The Royal Institution

The Royal Institution (or Ri, as its typographers have it) is one of the traditional bodies in Britain which explains science to the public, along with the Royal Society and the British Association. They overlap in function as well as membership, and I would be hard pressed to delineate their roles, let alone how they relate to newer bodies such as the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science, or Sense about Science.

The Royal Institution was founded in 1799, and occupies a building in Albemarle Street (off Piccadilly) with an impressive façade. The first two scientific directors were Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday, who instituted the tradition of public lectures. Davy’s lectures were so popular with London society that Albemarle Street became the first one-way street in London “to avoid the traffic jam of carriages on Davy’s lecture days”, according to Richard Holmes in The Age of Wonder. Faraday instituted two traditions which survive to this day: the Friday Evening Discourses, and the Christmas Lectures, now a staple of holiday television.

In their day, cutting-edge science was done on the premises; this is no longer the case. The building houses the Faraday Museum, and at the entrance to the toilets is a huge reproduction of the ten pound note, featuring a portrait of Faraday and an illustration of one of his lectures.

Yesterday, for the first time, I attended a Friday Evening Discourse, or FED. The atmosphere could be described as formal but not ceremonial. The audience were divided into three classes: lecture only; drinks and lecture; drinks, lecture and dinner. Each class was shepherded in at the appropriate moment, with no mingling permitted. Dress was formal – compulsory for the third class, strongly recommended for the others. The speaker was not introduced, and was not permitted to greet the audience or announce her title. A clock rang when time was up, at which point the lecture had to end promptly.

The audience was swelled by the presence of people who had attended a reunion celebration for the Royal Institution Mathematics Masterclasses. These Masterclasses were established 30 years ago, after Christopher Zeemam’s Christmas Lectures had demonstrated a hunger for mathematics among viewers. In his lectures, Zeeman gave perhaps the first-ever mathematical proof on popular television. Apparently, there had been a fight between him and the BBC, who refused to show a proof and forbade him to give one. Finally, Zeeman had said, “I am going to include a proof in my lecture; you can televise it or not as you choose.” Events proved him right.

The discourse was given by Rosemary Bailey. The subject was that good experimental design can guarantee that the result of an experiment is an unbiased estimator of what we are trying to measure, with smallest possible variance. As a result, we increase our chances of getting the right result from our experiment; hence we not only save money (fewer wasted trials), but also save the Earth’s resources (in agricultural experiments) or even lives (in clinical trials). As an example, she discussed the disastrous TeGenero trial at Northwick Park in 2006 and showed how simple principles and a little thought could result in estimates with only one-third the variance of those in the textbook design for Phase 1 (first-in-man) clinical trials. Great stuff!


About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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One Response to The Royal Institution

  1. Nigel White says:

    I was there and managed to say hello afterwards. I really enjoyed the talk, a nice mix combinatorics and pratical applications. There was a mention of Kirkman’s school-girl problem, which reminded me of when I was a boy and ran in my school’s cross-country team. At our county’s schools’ championships 15 schools entered in one mass race, but for about half of these schools we also had bilateral matches during the course of the season. I speculated to myself whether you could design a league so that each school participated in seven matches against two different teams each time – I eventually mangaged to produce a such a fixture list. It was only some years later when reading W W Rouse Ball’s ‘Mathematical Recreations and Essays’ that I realised I had posed to myself and solved the Kirkman school-girl problem as a 15 year old.

    I think it is a shame about the lack of mingling. Until a few years ago, there were also no questions asked in the lecture theatre at the end of the discourse. Instead, the whole audience was invited to a drinks reception afterwards, which gave an opportunity to button-hole the speaker if you wished. Financial stringency has cut out the drinks for all, but I think this has detracted from the occasion to some extent.

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