RI Christmas Lectures #xmaslectures

Watching the RI Christmas lectures used to be an integral, if surreptitious part of Christmas. My Grandma would watch them when they used to be on BBC 2 (I think) in the mornings between Christmas and New Year, just about in time for morning coffee. The timing’s have shifted around a bit over the years but I very clearly recall the lectures between about 1993 and 2002 particularly includingSusan Greenfield’s Journey to the Centre of the Brain (1994), James Jackson’s Planet Earth, an explorer’s guide (1995), and Arrows of Time by Neil Johnston (1999).  Not forgetting Tony Ryan’s smart stuff in 2002. It seemed to take greater effort to find the lectures around the turn of the millenium and between 1997 and 2001 they were largely an accompaniment to revision for January exams. Then moving to Canada, not having TV and not particularly liking factual TV shows that much* took it’s toll and I stopped watching.

I made special effort this year because the topic was Chemistry and twitter was all a flutter about them. I’ll admit it, I sat down to watch the first one fully expecting to be disappointed  – what I’ve seen of the lectures over the last few years hasn’t left me feeling particularly inspired. To be fair, I hadn’t made a particularly deliberate effort to watch them, descending on them more through channel hoping and some degree of desperation to avoid another forensic science show, but I rarely lasted past the nearest ad break.  I could not have been more wrong in my expectations and was quite literally on the edge of my seat trying to figure out how some of the demos were done. I hadn’t emailed our undergrads about them – I wanted to make sure I was recommending something entertaining and educational before doing so. I emailed them pretty quick smart after the first couple though! Thank goodness for iPlayer catch up.

Peter Wothers of Cambridge was the Modern Alchemist (and was fantastic! While I may never be able to do a demonstration with a Christmas tree made out of gun cotton, or throw gun cotton onto a searingly hot block of tungsten, I could at least watch jealously at all the people who got to see it in person!  In three lectures that covered air, water and earth, Dr Wothers took us from paralympian gold medalists to Nobel Prize winners via  single crystals of silicon, dramatic reactions of cesium and fluorine and the scariest tesla coil I have ever seen. I was also quite jealous of the audience participation periodic table, and after thinking for a while, realised that my first year main group chemistry lectures don’t have quite enough students to replicate the effect.  There was an equally enjoyable Twitter backchannel and a little bit of backlash at one particular demo of a bonding machine (see Nigel Young’s guest blog post at Chemistry Blog http://www.chemistry-blog.com/2012/12/27/great-show-but-was-the-chemistry-quite-right/). I’ve set the first years at Keele the challenge of using their first semester knowledge to figure out why the model depicted didn’t quite go far enough. There’s also a great blog post at Ed Prosser’s place (http://onthenatureofthings.com/2012/12/28/christmas-lectures-2012-behind-the-scenes/) about behind the scenes of the lectures.

Perhaps it was a different perspective that increased my enjoyment of the lectures this year – always on the hunt for good demos for use in lectures, or perhaps that it was very much home turf for the topic, but the RI Christmas lectures filled the gap between Christmas and New Year in a way they haven’t done for maybe 20 years.

* it’s not that I don’t like facts and stuff, it’s just that after a full day at the office I’m ready for escapism rather than brain taxing TV.

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