Saturday, December 29, 2007

Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

There's been a lot of discussion about Britishness in recent times and what constitutes 'British values'. All too often people cite things like humour and tolerance but that carries the unavoidable, and absurd, implication that all other nationalities are humourless and intolerant. If you asked me what makes me proud to be British, I'd be stumped for an answer. I'd probably fall back on various, minor cultural traits. For example, I like queueing ('standing in line' for my American readers) and yes, I'm one of those people who, whilst ignoring far worse anti-social behaviour, will pounce like the Gestapo on anyone who queue-jumps. (Have you noticed how some elderly people feign mental confusion to queue-jump and think sympathy for their age will prevent any challenge? Well, the devious old bastards don't fool me. "I'm 87, you know", said one old woman as I frogmarched her to the back of the queue, as though that exempted her from the social codes that stand between Civilisation and Anarchy).

But here's something that does make me proud: to live in a country where a television channel in Christmas week broadcasts, in peak time, a series of 45 minute lectures on science for children.
These are The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. They've moved channels several times and used to be broadcast at lunchtime on Channel 4. Now they're on Channel Five at 7.15 in the evening.
Although designed for children, they're also fascinating viewing for adults and seek to make sometimes difficult scientific concepts intelligible and fun. So there are lots of demonstrations and audio-visual aids (some of them, it has to be said, wonderfully naff) and audience participation.
This year, a model of a man designed to show what proportion of our bodies consists of water proved to be incontinent and leaked all over the floor before falling over backwards. Look out for that on one of those clips shows. It was particularly embarrassing because the programme was sponsored by Rolls-Royce and legend had it that a Rolls Royce never went wrong.

I'd love to know where they get the children from. They give the lecturer an opening ovation worthy of a pop star and listen silently and attentively throughout. From the names the volunteers give I suspect they have all been cloned in a secret labarotory in one of the posher parts of Notting Hill. Reassuringly, some childhood traits are universal: the biggest laugh of the series was when a man was pushed into a bath of iced water.

If you watched this series you will now know that butter contains five times as much energy as the equivalent amount of TNT and that there's enough energy in your Christmas dinner to blow up a car. You'll have discovered that short-distance sprinters appear to hold their breath for the entire race and that one of the world's strongest men can last only a minute on a treadmill before collapsing. And that being fat can have it's advantages: you'll survive much longer if you fall into the sea, although that didn't seem to work for Robert Maxwell.

In the great 'Two Cultures' divide I'm very much an Arts and Humanities man and I stopped studying science when I was about 14.
I think I was in my twenties when I read the books of John Stewart Collis. They seem rather dated now but they opened my eyes to the extraordinary nature of the physical world. I am typing this facing a solid brick wall but if I were small enough I could take a stroll inside that solid wall because most of an atom is empty space. That's one example of what I learned from John Stewart Collis but not from a boring school lesson on the structure of the atom. At the other extreme from the micro or nano level are the incredible discoveries in cosmology and today there are some very good 'popular science' writers, amongst whom I would single out Marcus Chown.

That any of us are here at all, sitting on this lump of rock whirling through space, is so improbable, so accidental, that to live one's life without learning anything about the natural, physical world seems as shameful as to never have read any Shakespeare. Moreover, science can be as inspiring and enriching as anything in the arts and, for me, more awesome than any religious belief.

So, apart from being the best programme on television this Christmas, the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures might just have encouraged a few more children to either pursue a scientific career or simply regard a modicum of scientific understanding as part of being a rounded, educated person. And with 'faith schools' in the ascendant and a 'Creationist Theme Park' planned for the North of England, it won't be a moment too soon.


At 9:54 AM, Blogger cello said...

You'll be pleased to hear that the cello household has been joining you in the joy of the RI Christmas lectures. Good old Five, say I. They are the only one of the main channels that regularly does art in prime-time too.

But my other Christmas TV highlight was The Old Curiosity Shop on ITV1. I've always had a problem with Little Nell, among many Dickens' insipid long-suffering heroines, but in this she managed to be both spunky and brave as well as selfless. And my performance of the year would be tied between Toby Jones (son of Freddie) as the detestable Quilp and the actor who played Boy A.

At 5:46 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Glad you enjoyed the RI Lectures. Five is an odd channel. It does a few good things and the rest is rubbish. I'm still not sure why it's there.

Because Dickens was rammed down my throat as a child, not least on the BBC, I've mostly avoided him since.
And sorry, I think I was rude here about Boy A. I concede it was good acting but for me it just didn't feel right. I didn't think the character 'Boy A' would be anything like that.
Don't worry, that makes no sense to me either.


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