Size Matters: Mark Miodownik’s 2010 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

I’ve been a bit concerned about the Royal Institution. They’ve not had a very good time of it over the last few years, what with their financial crisis, making Baroness Greenfield redundant, then her claiming sexual discrimination, and so on; but most of that seemed settled, so it’s to be hoped that their fortunes are on the way back up, although they still have financial problems, apparently.

The Ri is probably most famous for its Christmas Lectures, which have been going for nearly 200 years. I went to one with Eric Laithwaite (magnetic levitation) with my school in the sixties, and have watched most of them on television since they have been broadcast. It was concerning when they were moved from the BBC – they went to Channel 4, then Channel 5, then last year they were on More 4, presumably the audience declining each time; so, it was pleasing to read on the Ri website that they ‘are making a triumphant return to their broadcast home at the BBC’. But hold on a minute – read on: ‘We are also thrilled to be partnering with BBC Four’. BBC4? Not the channel with the highest audience or profile, a bit of a culture ghetto, really.

I was looking at the details so tickets could be booked to take two of my children to one of the lectures – this year they’re called Size Matters, delivered by Mark Miodownik. He looks fun – there’s video of him explaining why science is like your mum. I wasn’t too taken with last year’s – it was about plants, my children were 15 and nearly 13, but the lecture’s content and delivery was aimed at 8 year olds or thereabouts. This year’s look like they might be a bit more intellectually challenging as well as more interesting and more, well … scientific.

Last year children’s tickets were listed as available for 11-18 year-olds, but many of the audience last year appeared much younger than that. Interestingly, this year the booking details say ‘children must be aged 11-17 years (proof of age may be requested) – Children under 11 will NOT be admitted’, although it is possible to buy cheaper tickets to watch a live feed in the Library with no age restriction.

There were three lectures listing on the Ri calendar – Why Elephants Can’t Dance, Why Chocolate Melts and Jet Planes Don’t, and Why Mountains are so Small, and so I waited for the other two to appear (there are usually five), so we could choose which one to go to. But they didn’t appear, and on rereading the press release (the one which explained about BBC4), this time further still: ‘The BBC will introduce three hour-long lectures that will enable us to develop a more detailed narrative around each subject’. So there are only three this year, with no commercial breaks – but that’s not as long as five with breaks (about 4 hours of programme: 48×5=240).

The decision we need to make now is – which one to go and see? Personally I’d quite like to go to all of them, but that would be too expensive. The Chocolate one mentions quantum mechanics in the description and I’m a sucker for quantum weirdness, but all three look really interesting.

There is an added bonus this year of several ‘Behind the Scenes Tours’ which they haven’t done before, and which could well be worth a go.

The lectures are being recorded on December 14th, 16th & 18th, but if you’re an adult you need to take at least one child with you. Fear not, they will enjoy it, and if they have an aggressive enough putting-their-arm-up technique, they could well get to join in a demonstration – perhaps even involving chocolate, if they’re lucky.

The best way by far is watching the lectures live in the lecture theatre: the young people watch in the main body of the theatre, the adults have to watch from the gallery (which I believe was originally built so that riff-raff could watch the lectures in the C19 without the toffs having to rub shoulders with them).

If you can’t get there they will be on broadcast on television, there will be a DVD available later on in 2011, and they will also be available to watch online – as many previous years’ lectures already are.

Update on 27 November, the preview earlier this week was excellent and there’s a post about it here.

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