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The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

Joanna Carpenter has a red-letter day

Joanna Carpenter has a red-letter day.


17 December 2013 was a red-letter day for my twelve-year-old daughter and me.  We spent the evening together with my father and nephew at the theatre in London.

But it wasn’t a pantomime or even a seasonal ballet that drew us. We headed to the historic lecture theatre of the Royal Institution (Ri), to be part of the live audience for Am I a Mutant? – one of the 2013 Christmas lectures for young people.

By chance, the date was notable for the Royal Institution, although for a different reason: it was the 235th anniversary of the birth of the eminent chemist and inventor of a miners’ safety lamp, Sir Humphry Davy, who joined the Ri as an assistant lecturer in chemistry at the age of 22 in February 1801 and became Director of the Laboratory and Professor of Chemistry there.


Davy joined the Ri with no known lecturing experience. Despite this, his first public lectures, on the hot topic of the day – `Galvanism’ – were an immediate success and went rather to his head.

‘The voice of fame is still murmuring in my ears – My mind has been excited by the unexpected plaudits of the multitude -- I dream of greatness & utility… My last lecture was on Saturday evening. Nearly 500 persons attended… unbounded applause. Amen,’ he wrote to a friend on 22 June 1801.

An entertaining message

Entertaining and having the right message was key to Davy’s success, says Ri Professor for the History of Science and Head of Collections, Frank James.  ‘There were lots of explosions, which always helps, but to some extent he’s telling people what they want to hear, about the usefulness of science.’ Europe was at war and he emphasised the role of science in protecting the nation,  James explains.

This year’s Christmas lecturer was Dr Alison Woollard of Oxford University, who unlike Davy clearly has a wealth of experience teaching students about her subject. ‘I have enjoyed thinking about ways to get the public to enjoy science… [and] how to explain complex science in an appealing way that is both entertaining and meaningful,’ she told the Oxford Mail.

Fluffy kittens and more

Her Life Fantastic series of three lectures on developmental biology was indeed both entertaining and full of content.

The illustrations and demonstrations were carefully and imaginatively planned.  We saw a great Dane compared with a Chihuahua; an acrobatic troupe demonstrate DNA replication; paint, coloured balls, and a box of fluffy kittens revealing how genes combine and are carried down the generations; and young people playing Chinese whispers to show the effect of DNA copying errors.

‘It was really interesting,’ my daughter enthused: ‘I especially liked the way they used lots of animals to explain things.’

Extending the reach

Times have changed from Davy’s days.  Even the Christmas lectures hadn’t begun then: they started in 1825 under Michael Faraday, Davy’s successor at the Ri.

You now no longer have to be physically present to benefit or even an English speaker. The lectures are televised and online and 10 million people are likely to view them. They are also being given in Japan and Singapore this summer before a live audience and televised on Japanese national TV with simultaneous translation.

In addition, the Ri holds a range of public events and has an online `Ri channel’. Last year it clocked up 18,500 attendances and 3,370,000 video plays or 23 million minutes of science videos watched.

More red-letter days?

As we travelled home with an appetite whetted for family science events, I was already planning our next trip. There’s an ‘explosive family show’ on St George’s day, if I can wait for another red-letter date.

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Dr Joanna Carpenter
Dr Joanna Carpenter is the Shorts Editor of People & Science.
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