The Christmas lectures from the Royal Institution

3 minute read

I was in slight pain one of the last afternoons and I’ve decided to watch some of the old Christmas lectures from the Royal Institution. I had had a bookmark in my browser about them for ages, but a recent sight somewhere on social media about the latest edition coming soon on TV prompted me to explore what they were actually about.

I lived in Britain for a while now but I’m not British and I still didn’t know what these Christmas lectures really were. It turns out they are public science lectures, screened each each year right after Christmas on the BBC and aimed at the larger public, but tailored mainly for young people. Each year there’s a theme and an awesome series of experts from academia/research that presents it. They’re all free to watch from the RI’s website, including quite old ones: for instance, you can watch Carl Sagan’s ones in 1977 about the solar system.

The Royal Institution is a charity dedicated to the dissemination of science in society, they regularly organise events and you can apparently visit their London site too - I’ll make sure to put it on my list for next time I’m there. At Christmas, the RI produces these special lectures. The edition I watched was 2021’s one, dedicated to COVID-19 and more generally to viruses: I’ve had such a great afternoon and I forgot my pain.

I’m trained in science and a lot of what was explained were things I knew already, but oh what an utter joy to watch nevertheless. The style was engaging and fun, not “stuffy academic” at all, and the presenters were really good: they were not condescending, they were pedagogical without sounding boring, and the style was interactive without being lame. The lectures were not just talk but used a series of aids to demonstrate concepts, from large-scale reproduction of elements to actual lab equipment; there were real animals and some little live experiments too. The audience was composed of kids (I think ages varied quite a lot) and there was a lot of participation as each section required volunteers. I’m not sure how you can partake to be part of the audience but I thought that if I had been given this opportunity as a kid I would have just loved it - I can absolutely see how these events are amazing to get young people interested in the sciences.

Science popularisation, Anglo style?

Science popularisation is a serious matter, and it takes specific skills. Being knowledgeable in the sciences doesn’t necessarily make you good at explaining them to people outside of your own bubble.

I just want to end this post by reflecting on the general and anecdotal perception that the Anglos (and I mean specifically Brits and Americans, I cannot comment on other portions of the Anglosphere as I had no experience with them in this area) are just pros at science popularisation. Many a times have I watched, read, experienced beautiful stuff - see for instance the brilliant (and now kinda cult) lectures on Physics by Prof. W Lewin at the MIT.

It will be due to passion and dedication, but also funding and promoting the idea that spreading scientific information is key to a nation’s progress, and that is has to be done in a way that creates awe, ‘cause that’s what science is. That doesn’t happen everywhere: in Italy for instance it is well known that science popularisation as well as scientific journalism really struggle to be recognised for the value they bring. There’s very few people that work as professional popularisers, and they’re very good, but the field rarely manages to reach beyond the niche group of aficionados that support and love it, and most importantly seldom succeeds in targeting youngsters specifically. There’s also several failed attempts and just bad stuff. Unfortunately, this is due to lack of funding and lack of vision from the administrators.

The UK might be going to shit right now, generally speaking, but I really hope their attitude towards promoting science keeps being what is has been so far.