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Royal Mail Stamps celebrating the Royal Society's 350th birthday this year show Royal Society Fellows from top left to bottom right: Alfred Russel Wallace, pioneer of the evolutionary theory the survival of the fittest; Edward Jenner, an inventor of vaccination; Ernest Rutherford, founding father of nuclear physics; Charles Babbage, developer of programmable computers; Joseph Lister, developer of antiseptic surgery; Nicholas Shackleton, climate researcher; Benjamin Franklin, inventor of the lightning conductor; physicist, mathematician and astronomer Isaac Newton who established classical mechanics; Dorothy Hodgkin, who used X-ray crystallography to create synthetic penicillin and insulin; and Robert Boyle, the founder of modern chemistry. These are a few of the thousands of fellows who have researched and discussed - sometimes heatedly - evidence and theories. At first we wondered why Nicholas Shackleton had edged out the inventors of DNA on a stamp.

We suspected it was because some of his research had been linked to man-made global warming theories. Actually, some of his prolific research serves to debunk 'the man is guilty of climate change' school of thought.

A consuming passion

According to the Oxford DNB, after a lacklustre school career, Shackleton found one of his two consuming passions -

His first, seminal, achievement was to modify a mass spectrometer so that it could measure the mass ratio of the isotopes of oxygen (O-18/O-16) in minute samples of calcium carbonate. Samples as small as 0.4 milligrams (representing about five to ten shells of the pinhead-sized fossil foraminifera, common in marine sediments) could be measured to an accuracy of one part in 10,000.

Orbits of the Sun and Ice Ages

This led to the analysis of the 'down-core spectrum of ice-volume and temperature changes'. These changes were 'shown to match the spectrum of changes in the amount of solar radiation received by the earth (insolation) due to changes in its orbit around the sun'. The theory was first expressed by British janitor and scientist James Croll - his is a remarkable story - in the 1870s. The orbits were calculated by Milutin Milankovitch, a Serbian astronomer, in the 1930s. Their influence was established by Shackleton.

'The demonstration that the Milankovitch theory of orbital climate change was correct and could be recognized in isotopic (and later many other physical) properties of rocks meant that an age scale based on astronomical calculation could be applied to rocks in which this cyclicity could be recognized.'

These changes in orbit are key to climate change and may be far more likely to impact our Earth than carbon dioxide. Curiously they are hardly ever mentioned in the movement to name the guilty warm-mongers and then tax the daylights out of them.

Into the ocean

Shackleton continued to have 'numerous fruitful collaborations with other scientists', which is pretty much the definition of the Royal Society.

He was one of the principal originators of the field of palaeoceanography, the study of marine sediments and their enclosed fossils to deduce past ocean conditions. In this he also used the stable carbon isotope ratio (C-13/C-12) in marine fossils, which provides insight into the cycling of carbon through the oceanic and terrestrial ecosystem. In particular the shifting of carbon from land to ocean and CO2 between ocean and atmosphere, and its timing in relation to ice-volume and temperature changes, was his final seminal contribution.

Whether carbon dioxide increases precede or follow warming is the question. The evidence suggests that carbon dioxide follows warming. With warming, more plant growth creates more carbon dioxide.

'Between 1965 and 2007 Shackleton published over 300 papers and data reports, and edited six collections of papers, to which over 16,000 references had been made in the scientific literature by May 2009. This represents an enormous impact, rivalled by very few others in the earth sciences.'

Shackleton was also a brilliant clarinet player (his second great passion) and a collector of ancient and rare wind instruments. The ancient music movement to play and record on period instruments owes a great deal to him.

The first gathering of the 'Invisible College'

In a fair though not entirely modest description of its own history, the Royal Society wrote,

On November 30th 1660 a dozen men gathered to hear the young Christopher Wren give a lecture on astronomy. In the discussion that followed they decided to form a society for the study of the new and still controversial Experimental Philosophy. Two years later Charles II made it his Royal Society and in the 350 years since it was founded, its Fellows have given us gravity, evolution, the electron, the double helix, the internet and a large part of the modern world. In 2010 we celebrate 350 years of scientific brilliance and fearless doubt.


Bill Bryson has edited a history of the Society.

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