Peter Gallivan gives a look behind the scenes of this summer's CHRISTMAS LECTURES international tour.

For many of us on the CHRISTMAS LECTURES team 28 December, when the last lecture has been broadcast on the BBC, is the day we can finally relax. For some of us though, this is only the beginning, as it marks the start of planning for the international tour we take the lectures on every year.

This summer, we visited Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong, taking 2017 lecturer Sophie Scott and three large crates of props in tow to bring the lectures to over 3000 people. We even had to squeeze some of the smaller props into our hand luggage and past airport security where, much to my surprise, no one even questioned me on why I was carrying three replica animal skulls and a bodysuit covered in ping pong balls.

  • Fox statues outside a building in Singapore

    Exterior of a building in Singapore

    Credit: Peter Gallivan / Royal Institution

The aim of these trips is to showcase the innovative and world-class work the Ri does, and to demonstrate that science is a global and collaborate endeavour. The trips abroad were completed by me, Peter Gallivan, along with Fran Scott and Jemma Naumann.


The first leg of our trip took us to the clean, futuristic city of Singapore. Here the lectures are organised together with Singapore Science Centre and Mediacorp, the equivalent of the BBC in Singapore.

They are funded by A*Star, Singapore's Agency for Science, technology and Research. The lectures are recorded as live, in front of a studio audience of local school students and broadcast on primetime TV.

  • People walking through a market in Singapore

    Indoor market in Singapore

    Credit: Peter Gallivan / Royal Institution

It is tradition to feature local researchers in the lectures abroad, and this year we had Kheng Hui Yeo and Paul Chan to explain the science behind the recent Yanny/Laurel phenomenon. It was amazing to see 400 students’ confusion as Paul took a new pair of words ‘rainy’ and ‘moment’, and slowly changed the audio so that the audience heard each of these two words.

The lectures also features local Comedian Jack Ng and a grand finale from Illusionist JC Sum. Thankfully JC made someone other than Sophie disappear, as this was only our first stop abroad, and we still need Sophie for Japan and Hong Kong.

  • Screen showing Sophie Scott in TV studio

    The view backstage of Sophie performing in Singapore

    Credit: Peter Gallivan / Royal Institution

The staff from Singapore Science Centre and Mediacorp were a pleasure to work with, and we even managed to find time to enjoy some of the sights of Singapore, from watching the amazing light show at Gardens by the Bay to enjoying some delicious seafood.

The whole trip of course could not have gone so smoothly in Singapore without the amazing Sophie Scott, who came to Singapore straight from a conference in Canada and still managed to deliver an amazing lecture.


After a brief rest in London, it was off to Japan, to deliver the lectures in Tokyo. Here the lectures are sponsored by The Yomiuri Shimbun (the most widely circulated newspaper in the world, about 10 million a day!), with the help of Tokyo Institute of Technology, where they also are performed.

  • Woman standing in front of Japanese cans

    Jemma Naumann, the Ri's L'Oreal Young Scientist Centre Facilitator, in Japan

    Credit: Peter Gallivan / Royal Institution

To help with the language barrier, in Tokyo the audience all have earpieces to receive a live translation into Japanese of Sophie's speech, which is rather fitting for a lecture about communication.

The translators had their work cut out this year, as Sophie does't always stick to the script and often adds in interesting extra bits of story – great for the audience but a little more challenging for the translators.

  • Woman with green screens and Japanese writing in background

    Sophie Scott performing in Japan

    Credit: Peter Gallivan / Royal Institution

To explain how animals use pheromones to communicate, local researcher Daisuke Kurabayashi brought along some silk moths. They would have made David Attenborough proud, performing reliably on cue at every lecture and disproving the old adage that you shouldn’t work with animals live on stage.

The same unfortunately couldn’t be said about the Madagascar hissing cockroaches. We apparently found the most relaxed and pacifist cockroaches in Japan as, no matter how hard we tried, we could not get them to hiss.

  • Hand holding an insect in a jar

    Insect from the shows in Japan

    Credit: Peter Gallivan / Royal Institution

To assist Jemma backstage, Tokyo Tech provided an army of students, who brought on and off demos with swift precision, and even danced covering in ping-pong balls – something I am sure they were not told when they initially volunteering their time.

The team from Yomiuri were also fantastic, managing to find fans, glow sticks and all sorts of other props at the drop of a hat.

All in all the shows in Tokyo ran like clockwork, and we celebrated our success with a now traditional evening of Karaoke. Last year's lecturer Saiful Islam put on a fantastic show singing classics of The Smiths, and Sophie carried this torch on with aplomb.

Hong Kong

Our initial plans to travel straight from Tokyo to Hong Kong were somewhat scuppered by super typhoon Mangkhut, which caused all flights to and from Hong Kong to be cancelled for three days.

This gave a bonus of an unplanned extra day in Tokyo, but also meant a longer flight to Hong Kong via The Philippines, as this was the only flight left with space. We manged to land safely (albeit at midnight!) and could begin work on the final leg of our world tour.

Despite a typhoon hitting, Hong Kong was up and running fine, minus the odd broken tree here and there.

  • Man standing with view of Hong Kong in background

    Pete Gallivan on tour in Hong Kong

    Credit: Peter Gallivan / Royal Institution

Hong Kong is a new addition to the tour this year, and our host is Kellett School, the British International School in Hong Kong. Their science department, led by Steward Brown, has been doing their own Kellett Christmas Lectures full of exciting demonstrations for the last few years, so the pressure was on for us to deliver a fantastic lecture for their community.

  • Sign promoting the Language of Life Christmas Lectures

    CHRISTMAS LECTURE sign in Kellett School, Hong Kong

    Credit: Peter Gallivan / Royal Institution

Kellett has a fantastically equipped theatre, which once again made Fran envious of the amount of backstage space available.

We however met our first technical hiccup, whilst setting up our wonderful fire organ (built the wonderful Dave Anstell). Whilst the fire organ survived being shipped half way around the world, trouble arose when we connected it up to the gas and, well, nothing much happened.

The problem appeared to be caused by the gas regulator not letting enough gas flow through, and it looked for a while like our most impressive demo might not work. Thankfully a flurry of phone calls resulted in a higher-flow value being sourced, and the next day we had the organ burning like a charm.

  • Horizontal tubes with flames coming out of the tops

    Our fire organ performing in Hong Kong

    Credit: Peter Gallivan / Royal Institution

As well as the now unsurprisingly silent Madagascar hissing cockroaches, we were also joined by some wonderful snakes who performed perfectly, showing off their wonderful sense of smell. They didn’t even seem put off by the disgusting smells we had been firing out of the smoke ring cannon just before they came on stage.

Fran thankfully had a team of willing science teachers on hand to help backstage with demos, and their assistance was invaluable in putting on a smooth running show. It was also great to have them as part of the lectures; Mr. Wawn in particular had a fantastic cameo appearance with a failed elephant’s toothpaste demonstration – a fitting part for a chemistry teacher.

  • Megaphone image on poster

    Setting up for the Kellett School performance

    Credit: Peter Gallivan / Royal Institution

The shows in Hong Kong were a fantastic addition to the tour, and thanks to Kellett School for funding us to come over to Hong Kong and in particular Mr Brown for making it all happen. Hong Kong was also Sophie’s last appearance as Christmas Lecturer, so we were proud to induct her as a life member of the Ri at the end of the last lecture.

Our arrival back in London saw the end of our 2017 CHRISTMAS LECTURES, and a wonderful year working with Sophie Scott. But there was no time to rest as it was all hands on deck to start planning for our 2018 lectures, which will be ready to watch on TV in just few days. Bring it on!

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