Nancy Rothwell

February 4, 2005

Twice. But I'd do it all again';Opinion Showing children the wonders of science is one of the toughest jobs around, but it is also vital and enjoyable

I was delighted to hear that the television channel Five will broadcast the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures.

The broadcasts may not top the audience ratings, but they are an important British tradition, bringing science to thousands of children through experiments and vivid displays.

Recently, scientists have been invited to apply to give the lectures. I understand that the interest has been considerable.

But to those considering the prospect, do think twice; this was probably the most challenging task I have ever done in science - though also probably the most enjoyable.

Production meetings, planning scripts and designing experiments and props began months ahead.

Giving five hours of talks (as it was then) seemed like a breeze to a seasoned lecturer, until you learn that on average, one prop, demonstration or experiment is needed for each minute - that's about 300 overall.

Ideally they should involve a child volunteer (preferably unharmed by the experience), an animal or an explosion, or, even better, all three.

My turn in 1998 was made more complicated as the BBC had decided to film a documentary, The Making of the Christmas Lectures . This meant being followed everywhere by a camera and sound recorder, with some embarrassing results. It wasn't going so badly until I announced (very foolishly, it transpired) that I didn't normally rehearse lectures. As the jaws of the whole production team dropped simultaneously, I had my first serious regrets.

The problem is that the Christmas Lectures are not just about giving a few talks without Autocue or notes. You also have to remember where to stand, how to turn, which camera to face, which cue to give the props team as well as instantly recall the name of every child you invite to volunteer. And you have to keep smiling throughout.

The producer told me that no professional presenter would ever agree to do such a thing. They wouldn't if they knew the fee.

The Faraday Theatre is much smaller than it seems on the telly, particularly when filled with huge cameras, blinding lights, equipment, props, miles of wire and hundreds of children looking at you expectantly.

The production team all have "talk-back" with tiny microphones so they can communicate with each other throughout. It's just the lecturer who has no clue about what's happening. The scope for things to go wrong is enormous.

And much did.

Brian, a cute baby monkey, was due for the opening scene of lecture one.

But he went absent without leave. He was later discovered in "makeup". Then he peed on me during the lecture.

I nearly lost most of my hair setting light to a fairy cake that had been dropped in liquid oxygen (to demonstrate how much energy it contains, which is more than you would have thought), the meerkats escaped, the hamsters tried to bite each other and my fingers, and I was bitten by the lobster.


I had my brain scanned, blood taken, electrocardiogram recorded and even had to compare my fitness with an Olympic cyclist. I caught a virus in the middle of the lectures and had a fever in lecture three (appropriately, it was the one on temperature regulation), and all but lost my voice for lecture four.

Stig was my worst memory. He was a large iguana. We never hit it off. Stig tried to relieve me of several digits during our first meeting. I sighed with relief as he was carried off after completing his turn and I still had all my fingers. But Stig nearly had the last laugh.

He escaped backstage, raced round the theatre and nearly got to take his revenge behind camera six, halted only by a flying rugby tackle from the cameraman as the recording continued.

The highlight, I am told, was measuring how my PhD student Rob responded to sitting in a bath of icy water at the temperature of the North Sea. Rob didn't think so, but he did get quite a bit of fan mail and later got to repeat the experience on a TV programme I did with Gary Lineker. After two weeks of rehearsing and filming with a fantastic team more than 50-strong, I returned north, sleep-deprived and having lost several kilograms in weight.

But that's not the end of it.

Christmas lecturers are inundated with requests to do TV and radio shows (I had decided to refuse everything for a year so I could get some research done), more than 1,000 letters and emails arrived, and then you have to give the lectures again, twice, in Japan for Japanese TV. That's another story.

Of course, if given the opportunity, I would do it all again, without hesitation.

Nancy Rothwell is MRC research professor in the faculty of life sciences at Manchester University.

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