13 Journeys Through Space and Time

Like many, I have watched some of the Royal Institution’s (RI) Christmas Lectures but not all of them. That’s not a bad thing as they have been happening since 1825 and I could not have done that anyway. However, having listened to last night’s informative talk on the history of the Christmas lectures, that will change and they will become an event to look forward to.

Colin Stuart is an astronomical speaker, presenter at the Greenwich Observatory, author of at least seven books, contributor to newspapers, astronomy magazines and television programmes, and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. His last book and topic of this month’s talk – ‘13 Journeys Through Space and Time’ – deals with the history of 13 of the great astronomy and science RI Christmas Lectures.

However, this was not just a rehash of the lectures themselves; this was a lateral look at the history, background, ethos of the RI lectures and some of the great scientists and characters that have presented these talks. Some of the names of the more recent Christmas lectures presenters will be fairly well known; such as the wonderful Monica Grady in 2003 (who has also given a talk at OAS in the past) and Kevin Fong in 2015 on how to survive in space. However, some stand out in history, such as Sir Robert Stanley Ball in 1881 (so popular that he was to return another 4 times to give the lecture), Sir James Hopwood Jeans in 1933, Sir Bernard Lovell in 1965 (one of a quartet of presenters) and, of course, the legendary Carl Sagan in 1977.

The Christmas lectures are not a ‘one-off’ affair but take place over a number of days during the festive period and are primarily aimed at providing plenty of practical opportunities for the children attending to get their hands on to some actual experiments and explosions; the presenting area often crammed full of children from the audience!
Stuart’s book, ‘13 Journeys Through Space and Time’, was available to purchase on the night and I now proudly own a signed copy and am looking forward to a read which will take me back through the history of these wonderful lectures, the little known associated intrigues and the presenters that made RI Christmas Lectures the wonderful event they were and are.

As you know I am closely linked to the Society’s commitment to Outreach and was therefore greatly moved by the quote from former RI Director Sir Lawrence Bragg who perhaps summed up the ethos of the talks best when he wrote to his assistant encouraging – “Never talk about science, show it to them”.

Thanks to Colin Stuart for a great talk.

Hugh Alford ~ Vice-Chair

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