The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Dr Peter Wothers Headshot

Never Work With Children, Chemicals or Tesla Coils

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

Finally I'm back at home relaxing after recording the 2012 Christmas Lectures. The oldest known science programme for young people, they were started in 1825 at the Royal Institution in London and have been given every year since then apart from a short break during the 1939-45 war when their young audience was evacuated to the country. As they have been televised every Christmas since the mid-1960s, they now form a central part of countless British family Christmases.

After all the months of planning, it's all over; all that's left is to watch the end results on the TV. I must say I'm looking forward to it since from what I've seen, the results look pretty stunning with some truly spectacular demonstrations. There were some rather frantic moments, but I hope you agree when you tune in that it was all worthwhile in the end.

As soon as I got the final nod that I would be giving the 2012 lectures, I began dreaming up the most spectacular demonstrations that I could. Although a seasoned presenter of demonstration lectures, the fact that these would be recorded for TV, meant I could afford to take things up a level.

Although there are a few contenders, perhaps the most troublesome experiment was the giant Tesla Coil we had suspended from the roof at the end of the first lecture. This was built by an old school friend of mine, Colin Tregenza Dancer. While I was obsessed with chemistry from an early age, Colin was hooked on physics. He later teamed up with contemporary artist Paul Fryer to create some stunning works that bridge the gap between art and science and their company have held exhibitions all over the World. So I asked Colin for his help to build a Tesla Coil to illustrate how nitrogen and oxygen were first made to combine together. 'What could possibly go wrong at the Royal Institution?' I naively thought.

With hindsight, the first warning came during a test late one night after it was first rigged. "Amazing, it seems to be controlling my phone", said Andy the demonstration technician at the Ri who helped with the late night trial and was filming the behemoth's first light. This was followed by "Who reset the house lights?". And then the fire alarm. However, we convinced ourselves that this could not our fault since the alarm was in the basement and we were on the first floor; "must be a smoker" we thought.

The next day the electrical technicians wondered why their expensive lighting control panel no longer seemed to have control, preferring instead to do its own thing. Blame the Tesla Coil. This then started the worry what would happen if the monster fried all the TV production's cameras during the filming. Of course, the insurance companies said this was outside their cover; strangely, they don't seem to go for simulated acts of God...

Time for the next test. After the house lighting turned back to the disco /rave settings, I began to think perhaps it was the Tesla Coil after all. We wisely did not have any cameras in the theatre except the fixed ones on the balcony we used to film our "living periodic table" but the Tesla Coil thoughtfully turned those off for us!

Things were beginning to get quite tense. Could we do the experiment at all? Would we have to find a replacement, last-minute finale? Hats off to the Production Company, Windfall Films, who came up with a solution whereby all non-essential equipment was removed and some handheld cameras brought in to film the event, after the Royal Institution had made all the necessary arrangements to resolve the other problems with lights and alarms.

So come the main event, everything was going well and it was time to fire up. We had warned the audience (medical conditions etc). We had filmed the "after-shock" sequences, just in case we had nothing left to film with after the real performance. We had switched off the fire alarm. We had even decided that we wouldn't pick an audience member to be the second lightning-conductor alongside me (probably a sensible decision). The Gothic dungeon set and the Frankenstein-esque Jacob's Ladder buzzing away in the background provided the perfect atmosphere. Time for Colin to throw the switch!

I think the audience was truly thrilled and the rest of us were truly relieved. The effect was quite breath-taking. TC behaved herself beautifully. Ok, she still shut down the periodic table cameras, started flashing the house lights, chose which shots to screen in the ground floor Director's Gallery and changed the language into German for the rather bemused editor on the fourth floor, but that was just to remind us who was the boss. Everything and everyone was fine. We could even smell the ozone and nitrogen dioxide produced during the lightning, which was the point behind the experiment. I think it was a huge success all round. The only slight downside from my perspective was the report I later heard from someone in the Upper Gallery who was asked by an elderly lady why the lecturer kept talking about his Giant Testicle. Oh well... Just don't ask me about the one kilometre pipe filled with explosive hydrogen-oxygen mix for Lecture Two. That's another story.

This year's Royal Institution Christmas Lectures will be running on the 26, 27 and 28 December on BBC Four. They will also be available to watch on the Ri channel from January
www.richannel.org