From very early times farmers have known that they could increase the productiveness of the soil by adding certain substances to it. Chief of these in the old days were farmyard manure, lime in one form or another, and marl: these have been used for over 2,000 years; but the list gradually extended and in course of time it covered a wide range including blood, bones, rapeseed residues, shredded woollen rags, horn shavings, soot and salt, of all of which with a little search in 16th, 17th and 18th century writers one can find interesting and sometimes spicily picturesque accounts. etc. etc.
One thing is certain: knowledge of the soil and of plant nutrition grows rapidly and fertiliser problems become increasingly complex. The 19th century in which the subject was born was a time of great generalisations, majestic in their boldness and beautiful in their simplicity. But the 20th century has been a time of shattering and of disillusionment. None of the old, simple generalisations is left: things which looked quite easy have become more and more complicated with each year’s scientific advancement. And unfortunately the advance is not always as much as it claims to be: no scientific publication, however good, is entirely true; further work always shows errors or omissions somewhere. A modern expert has to thread his way through an avalanche of papers published in almost every language that has an alphabet, to try to pick out the grains of truth from the mass of irrelevances. It is a hopeless task for an individual working alone.
But this Society, to-day inaugurated, will give experts regular opportunities to meet and discuss problems: in frank and unbiased discussion truth will be recognised, omissions pointed out and errors rectified. The final test is always the experiment: but the value of the experiment depends partly on its design, which should be fully discussed, and partly on its execution, which is a more personal and more delicate matter. The great subject of discussion, however, is always the interpretation of the results: What do they mean? Here the Society can do invaluable work by fostering the fullest discussion, the freest exchange of opinion in the hope of arriving at the truth. Take as your guide the dictum of Plato, still one of the sagest of counsellors to men of science:
"Whither the wind of argument bloweth, thither must we go."
I wish the new Society every success in its endeavours.
SIR E. JOHN RUSSELL, FRS.