What makes the #xmaslectures?

Which special elements capture the essence of a CHRISTMAS LECTURE?

  • Credit: Paul Wilkinson

As we head into the final few weeks of preparing for the CHRISTMAS LECTURES things start to get very busy at the Ri. My to do list, for example, includes the phrases ‘dog lady’, ‘more black pee’ and ‘end on frozen face’! Amidst the organised chaos I’ve been thinking about the key elements that make the Lectures really special.

Each year I’m very aware that I will be delivering an event that many people hold fond memories of so there’s extra pressure not to disappoint or miss the high benchmark set over so many years. Equally though, it’s important to innovate and continue to develop the series so they meet the quality expected by modern TV audiences and continue to stay relevant.

There are, every year, a number of things that I try to make sure are included to give the lectures their hallmark. Here’s my list, covering both the main event and the wider project.


Demos are pretty much the first thing that most people associate with the CHRISTMAS LECTURES. Our friends over at sciencedemo.org have written much better and more extensively on demos than I have space to here, as there is an awful lot to say about them. Over the years, we’ve had a fair few memorable ones, from the leaking water man in Hugh Montgomery’s 2007 lectures (around 3 min) to the (to our knowledge) first ever structure made of gun cotton last year (at 1 min). We try to get a wide range of styles of demos spread throughout the show, but one type that we always like to include is one involving the whole audience doing something.

Cutting edge science

I’m incredibly proud of the fact that we regularly present research published within the last year, in an event aimed at young people. We don’t put big ‘new science’ klaxons round it, and we try to make it understandable for everyone by weaving it into the narrative. I took it as a mark of our success to hear a teacher complaining that the lectures weren't as hard as they used to be, moments after hearing the results of a paper published less than a month before.

Unanswered questions

I passionately believe that it’s also so important to show that science isn’t just a set of facts there to be learnt, but a living breathing discipline that the audience has the potential to shape. With this in mind we always like to include the big questions that scientists are currently pondering, and invite the audience to help discover the answers to them in the future. When paired with the latest thinking from the last point, I believe this can create some incredibly powerful moments.

Sharing the reality of science

There are a number of things about being a scientist that don’t normally get an airing on TV. Working in a lab can mean that someone is working on an experiment for years and years before they make a breakthrough, while down the corridor a colleague can discover something groundbreaking by accident. If we can work in even a taste of the frustrations when things don’t work, the importance of teamwork and the creativity that scientists use every day, it's a job well done.

The chance to involve everyone

This year (2013), it’s the turn of the biologists, but I really enjoy the chance every year to get under the skin of a new discipline and to discover and work with a new community of passionate, committed and enthusiastic people. We're also pleased that each year brings us an opportunity to work with new organisations, like this year the Wellcome Trust, Cell Therapy Catapult and BBSRC, to further embed the CHRISTMAS LECTURES throughout the scientific community.

The advent calendar

Although this will be only its second year, it’s already become a key fixture of the CHRISTMAS LECTURES project. I love that the advent calendar gives us the opportunity to tell more stories and stretch ourselves a bit more – to take the subject in different directions. I’m a big fan of the radio show Radiolab, and one of my favourite aspects is their imaginative and varied approach to a given topic. To be able to try something similar, albeit on vastly smaller scale and through video, is such a privilege and a joy.

As I say, this is my list, but I’d love to hear your thoughts too below the line.

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