Meet Your Brain: Bruce Hood’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

Meet your brainThe Royal Institution Christmas Lectures were started by Michael Faraday in 1825, and have been broadcast on television since 1966. The lecturer that year was Eric Laithwaite, and I was in the audience on a trip from my school (this was before my fascination with science was temporarily blighted by poor teaching at my secondary school). There’s often a loop of clips from the old lectures, including the Laithwaite one, so I’m possibly visible there in the audience. I’m hoping that it will eventually be added to the new RI video channel.

It did go through a broadcasting decline, moving from the BBC to Channel 4, then to Channel 5 for a while, it’s been back with the BBC for a couple of years – although the number of lectures has been reduced from 5 to 3 and it’s broadcast on BBC4, so the channel size (by audience) has gone down with each move.

The lectures have have been given by an illustrious range of scientists, some of the best in their fields, and recent years have seen Marcus du Sautoy, Mark Miodownik, and Christopher Bishop; going a little further back were Ian Stewart, Frank Close, Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, George Porter, Frank Whittle, William Lawrence Bragg, William Henry Bragg, John Tyndall, and Michael Faraday. The titles of the early lectures were short and to the point: ‘Electricity’, ‘Chemistry’, ‘Geology’, etc; soon they became more specific: ‘The First Principles of Franklinic Electricity’, ‘The Distinctive Properties of the Common Metals’, and more famously, ‘The Chemical History of a Candle’; they covered on topics which we now know are valid, ‘Waves and Ripples in Water, Air and Aether’; but since the hiatus of 1939-1942 the titles have become a little more snappy and interesting: ‘The Engineer in Wonderland’, ‘Gulliver’s Laws: The Physics of Large and Small’, ‘The Num8er Mysteries’, ‘Size Matters’, and this year’s, ‘Meet Your Brain’, delivered by Bruce Hood (@profbrucehood, #xmaslecture).

Getting there’s always a bit of a rush – my daughter finishes school at 3.15 & the tickets say that if you arrive after 5.30 entry will be refused. On arrival the queue wends its way through the bar, downstairs, back along the width of the building through the basement museum, back up the stairs and then up more stairs to the first floor where the children get to sit in the body of the theatre while us adults have to hoof it up two more flights to the gallery.

Once everyone was seated, Matt Parker, standup mathematician, gave  his usual warm up (he did better when it was on C4 or C5 as he had the breaks to perform in too), and then there was a rather lengthy brouhaha.

On Monday during the recording of the first lecture there had been a technical hitch involving a demonstration using the audience (representing a brain) and a switched network of light rope representing dendrites. The idea was to rerecord the segment, hoping nobody noticed that the audience had changed. The likelihood of a cable or rope tangling or knotting increases proportionately with the length of the cable up to a point, and this thing was much longer than a headphones cable, joined to nodes, and very tangled and knotted indeed.

Some people have the knack of presenting to children in an uncondescending and natural way, and Bruce Hood, this year’s lecturer, certainly does. He took a Q&A with the audience while the disentanglement was taking place, and the questions were just as intelligent as those after a Friday Evening Discourse (he shied away from answering ‘What is Schrödinger’s Cat’ as he is not a physicist).

After about what seemed to be half an hour the cable got disentangled, but then one of the switches didn’t work, so Hood, who by this time seemed to have become a little irritated by it all, said he wanted to abandon the idea and just get on with the lecture, Who’s In Charge Here, Anyway?

This went particularly well, involving a one-man band, a dancing dog, a group of jugglers, and a ‘memory man’. His routine involved one group of the audience (including my daughter) each being given a numbered playing card while they were in the queue, upon which they had to write their name and date of birth. They were then sat in the theatre in the number order. The memory man then not only showed he had memorised which names and birth dates were on which card, he had memorised their seating order.

I’m looking forward to watching the other two lectures on television (they’re on BBC4 on the 27th, 28th & 29th December at 8pm), and a DVD will presumably be  available next year as usual. The BBC did teachers’ notes for last year’s lectures, so presumably they will be available again for this year’s.

And then back home via Victoria Station, delayed departures, and what seemed like the slowest train I’ve every travelled home on.

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