Christmas has been and gone, and with it came tacky jumpers, harsh cold weather, endless family reunions and an uncomfortably full stomach. But not to worry; the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures were here to save us all.
This year was the 80th anniversary of the televised Royal Institution (RI) Christmas Lectures, but the lectures themselves have been taking place since 1825, when John Millington gave a lecture on Natural Philosophy. Michael Faraday presented a number of these lectures (19 series in all), at a time when science education for young children was often inaccessible. In 1855 he gave a talk on ‘the distinctive properties of common metals’, attended by Prince Albert and his two sons. His last set of Christmas lectures was given in 1860; it was a six-part series entirely dedicated to the ‘chemical history of a candle’.
In 1936, the Christmas lecture was televised for the first time ever. It lasted just 15 minutes and was given by GI Taylor on Ships. It was possibly the first ever science program on TV. They have only stopped once, from 1939 to 1942, during the Blitz in World War 2 when it was too dangerous for children to attend. Other renowned lecturers include David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan and Nancy Rothwell just to name a few.
This year, the lectures were given by Professor Saiful Islam, a professor of materials chemistry at the University of Bath. His work involves using computers to model the behaviour of different materials, with a particular interest in clean energy. Despite a very busy past few weeks of preparation for these lectures, the professor was generous enough to spare some of his time to talk to me about a number of interesting topics.
What first sparked your interest in chemistry?
At GCSE level I was quite good at science. I wouldn’t say I was passionate about it at that age, I loved English literature as well – I loved the books we were reading. But when I went on to do A-Levels I ended up doing chemistry, physics & maths, probably because they were my favourite subjects, and then at A-level I could definitely say that my favourite was chemistry because I really enjoyed it. So it was quite easy for me to pick chemistry to do at degree level. I suppose I had a bit of parental pressure (against chemistry) because one route out of poverty is always a fixed career, for example medicine, which I think mum and dad would have liked me to do, but they accepted I wasn’t too keen on that. So yeah, A-Level chemistry is what really sparked my interest.
Why did you choose your specific field of research?
So my field of research is to do with new materials for green energy technologies. I think I first started studying that area when working for my Doctorate (PhD) at University College Language and a particular area of interest was high temperature superconductors. That was a really exciting research topic; it was taking off at the time. Superconductors are materials that show no resistance to electrical current so they have really amazing potential energy applications. So that’s how it started off.
You served a term on the Royal Society’s Diversity Committee. What more do you think should be done to ensure racial and gender equality in science; how far do you think it has progressed and how far do you think we still have to go?
I was really happy to be involved with the Royal Society’s Diversity committee – I think that if you can get people from all backgrounds, and increased participation from women and ethnic minorities, then by working together it will really improve innovation and creativity. In terms of improving that, I think that promoting science and its importance as early as possible is key. It also means improving the standards in all schools across the country. I think we’ve still got some way to go; if you look at certain areas of university academia there definitely is gender parity. Things are improving, but not at a fast enough rate.
What are your views on religion and science?
That is a very difficult and quite controversial question. I can only say what I believe; I am a humanist, an atheist – despite what my name may suggest – so I’m not religious at all. As a scientist I believe that we should follow the evidence and be thinking in a reasoned and rational way. On those grounds, there are some aspects of religion that I think are not necessarily compatible with science. I think a lot of religion is connected to who your family is, and sometimes children don’t have such a free choice. I think we should follow evidence, follow reason and follow rational thought.
What were your initial reactions when you found out you would be giving this year’s RI Christmas lectures?
My initial reactions were honour, privilege and shock; I couldn’t believe that I had been asked to present this year’s series. Those were quickly replaced with excitement but also fear and anxiety; because the Christmas lectures are so well-known the expectations are very high and the pressure is on to put on an amazing show, so that’s scary.
In terms of your research, what day-to-day problems do you face?
When I’m talking to my students, I always try and replace the word ‘problem’ with ‘challenge’. So in terms of the challenges that I face, I’m actually very fortunate because I’ve managed to receive the necessary funding most of the time throughout my career, and I’ve been able to take on PhD students and post-doctoral researchers. Getting research funding is always a challenge and all researchers face that challenge. On a day-to-day basis, I guess the biggest problem is finding time to do all the things you want to do, because you want to discuss research with your team, you want to write up your research into papers, you want to present your work at conferences, you want to present your research in order to receive more funding to do more research. Balancing that with other university work such as teaching and administration can make it quite a challenge to do all the things you love doing. I am fortunate because I get to do research and teaching, both of which I really enjoy.
Do you think that researchers across the country receive enough funding?
I think the simple answer is no. The long answer is that if you compare how much the UK spends on scientific research as a percentage of its overall wealth, it’s less than, for example, Germany and the US. Considering what scientific research can do for a country in terms of innovation, industry & jobs, I personally think that more should be spent on research; this will benefit society as a whole.
Do you think that, both in your specific field and in chemistry and science as a whole, there will be many major discoveries made within the next decade or so?
If you look back 10, 15 years ago, who then would have predicted that the mini supercomputers inside each of your smartphones today are more powerful than the computers that sent man to the moon? So yeah, I think that there will be major advances in the next ten years, hopefully within my field of energy research, for example can we get more powerful batteries for electric cars? Can we get better and cheaper solar panels for houses and generating electricity in this country? We have come a long, long way since the 1950s in terms of the amount of renewable energy that we use. As a scientist, I’m always optimistic and I think that now especially is a great time to be a scientist in many fields, including energy, disease & nanotechnology.
What advice would you give young people who would like to pursue a career in science?
I would say follow what you’re really interested in; follow your passion. I do think it’s a very exciting time to be a scientist, despite occasional bigoted news in the press. There’s a lot of interesting research to be done in all areas of science. I would also say that a lot of it is about the perspiration; science is very hard work and it can be difficult at times but the rewards can be great. I’m always excited about the new things that are happening in science, and as a scientist you have the opportunity to make new discoveries
The Professor had big things planned for this year’s lectures; to honour the past Christmas Lectures has invited back 10 past speakers to feature in his lectures.
In one of his lectures, he switched of all the electricity in the theatre, and had to try and work out how much energy is required to power the theatre up again. He used experiments to show science in action, my favourite of which is the Rube Goldberg machine. This highly complex contraption demonstrates the conservation of energy; that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only transferred from one form to another. One example of a Rube Goldberg machine is the one used in the introduction to the TV series Elementary. It is extremely complicated and took over 12 hours to set up correctly, but it’s spectacular to watch. Another experiment performed was relighting the wick of a candle by holding a flame above the smoke. It is a very simple but neat and effective demonstration (and one which the audience loved). The magic behind this is that the smoke is actually wax vapour that burns when the flame is near it and creates a channel of fuel down to the wick, relighting the wick. There were many interesting demonstrations, and a world record was even broken.
The lectures were thoroughly interesting to watch. So much hard work went on behind the scenes by a very dedicated team, who helped Professor Islam to continue the RI Christmas Lecture tradition in style, inspiring and encouraging more young children to be passionate about all aspects of science.
If you missed the lectures, do not fear; they are available to watch on BBC iPlayer. Previous episodes are available to watch online at www.rigb.org/christmas-lectures/watch
Photos given to Young Scientists Journal with permission from the Royal Institution of Great Britain.