The Blog

Making Science Come Alive for 190 Years

Here at the Royal Institution (Ri), we created the Christmas lectures to bring science alive in the minds of young people, and they have proved popular with audiences of all ages since they began in 1825. The lectures give young people a taste of the excitement and importance of science.

Science has sometimes suffered from being too abstract or removed from people's lives and imaginations. Here at the Royal Institution (Ri), we created the Christmas Lectures to bring science alive in the minds of young people, and they have proved popular with audiences of all ages since they began in 1825. The lectures give young people a taste of the excitement and importance of science. They bring the subject alive by performing real scientific experiments in front of the audience, or illustrating a key piece of science with demonstrations - visual, practical explanations that bring the subject to life. Since the 1960s they have regularly appeared on British television making them a unique proposition - a live science event specially crafted for TV.

Due to this unique combination, we have to work hard to make sure the lectures work for the audience in the theatre, the audience at home, and, in recent years, the audience in the classroom. Many contemporary TV programmes rely on fancy computer graphics to illustrate complex points. If we refer to the big screen in the theatre too often, it interrupts the flow of the live show and we can lose our audience, so slides are to be used sparingly. The theatre audience wants to see real things in front of them. Conversely sometimes if we have a particularly loud explosion, the audio smoothing of TV means that the experience is diminished for the people watching at home. For their benefit, we use reaction footage of the live audience to give a sense of how spectacular that particular demo was.

So what do we mean by a science demonstration? A good demo is anything practical which brings a scientific concept to life without relying on too much explanation. An example from this year's lectures could be the RC cars that we rigged up to show how the Soyuz rocket docks with the ISS. A demonstration guides the audience through the questions of what happens, how it happens, why it happens and what's the result or impact at the end, be it using props, images sounds or anything else! Items being pressed into demo service this year include biscuits, carrots, a big silver dish and a blow up mattress. And for a really good demonstration, it needs capture the target audience's attention and imagination - by using drama, surprise, humour, nail-biting tension or all of that at once! If it can tackle, or help to tackle, the inevitable 'so what's the big deal? why is this important to me?' questions too, then it's an excellent demonstration.

We try to involve audience volunteers in some of the demos, but ensuring that their participation is genuinely active rather than something superfluous like pushing a button, or something that's going to make them look silly. Involving the audience has lead to some of my favourite moments from the lectures because they introduce an unpredictability to things. We once asked an audience member to pit his skills in a laser target game to win some chocolate. Instead of using lightning fast reactions as we were expecting, he just covered up the laser's sensor with his hands and grabbed the chocolate!

We also have to expect that, just like scientific experiments in the lab, sometimes demos don't go to plan. Occasionally we'll retake the moment if keeping a mistake would confuse the audience, but other times we'll reshoot a small section to cut into the TV programme. From time to time, we'll keep a moment because it's hilarious. In one lecture we were filling up a model of a human body to show what percentage of us is water. But it just wasn't filling, which is when we realised that it was leaking all over the floor, as if that model had had an unfortunate accident....

I mentioned that we've had demos in the lectures since they began in the 1800s, but the style and content of demos has changed over time. The accents of the presenters is certainly different. Footage from one of the earliest recorded lectures shows WL Bragg discussing the properties of 'the guess'. It's only after a while that you realise he's talking about 'the gas'. There are also demos that we couldn't ever imagine performing today - like the young son of a lecturer who was invited to run his hands under molten lead at 330℃ after protecting them with oil. Science itself has changed as well, with an increased reliance on instrumentation. So, when we covered genetics in 2013, we had to build models of the microscopic worms that our presenter worked on. However, we also used powerful microscopes to have the actual worms in the theatre to make it even more immediate.

The demos that form part of the show are sometimes commissioned externally, and sometimes built or assembled in-house by our small but expert team. We also tackle bigger builds, like when we built a full-size Ames Room, which distorts perspective to make those getting in it bigger or smaller. We try to test our demos with a live audience of young people to fine tune them and make sure they are as good as can be.

And we go to this effort to build the best, most spectacular, most thought provoking, most explanatory or clearest demos we can because we firmly believe we need a society that is engaged with and fascinated by science. We want to encourage our audiences to either participate in science themselves through their choice of career or by actively sharing their thoughts and opinions in the wider debate that our society continues to have about scientific issues. I hope we'll be doing it for at least another 190 years.

How to Survive in Space will be shown on BBC Four on 28, 29 and 30 December at 8pm. Find out more on the Royal Institution's website or by following @ri_science.