A History of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

With Remembrance Sunday/Veterans’ Day and Thanksgiving gone, Christmas and winter weather looming large, thoughts in scientific and academic circles turn towards the annual Royal Institution (RI) Christmas Lectures.

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures – A Chance for Scientists to Shine

Held in London, England, since 1825, the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures were founded by scientist (and natural philosopher) Michael Faraday, who himself presented almost 20 Lectures between 1825 and 1860. Traditionally the Lectures have been held over a week, but this is to be scaled back to three days. Originally the Lectures were targeted at schoolchildren, but they have attained a far wider audience since first being televised in 1966.

Physics, Chemistry and Astronomy all Featured Numerous Times as Lecture Topics

Other multiple lecture givers since the founder have included the physicist Charles Taylor, who was very keen to share his knowledge of music with his young audience. His first Lecture in 1971 on the subject of physics and music, was entitled ‘Sounds of Music: the Science of Tones and Tune’. In 1989 he became only the third person since 1945 to be asked to present a second Lecture. Again selecting music as his subject, this time he chose to speak on ‘Exploring Music’.

Chemist Edward Frankland, discoverer of organometallic compounds, lectured to the Royal Institution three times in alternating years between 1862 and 1866, once on one of his specialist subjects, water, and twice on chemistry. John Tyndall alternated with both Frankland and William Odling between 1861 and 1884 during his time as Professor of Physics at the RI. Odling was Fullerian Professor of Chemistry from 1868 so at this time the Christmas Lectures alternated between the two subjects. Another prolific Lecture giver and chemist was William Thomas Brande, who took no less than seven Lectures between 1834 and 1850.

Astronomy’s turn came in the form of occasional lectures by the Irishman Robert Stawell Ball between 1881 and 1900 and again between 1905 and 1922 when the British astronomer Herbert Hall Turner lectured four times. James Dewar, chemist, physicist and Fullerian Professor of Chemistry at the RI, lectured multiple times between 1878 and 1912, meantime father-and-son duo W H and W L Bragg covered six lectures between them from 1919 to 1961. Both Bragg generations, jointly Nobel Prize winners in 1915, also served in Directorial positions at the RI; W H being Director of the Davy-Faraday Research Laboratory between 1923 and 1942 and W L being appointed Director in 1965.

Teams of Scientists Giving Varied Lectures

Sometimes teams of scientists have been enlisted. In 1965, for instance, Bernard Lovell, Francis Graham Smith, Martin Ryle and Antony Hewish presented a series of talks on ‘Exploration of the Universe’. Lovell was the first Director of Jodrell Bank Observatory, Smith (sometimes rendered Graham-Smith) his associate. Ryle was a noted radio astronomer who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974 together with co-presenter Antony Hewish. In 1958 a team of six presented information on The International Geophysical Year, the largest number of presenters for any one year.

The Modern Royal Institution Christmas Lectures – Household Names Present their Thoughts

In recent years, names well known outside the scientific world have been asked to present a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture series.

In 1973, the internationally acclaimed broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough gave his talks on ‘The Language of Animals’, whilst in 1977, Dr Carl Sagan presented his series on ‘The Planets’. Dr Sagan was a Cornell Professor, astronomer and author. He was also recognised as a great contributor to public awareness of science: like Stephen Hawking and Brian Cox, he had the ability to communicate his field of interest in language non-scientists could easily understand.

Royal Institution Directors Should Present a Series of Lectures

It is routinely expected that Directors of the Royal Institution should follow in Faraday’s footsteps and lecture at least once during their tenure. Eric Rideal produced ‘Chemical Reactions: How They Work’ for his 1947 Lecture and even E N da C Andrade, who resigned as Director of the RI in 1950, gave three lectures, two on ‘Waves and Vibrations’. Sir John Meurig Thomas and David Phillips teamed up in 1987 to present on ‘Crystals and Lasers’ whilst Sir John was Director of the RI.

Christmas Lectures Should Be Fun

In 2009, Professor Sue Hartley gave her talks on ‘The 300 Million Year War’, a view of animals versus plants. She involved a Shetland Pony, a sloth and a chilli-eating human in her demonstrations, proving that science is most definitely not boring and can be made to appeal to everyone, just as Michael Faraday intended.

Mark Miodownik – ‘Size Matters’

This year, the Lecture series is to be given by Mark Miodownik, a materials scientist based at King’s College, London. It will be televised on BBC4 between 28 and 30 December at 8pm.

Some British traditions are capable of adapting to the times. The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures is one such tradition. Over 180 years since its inception, the only thing to disrupt the annual ritual has been a global war.

With thanks to Sir John Meurig Thomas, Honorary Professor of Materials Science at the University of Cambridge, for the inspiration to write this article.

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