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Beauty & Truth

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Robert McCredie May, Lord May of Oxford, OM AC Kt FRS , holds a Professorship jointly at Oxford University and Imperial College, London and is a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford. He was President of The Royal Society (2000-2005), and before that Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government and Head of the UK Office of Science and Technology (1995-2000). His career includes a Personal Chair in Physics at Sydney University aged 33, Class of 1877 Professor of Zoology at Princeton, and in 1988 a move to Britain as Royal Society Research Professor. Particular interests include how dynamical systems are structured and respond to change, particularly with respect to infectious diseases and biodiversity. Honours include: the Royal Swedish Academy’s Crafoord Prize, the Swiss-Italian Balzan Prize, the Japanese Blue Planet Prize, and the Royal Society’s Copley Medal, its oldest (1731) and most prestigious award.


This lecture will begin by distinguishing three different kinds of “truths”: First, the apodictic truths of mathematics; second, the experimentally-tested but always contingent truths of the sciences; and the unshakable truths of fixed belief systems. I will then attempt to convey some of the pure beauty which mathematical truths can have, and discuss ways in which such beauty has – and has not – been a useful guide to scientific understanding of the nature of the world around us. I will also offer some speculations on the evolutionary origins of “faith-based truths”.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Lecture Series series.

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