Highlights of 2015

Our Professor of Science, Culture and Society Gail Cardew fills us in on her personal highlights of last year.

  • British ESA astronaut Tim Peake taking part in the 2015 CHRISTMAS LECTURES

    British ESA astronaut Tim Peake taking part in the 2015 CHRISTMAS LECTURES

    Credit: Paul Wilkinson

It is no exaggeration to say that the Royal Institution (Ri) touched the lives of millions of people in 2015 – from deep engagement at one of our workshops or Masterclasses, through to people watching our Ri Channel films and the CHRISTMAS LECTURES on BBC Four.

Having worked at the Ri for many years, I bet you can imagine how many incredible events I have witnessed in our wonderful lecture theatre. Right up there near the top of my list of favourites is an event that the Ri team pulled together at the last minute for the 2015 CHRISTMAS LECTURES. We were part-way through filming when we heard of a possible emergency spacewalk on the International Space Station following Tim Peake’s launch. Given the fact that the topic of the Lectures was ‘How to survive in space’ and that the Ri was awash with space experts and astronauts throughout December, could we pull off another live audience event with less than 48 hours to go? At around 8pm on Saturday 19 December, whilst simultaneously filming one of the Lectures in the theatre, we put a call out on social media and to our members for families to take part, and by mid-morning Monday we had over 400 people queuing up outside.

Within minutes, everyone was on the edge of their seats watching the live spacewalk, with live commentary not just from NASA ground control but also from Christmas lecturer Kevin Fong and astronaut Dan Tani. Dan himself has carried out several spacewalks and was able to explain elegantly the intricate details of every manoeuvre and communication with ground control. At one point, we saw the Earth in the background and Dan pointed out it was probably London. So, were we sort of watching ourselves in real-time via the ISS? Wow!

Not only that, but there was ample opportunity for Kevin and Dan to have a detailed two-way conversation with the young people in the audience about the value of space travel and what is still left to discover. Everyone was captivated, including me. I knew – as did everyone in the audience – that we were witnessing an incredible moment. For me though, it was more than that – I was witnessing science communication at its very best with the young audience at the heart of the experience.     

In fact, our audience is at the heart of everything we do, and that’s why we receive such fantastic feedback not just from people who attend our public talks in London but from all over the UK and beyond. One particular story of 2015 has left an indelible mark on me because it illustrates our ability not just to communicate interesting science, but to literally change people’s lives for the better. We received a note from a mum expressing her sincere thanks at the opportunity we gave her son to attend our series of Ri Computer Science Masterclasses supported by Causeway Technologies. Thanks to our extensive network of supporters and volunteers, the entire Ri Masterclass programme reaches thousands of young people at over 140 locations around the UK. This is what the note said:

I just wanted to say thank you for the opportunity given to my son Michael [not his real name]. At the start of the year Michael was experiencing very low self-esteem and to be honest wasn't really enjoying school. Since taking part in the masterclass his confidence has increased and he was selected to attend a residential course at Exeter uni to learn about AI... Michael now enjoys school and is looking forward to lots more courses and additional learning opportunities. The difference in Michael is remarkable. Thank you for your support. Thank you for being important in the life of a child.

Ask anyone working in the field of science communication what matters to them most, and more often than not it will be having some kind of impact as a result of their work. This note illustrates this impact in spades.

It‘s easy to measure this kind of impact when you receive a personal note from a parent whose child has taken part in a specific activity. But how do you measure the impact of, say, a short online video when you know thousands of people are watching and you don’t know who they are? These are the sorts of questions we are now trying to answer following the success of our online Ri Channel which now reaches millions of people around the world. 

An example of this is our ExpeRimental video series for ‘non-science savvy’ parents of young children. Alom Shaha has written a Ri blog about the initial rationale for this series, and Martha Henson has helped us to evaluate whether or not the films both reach this audience and have the intended impact. But as we released more films in 2015 we realised that we could do so much more with the content. Just take a look at one of my favourite videos – fizzy bottle rockets with Danielle and the team at the Islington Adventure Playground. This film led us to organise a training session with adventure playground workers across London, most of whom who had not thought of using science in their play setting. We helped them develop some science communication skills, and by doing so we were able to reach young people who perhaps might not have taken part in our other educational activities.        

Seeing as there are too many other 2015 highlights to describe in detail, I am now just going to attempt a shortlist of some of my favourites that I can share with you easily because they have been captured on film:

(1)    Short animations such as Everyday risk brought to you by our 2015 animator-in-residence Andrew Khosravani

(2)    Steven Pinker’s Ri talk which makes you think more deeply about the art of communication. Also, if you look closely at the packed-out audience you will see another highlight, i.e. that so many of our talks were sold out in 2015

(3)    24 amazing short films launched as a collection through an advent calendar in December that explore ‘A place called space’ through archive footage, spoken word poetry, animation and more.

(4)    2015 was the 200-year anniversary of the Davy safety lamp. We celebrated this with a talk given by Ri expert Professor Frank James and a short film explaining how it works

(5)    The launch of a new L’Oréal Young Scientist Centre workshop about making your own pinhole camera

(6)    A delight to work with the Royal Society of Biology and the Biochemical Society on an event exploring the exciting, but for some people controversial, topic of synthetic life

(7)    In celebration of International Year of Light, an Ri Discourse on light and the quantum given by the Nobel Laureate Serge Haroche – what an eloquent, interesting and yet humble man

So what’s next for 2016?

From dark matter and mathematical theorems to dinosaurs and explosions, we have plenty on offer for the curious mind. Building on our success at staging broader and more culturally focused events in 2015 with artists such as Grayson Perry and Gary Webb, in 2016 we will welcome Ian McEwan and Bonnie Greer to delve into issues such as ‘the self’ and responsibility.

Perhaps my favourite is February’s Discourse on climate system modelling by the Met Office Chief Scientist Professor Dame Julia Slingo. I’m hoping she will also provide a glimpse into her new role of helping to provide scientific advice to the European Commission.

And for those of you who want to become more involved in discussions about how science can be harnessed for maximum benefit to society, we have a new series of Ri Patron events that bring together a combination of today's leading thinkers and visionaries – including Demis Hassabis, Herman Hauser and Brooke Masters, chief regulation correspondent of the Financial Times – to explore a range of multidisciplinary topics.

Thank you to all who made 2015 such a success for the Ri – our staff, our trustees, our supporters, our volunteers, our members and our new but growing group of patrons. I’m looking forward to meeting many of you at our events in 2016. 

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