The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

The Royal Institution is a scientific research society, founded a bit over 200 years ago by Henry Cavendish and a cast of thousands. Since 1825 they’ve run a series of lectures on popular science, aimed at children, and done around Christmas time. The first Christmas Lecture was done by Michael Faraday, who would be in anyone’s fantasy football All Time Scientists World XI. Since then they’ve done the Christmas Lecture every year: the list of scientists who’ve given the lectures contains stars such as Dawkins, Marcus du Sautoy, Dewar, David Attenborough, and Carl Sagan. It’s explicitly aimed at children: the Ri say that the lectures are designed to “introduce a young audience to a subject through spectacular demonstrations”.

This year, thanks to a very kind assist from Will Cooke,1 I got to take my daughter there.

For some people, walking out onto the centre circle at Wembley or Old Trafford would be the culmination of a lifetime of wishes.2 Me… I got to stand inside the Royal Institution. The Royal Institution! I mean, Michael Faraday lectured there!

Michael Faraday's 1856 Christmas lecture

The building itself is (obviously) old, and has that marble-floor wooden-counters feeling that you get from London buildings of that age. More importantly, it’s right slap bang in the middle of Mayfair, which is a pretty flash location and no mistake. This is what happens when you set up a society in the eighteenth century: you get a building in the most expensive bit of an already pretty expensive city and don’t have to pay eye-wateringly high rent on it. Mayfair is the most expensive square on the London Monopoly board (Americans: it’s where Boardwalk is on the American board), but what that does mean is that the Ri’s building is surrounded by super-high-end clothes and jewellery shops. Niamh was pretty impressed that we could walk down one street3 and see the Ritz, Ralph Lauren, Chanel, Cartier, Tiffany, Prada, and everything else she’s not getting. So we peered in a couple of windows4 and had lunch in the Cafe de Pierre on Piccadilly5 and then headed to the Ri.

Cartier. No diamonds for you, daughter mine

This lecture was, it seems, typically English in that it didn’t seem all that smoothly organised — people were wandering about all over the place, there was a queue, it didn’t seem very clear who to talk to or where to go — and yet it all worked out fine, which I believe is evidence that it actually is well organised without being terribly regimental. The Ri is, being an old building, something of a maze, and it’s full of little interesting side rooms and display cases containing Humphrey Davy’s original miners’ safety lamp and that sort of thing. Eventually you’re ushered into the lecture room, which is of an interesting and quite sensible design: instead of being a stage and a gently sloping set of seats like a cinema, it’s semicircular and pretty narrow, with each row of seats being quite a lot higher up than the row below. This means that if you’re on the very back top row, like I was, you’re a fair distance up in the air but not actually that far from the floor where the lecturer is speaking.6

The Ri lecture theatre

The MC (or warmup act, depending on how you think of it) was Matt “@standupmaths” Parker, one of the increasingly popular subgenre of comedians who do science of some kind. (See also: The Infinite Monkey Cage, Dara Ó Briain, &c. I like this increasingly popular subgenre, as if you couldn’t guess.) I’d actually come across Parker before, via the Numberphile videos on YouTube. He’s pretty funny. Good at keeping everyone interested, too. What with the Lectures being aimed at children, and televised by the BBC, the TV tail does wag the lecture dog pretty hard. There are lots of television people running about with cables and cameras and so on, setting things up and holding clipboards and telling people where to stand, and Parker did a jolly good job of distracting attention from that while pointing out that if there’s a fire then the children in the bottom half of the lecture theatre should leave by the exits and the adults in the top half just get to burn.

The actual lecture itself was by Dr Alison Woollard, geneticist at Oxford; there are three lectures this year, on the theme of “Life Fantastic”, and this particular one was called “Am I a mutant?”. The content was… well, it’s biology, which is not my area of interest, and it’s aimed at children which means that it was generally about the structure of DNA, the idea of mutation, that sort of thing, all of which I already knew, but then I’m not the target audience. Woollard is a pretty reasonable speaker, I think, and she’d come up with some good ways of getting the various messages across; plenty of big models of a DNA double helix, paint mixing tables, and so on. I personally found the most impressive part to be a quick demonstration she did of unhelpful mutations. Pull eight volunteers from the audience7 and give them “mutations” — two were required to stay on their knees, two wore boxing gloves, two wore blindfolds — and then they have to “hunt for food” by trying to grab strawberry bootlace sweets hanging down from a leafy overhead canopy. Obviously, the “unmutated” two did best, which was a reasonably interesting demonstration of how a “mutation” might make you worse at survival, but Woollard then pulled a thoroughly sneaky trick. It turns out that in addition to strawberry bootlaces hanging down from this green canopy, there were also apple bootlaces, which are green. Nobody had seen them; not the eight children, not the audience, and none had been collected. Segue into a discussion of camouflage being a helpful mutation. Well done, Dr Woollard.

There were some clunky bits with “Charles Darwin“‘s head in a projection box which didn’t come across all that well, but any lecture involving a box of kittens can’t be a bad thing.

I’m a pretty big fan of big organisations taking some time and effort and money to make things better for children at Christmas: I love NORAD’s “Santa cam” for the same reason. The Ri have been doing this now for 188 years,8 which is dedication to the cause above and beyond the call of duty. They’re also pretty short of money; they might have to sell their Mayfair building to get enough money to keep doing science. If you’re in or near London and you like this sort of thing, they run public lectures all the time which are similarly priced to a cinema ticket and are considerably more interesting,9 and you can actually join the Ri itself for £85 and then you get in to all the public lectures for free. As well as contributing to science, which is a good idea, yes it is.

Am I a mutant?” is on BBC Four at 8pm on Sunday 29th December. It’ll presumably also show up on RiChannel where you can watch a bunch of past Christmas Lecture videos. All those others won’t have Niamh in them, though.

  1. to whom I owe a number of beers
  2. I’d go for Anfield myself
  3. Bond Street. Also on the Monopoly board
  4. with brief explanation of how Mayfair embodies “if you have to ask you can’t afford it” and that’s why nothing has a price on
  5. lobster ravioli for Niamh, duck confit and pear for me. Both excellent and recommended
  6. I think it’d be jolly interesting to run a conference in a venue like this; does anywhere in Birmingham have this sort of theatre layout, I wonder? There’s the pit in front of the Library of Birmingham, but that’s open-air and so not really a good idea, Birmingham not being Barbados and all
  7. one of whom was Niamh! yes! fame!
  8. and the BBC have been televising them since 1966, apart from a ten year gap from 1999 when they wrongly decided that they wouldn’t do it and so Channel 4 and More 4 did it instead; they are now back, so well done the BBC and Channel 4
  9. and if you pick the right lecture, just as full of either explosions or spaceships
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