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It began as just another dinner at my Residence. But genial discussion about science, education and the media was interrupted by a sudden explosion of passion when Professor Harry Kroto exposed the unfolding drama of a British national treasure under threat.
The Nobel Prize winning chemist was in Hanoi to lecture at Vietnam National University as part of the International Peace Foundation’s “Bridges” event.
The treasure under threat is the birthplace of harnessed electricity. The force behind almost all modern technology, from electric light (a British invention) to the world wide web (also invented by a Briton) was first employed in an induction coil by Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution in London.
Professor Kroto was outraged when it apparently emerged by chance that the Royal Institution is now in debt and considering selling the site where it has stood since it was founded in 1799.
“It would be like selling Goethe’s house” he said, turning to the German Ambassador to his right. “And yet money is spent on paintings for the National Gallery, many of which aren’t even any good. Some of those Titians are rubbish.”
I asked my others guests around the table whether they knew of the Royal Institution. No-one did. How can this iconic site of so many world firsts be so unfamiliar? The spot where no less than ten chemical elements, including Sodium, Potassium and Chlorine were discovered!
As well as “inventing” electromagnetic induction, Faraday, who has been described as the greatest experimentalist in the history of science, also demonstrated the first simple electric motor and the first electric dynamo.
The then Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) was no scientist, and asked him what use might be made of electricity?
In a moment of uncommon foresight, Faraday replied: “One day sir, you may tax it”.
A debate has now flared up about the future of the Royal Institution’s home. What sad irony were its financial problems to lead to the loss of this piece of the world’s scientific heritage.