Monday, October 28, 2019

A Most British Tradition

One more interesting British Christmas tradition has to do with science. This is the Royal Institution Christmas Day Science Lectures that date back to 1825. These are talks, usually on topics that are ground breaking for that time.

The presenters are notified in September. Originally, the lectures were given live on Christmas day. After the invention of radio, the lectures were recorded in early December and broadcast on Christmas Day. Since the advent of television, (in 1936 the BBC started televising the lectures) they are filmed in early December for broadcast on Christmas day. In the beginning there was just 1 lecture a year. Then in 2009, the Institution decided to expand it to 5 lectures. In 2011 they settled on 3, which is still the case today.

The presenters have been Noble Laureates, premier scientists, professors, notables, and some lesser known. Many presenters have given more than 1 lecture over the years. The RI provides technical support for any demonstrations that need to be made.



The idea of the lectures in credited to Michael Faraday, a British Chemist and Physicist, who went on to give 19 lectures. However, initial lecture was given by John Millington on Natural Philosophy. The topics of the lectures of the early 1800's ranged from Astronomy, Chemistry, Electricity, Botany, and Zoology. The 1839 Lecture was on The Chemistry of the Atmosphere and the Ocean, (1863) Electricity at Rest and Electricity in Motion, (1873) The Motion and Sensation of Sound, (1878) A Soap Bubble, and (1890) Frost and Fire.


In the first half of the 1900's lectures included  The Childhood of Animals (1911), Wireless Messages from the Stars (1915) , (1927) Engines (1927), Rare Animals and the Disappearance of Wild Life (1937), Colours and How We See Them (1946), and  Photography (1956).

1966's lecture was The Engineer in Wonderland, with 5 parts: The White Rabbit, Only the Grin was Left, The Caucus Race, Curiouser and Curiouser, If only I were the right size to do it, and  It's the Oldest Rule in the Book.

Recognizable presenters over the years, have included David Attenborough, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, and Sir William Bragg. There were only 3 years when the lectures were suspended: 1939 - 1942, during WWII. The lecture for this year (2019) will be Secrets and Lies: The Hidden Power of Maths by Hannah Frye.


Starting in 1966, the lectures have been more geared toward children, hoping to interest and enlighten them into the sciences. The mission of the Royal Institution is to "diffuse science for the common purposes of life". The Prince Wales is their Patron.

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