The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

“We teach science and art and history and economics by a series of carefully constructed lies.”

Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen

Ah, yes, the RICLs, the annual event when a lecture hall full of children is patronised and fed half-truths about science, all in the name of Education.

This year: The Modern Alchemist, otherwise known as The Chemist. Presumably the title is meant to capitalise on the Harry Potter-ish associations of alchemy.

The first thing that really annoyed me was when the lecturer – one Peter Wothers – announced that “chemistry tells us fundamental things about the world in a way that the other sciences don’t”.

(Well, that’s almost certainly not an exact quote, but it’s the general gist.)

Er, excuse me, what about physics? Protons, neutrons, electrons, quarks, quantum? Stuff that’s revolutionised our understanding of the world and our place in it? Fundamental stuff, in other words.

And then there’s the made-up science. Specifically the part where Wothers explained the reactivity of elements using tennis balls on shelves that pulled two giant atoms together. What happened to the shell model of the atom? That’s what I learned at school, and it certainly made a lot more sense than tennis balls.

There are, to be fair, some good things about the Christmas Lectures (on BBC4, by the way). Last night, they made a gold-foil boat float on argon gas. That was really quite cool. And the lightning. Lightning is always good.

I think that the RICLs are probably good for getting children interested in science rather than necessarily telling them anything they actually need to know. But if that means a child grows up to be a chemist inventing a life-saving drug, or a physicist building the first time machine, or a biologist saving the rhino, isn’t that enough?

Anyway, what do I know? I’m just an English Student. Merry Christmas everyone!

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