Sunday, 2 January 2011

In praise of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

This Christmas I was glued to the TV for the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. This year the topic was 'size matter', presented by the spectacularly-named Dr Mark Miodownik.

This year it moved back to its spiritual home on the BBC, but was unfortunately reduced from five to three episodes.

Being of a relatively scientific bent, there was little that was new to me in this year's presentation. Despite this, it was still fascinating stuff. Science is notoriously difficult to present to children, yet the lectures never fail to arrange complex topics into a form that children can comprehend. Strangely, I never fail to learn something, even if it is something long forgotten.

For instance, take the last of this year's three programs. It went from why some materials look like solids but are actually liquids, to how mountains sink into the earth's mantle, to the limits of skyscrapers height and carbon nanotubes to space elevators. All of this was told in an accessible manner without a single equation.

These lectures have been running since 1825, and the names of some of the presenters go through the luminaries of British and world science: Michael Faraday, John TyndallFrank Whittle (strangely talking about petroleum and not the jet engine), the genius Eric Laithwaite, Desmond Morris, David Attenborough, Heinz Wolff, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Kevin Warwick and Susan Greenfield, amongst others. Each series of lectures have been televised since 1966. Google Books has a potted history of the lectures.

Faraday started the lectures to teach children about science; a pioneering ambition, especially for those pre-Victorian times. Children still dominate the audience, and the presenter often encourages them to take part in experiments.

It is so easy to dumb down science - something that the media never fail to achieve with sensationalist headlines. It is therefore somewhat amazing that the Royal Institution manage to make science accessible without dumbing it down. I can only hope it will continue in a world where the truly good science programs - QED, Horizon, and Equinox - have all disappeared.

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