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”.
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.