Turn On and Tune In to science

Posted by Olympia Brown on 18 December 2015

Since 1966, the CHRISTMAS LECTURES have been broadcast on British television every year, becoming a festive tradition to rival the Queen’s speech and the Great Escape.The 2015 lectures are on 'How to survive in space' and are timely, given Tim Peake's ascent to the International Space Station which was watched by thousands of schoolchildren. Olympia Brown tells us why the CHRISTMAS LECTURES are important in inspiring the engineers and scientists of the future.

Christmas lectures

In 1825, Michael Faraday founded the CHRISTMAS LECTURES at the Royal Institution, a series of lectures designed for young people, or to quote the 19th Century language, ‘a juvenile auditory’. They’ve continued every year since, save for a short period during the Second World War to avoid the Central London bombing.

The introduction of the CHRISTMAS LECTURES represented a significant shift in the way that science was communicated. At a time when science was primarily shared with fellow researchers, the Lectures were the first attempt to convey complex scientific principles to young people. These early Lectures relied on homemade demonstrations to excite and educate audiences in a completely revolutionary sense. So revolutionary and successful were these methods that little has changed since those first forays, save for the addition of an entire television crew and other 21st Century accompaniments.

But why is it so important to engage young people with science?

Science has an image problem of being stuffy, difficult and the realm of Caucasian men in lab coats. However, those passionate about science will tell you that this is simply not the case—but sometimes words aren’t enough. By sharing our excitement about science with our young audience, presenting things clearly and showing that it is not just a set of facts learned from a textbook, we hope to inspire a greater diversity of young people not only to consider a career that involves science, but also to have a greater appreciation that science and technology play in our lives.

The Lectures don’t tell, they show, by featuring charismatic, world-leading experts performing real demos and experiments that portray science as a creative, exciting, and essentially fun endeavour. Not only that, but the Lectures make no attempt to dumb science down, instead presenting it in a way that makes complex ideas wholly understandable. This year for example Dr Kevin Fong, an expert in space medicine, will literally be explaining rocket science in his series ‘How to survive in space’.

Whilst the live shows are the foundation of the series, the Lectures wouldn’t be fulfilling their fundamental goal if they were limited to those audiences. Since 1966, the Lectures have been broadcast on British television every year, becoming a festive tradition to rival the Queen’s speech and the Great Escape. This practice brought the CHRISTMAS LECTURES into people’s homes, and nowadays thanks to our digital video site, the Ri Channel, a large number of past Lectures are available to view anywhere in the world. This international element isn’t limited to the online realm. For more than 20 years the Lectures have been taken on the road, or rather sky, repeated every summer in various international destinations.

The reach of the CHRISTMAS LECTURES isn’t even restricted to the Lectures themselves. Once the dust settles in January, the scientific content of the Lectures is reworked to provide resources that are made available free to primary and secondary schools.

A place called space

I couldn’t forget to mention the advent calendar that the Ri Channel team produce every year. This year’s calendar has been of a truly gargantuan scale thanks to funding from the Wellcome Trust. ‘A Place Called Space’ has provided online audiences with films created from NASA archive footage, spoken word poetry, bespoke, breath-taking animations, zero-gravity demonstrations, informative articles and incredibly emotive footage of the Earth as seen from space. The cultural variety of the advent calendar reaches out to a huge audience and rather than simply replicating the target audience of the CHRISTMAS LECTURES, it instead seeks to engage an adult audience with the theme of the Lectures.

The CHRISTMAS LECTURES have come a long way in their 190 year history and are nowadays one of the most ambitious attempts to engage young people around the world with every facet of science. It’s so important to give our audiences those ‘WOW’ moments, to act as a spark that ignites our communal sense of wonder. Hopefully, some of our audience may also be set along a path in science that could take them anywhere in the world. Or, in the case of this year’s CHRISTMAS LECTURES ‘How to survive in space’, even off it.

Whew to watch.

The CHRISTMAS LECTURES are screened on BBC Four on 28th Dec, 29th Dec, 30th Dec 2015 at 20:00.

Author

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Olympia Brown

Paul Wilkinson

Name: Olympia Brown
Job title: Science Learning Manager
Organisation: Royal Institution

Science Learning Manager at the Royal Institution (Ri)