurance, patience, all those kind of virtues that you have... well, either of the Boy Scouts or the public schools, you can't deny the call of duty. I don't think the word is used much nowadays. It was my duty to do it. So I took it on, and I became President in November 30th 1994. The Royal Society year starts in November, because it's St Andrews Day, because of Charles II. And I retired on St Andrews Day 1995 as the President.

Born in Lithuania, Aaron Klug (1926-2018) was a British chemist and biophysicist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982 for developments in electron microscopy and his work on complexes of nucleic acids and proteins. He studied crystallography at the University of Cape Town before moving to England, completing his doctorate in 1953 at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1981, he was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University. His long and influential career led to a knighthood in 1988. He was also elected President of the Royal Society, and served there from 1995-2000.

Listeners: Ken Holmes John Finch

Kenneth Holmes was born in London in 1934 and attended schools in Chiswick. He obtained his BA at St Johns College, Cambridge. He obtained his PhD at Birkbeck College, London working on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus with Rosalind Franklin and Aaron Klug. After a post-doc at Childrens' Hospital, Boston, where he started to work on muscle structure, he joined to the newly opened Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge where he stayed for six years. He worked with Aaron Klug on virus structure and with Hugh Huxley on muscle. He then moved to Heidelberg to open the Department of Biophysics at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research where he remained as director until his retirement. During this time he completed the structure of tobacco mosaic virus and solved the structures of a number of protein molecules including the structure of the muscle protein actin and the actin filament. Recently he has worked on the molecular mechanism of muscle contraction. He also initiated the use of synchrotron radiation as a source for X-ray diffraction and founded the EMBL outstation at DESY Hamburg. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1981 and is a member of a number of scientific academies.

John Finch is a retired member of staff of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. He began research as a PhD student of Rosalind Franklin's at Birkbeck College, London in 1955 studying the structure of small viruses by x-ray diffraction. He came to Cambridge as part of Aaron Klug's team in 1962 and has continued with the structural study of viruses and other nucleoproteins such as chromatin, using both x-rays and electron microscopy.

Tags: The Royal Society, George Porter, Michael Atiyah, George Stokes

Duration: 3 minutes, 46 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008