December 24 – The Best Tradition of All

Today’s factismal: The longest running lecture series in the world are the Royal Institute’s Christmas Lectures which have been held since 1825.

Back in 1825, Michael Faraday noticed a problem: people just didn’t understand science. They thought of scientists as wizards who did things that ordinary folks could never accomplish. Sad to say, a lot of scientists of the day agreed with that view. That’s because most of them came from upper class families and had spent their childhood learning Latin and visiting foreign countries while the children of the lower class families had spent their time working in factories. But most of the upper crust thought that they (and the scientists that overwhelmingly came from them) were just “better”. But Faraday knew that sort of thinking was bunk (to put it politely); after all, Faraday himself came from a lower class family.

Faraday delivers one of his popular Christmas Lectures (Image courtesy Alexander Blaikley)

Faraday delivers one of his popular Christmas Lectures
(Image courtesy Alexander Blaikley)

And so Faraday decided to do something to spread the joy of learning and science and in doing so created one of the more popular modern holiday traditions. He decided to have an annual Christmas lecture, to be open and free to the public and held on the grounds of the Royal Institution itself. To put this in context, that would be like a researcher at the Smithsonian deciding to have an annual party in the dinosaur hall; obviously, it would need a lot of pull. Fortunately for posterity, Faraday had that pull, thanks to his many successes as an experimental physicist. Even more fortunately, Faraday was very clever as well as being very smart; rather than do every lecture himself, he decided to alternate as a lecturer with other scientists and even had the first two lectures given by famous scientists who weren’t him. As a result, the annual lecture came to be seen as both a mark of distinction that the scientists fought for and an opportunity to hear about real science that the public loved.

'Nuff said?

‘Nuff said?

That tradition has carried on for the past 188 years; only World War II was able to stop the series (and that was just for three years). This year will be no exception; the lecture will be delivered by Allison Woolard and discuss “Life Fantastic”. But if you can’t wait to get your science on, why not browse throught he collection of older lectures? Though they don’t have Faraday on tape (that not having been invented for another 97 years), they do have just about every lecture since 1973. So go, listen, enjoy!

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