When Colin Stuart asked the audience how many people had listened to the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, a large number of hands went up. When asked how many had actually attended one for real, well, I put my hand up though I didn’t notice whether there was anyone else. Those of us who listened through our childhood to these lectures remember them with fondness, and certainly my interest and eventual occupation as a scientist owe much to the quality and enthusiasm of the selected speakers over the years.
Colin Stuart is an astronomy speaker and author whose books have sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide. He has written over 100 popular science articles for publications including The Guardian, New Scientist, BBC Focus and the European Space Agency. In recognition of his efforts to popularise astronomy, the asteroid (15347) Colinstuart is named after him.
The Christmas Lectures have run every year since 1825 (with a brief pause between 1939 and 1942 and between 2005 and 2006). They were the brainchild of Michael Faraday who gave the first one; his idea was that the talks should be aimed at children and should include as many practical demonstrations as possible. Colin Stuart set out to discuss thirteen of the lecture series over the years. But to a large extent, the actual content of those lectures was not the key point of interest. It was those snippets of science and the scientists that he learned about during his researches which provided the main fascination.
- For example Robert Ball’s 1881 series. At that time Ball didn’t know what powered the Sun; the Moon, he stated, was too far away for Man ever to get there; there were canals on Mars. More fascinating was the fact that communications in those days were so slow that letters between scientists travelled too slowly to make important announcements (for example about sightings of comets). The scientists of the day devised an ingenious coding system employing a dictionary to exploit the Telegram Service to communicate this type of information.
- Herbert Hall Turner in his 1905 lectures opined that Sun Spots were bruises inflicted on the Sun by Comets!
- Harold Jones’s lectures on “Astronomy in our Daily Life” was the first to be recorded by Pathé. The rapt interest and enthusiasm shown by his young audience was no different from today’s youngsters.
- In 1970, Sir George Porter used a model time machine. It was so large that a window in the Institute had to be removed to allow the model to be brought in and out using a crane!
- The economies (or rather the lack of them) for Carl Sagan’s 1977 series drew some surprise, but the extract shown of Sagan entertaining two young audience members to afternoon tea on Mars was particularly heart-warming, just so typical of the very practical nature of all these lectures. Colin Stuart’s hunt for Sagan’s assistant, Dr Arun Aggarwal, was also charming.
Colin Stuart’s book (of the same title as this lecture) goes into a lot of detail and contains many fascinating and humorous stories about the lectures. This was a gentle, entertaining and confidently delivered lecture which our audience of about fifty enjoyed enormously.