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Friday, December 25, 1998 Published at 06:44 GMT


Science comes alive

The tradition has always been to present science as theatre

Get a taste of Nancy Rothwell's lectures - and watch for the unexpected
Pick up a British 20 note and you will see an image of Michael Faraday, the pioneer of electricity, printed on the back. He is pictured giving a lecture in the theatre that now carries his name at the Royal Institution in London's Mayfair.

It is there, in 1826, that he began one of the great traditions in UK science - the Christmas Lectures for children.

[ image: Faraday: Gave us mains power and the Christmas lectures]
Faraday: Gave us mains power and the Christmas lectures
There have been 168 such lectures, covering a huge range of subjects. The lecturers have included Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine, evolution expert Richard Dawkins and the popular naturalist Sir David Attenborough.

The lectures have built a reputation for presenting important topics in an easy to understand way - a combination of wise words and daring displays which seem to have just as much appeal to adults as to children.

[ image: Nancy Rothwell aims to bring her science alive]
Nancy Rothwell aims to bring her science alive
Of course, these days, the Christmas Lectures are now a major television event as well.

The 1998 lecturer, Professor Nancy Rothwell, must present her ideas not just to a lecture theatre full of children, but to a TV audience of millions.

Rothwell will be taking us inside the body to discover the control mechanisms that help keep us and other animals in balance no matter what is going on outside or in. She has spent weeks preparing five individual lectures that will run on consecutive days starting on Monday, 28 December, on BBC Two.

David Attenborough: The joy is in the children's faces
"This is a very prestigious set of lectures and to look back at the people who've given them previously fills me with awe and dread," says Nancy.

"These are some of the most famous scientists that I've always looked up to, so the fact that I'm now doing this is really a great privilege. I'm incredibly flattered."

Theatre and science

The lectures have been broadcast on the BBC since 1966. It was actually Sir David Attenborough, then controller of the network, who first put them on the screen. His appearance in front of the children took place in 1973. When he recalls the experience he says: "Oh, by far the most difficult thing I've ever done on television."

[ image: David Attenborough:  It's hard work]
David Attenborough: It's hard work
It is difficult because tradition demands that the lectures be good theatre as well as good science. Special experimental equipment has to be built to demonstrate the lecturers' ideas and the whole event, although recorded for later transmission, has to be delivered "as live".

It is a formula for excitement, and a guarantee that something unexpected will happen. In the opening few minutes of Rothwell's first lecture, for example, she brings an animal on to the stage to illustrate a particular point and is soon in fits of laughter as the creature urinates down her blouse.

Nancy Rothwell: "Some of the most famous scientists in history have given the lectures"
Rothwell is only the second woman to present the lecture series. The daughter of a physiology lecturer, she once wrote an essay about wanting to be a famous scientist.

When she was eight, she became ill and missed two years of school. Bored and stuck at home, she began looking at the human skeletons that hung around the house and pictures in physiology books. The rest, as they say, is history.

She has done ground-breaking work in a study of obesity and revealed ways in which brain damage might be contained following a stroke.

"In these lectures, I want to try to get people fascinated by physiology and make them understand a little bit more about what is behind things - things that we consider just everyday normal reactions in ourselves or other animals - and try to make them realise 'Oh, that's how that works!' and that so many of the things we see are linked together...I'm lucky in that the things I work on are things people can quite easily relate to."

Nancy Rothwell's series of lectures - Staying Alive: The Body in Balance - are broadcast on BBC Two in the week 28-01Dec/Jan. Transmission times vary.

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