This month marks the 350th anniversary of arguably the first and longest-running scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions: Giving Some Accompt of the Present Under­takings, Studies, and Labours of the Ingenious in Many Considerable Parts of the World.

The first volume appeared on 6 March 1665, as a personal project of Henry Oldenburg, the first Secretary of the Royal Society in London, and was more of what many would regard as a magazine — with letters, book reviews and accounts of experiments from Europe’s growing cadre of natural philosophers. Almost a century was to elapse before the Royal Society officially took it over and Phil. Trans. began to take its modern shape.

Part magazine and part journal, Phil. Trans. was much more than either. It was the journal — a genuinely new innovation — in which people of inquiring minds started to throw off the shackles of ancient received opinion and ask their own questions about the world around them. It was the start of scientific enquiry as we know it today.

By 1887, the breadth of scholarship had grown so much that Phil. Trans. could not encompass it all in one place. It split into streams — A and B — to cover separately the mathematical and physical sciences, and the biological sciences.

The schism was a sign of things to come. Today there are more than 40,000 scientific journals, from the hieratic to the demotic, the parochial to the cosmogonic. The arrival of electronic media is precipitating the biggest change in publishing since the invention of printing: journals are moving online, and access to knowledge, once the privilege of the educated European gentleman, is now increasingly seen as the right of any and every person — and rightly so. It would be all too easy to say that the only way now is onwards and upwards, as the bright light of enlightenment evaporates an ever-shrinking puddle of unreason.

Three and a half centuries of progress might seem a lot, but it is a tiny mote in the piebald passage of human history. Hard fought for, broad support for scholarly pursuit of a better world cannot be taken for granted.

The Library of Alexandria in Egypt was targeted and destroyed at various times between 48 bc and ad 642. For those inclined to dismiss such wanton vandalism as ancient history, think of the continuing and concerted efforts by many in the United States and elsewhere to sweep away science ranging from climate-change research to evolution. Consider that, as you read this, Islamist extremists are bull­dozing the remains of ancient Assyria.

Even amid an almost uncountable profusion of journals, Phil. Trans. continues to thrive. All curious minds should wish it another 350 golden years. But the forces of irrationality are gaining in strength — one cannot afford to be complacent.