Friday, December 25, 1998 Published at 06:44 GMT
Science comes alive
The tradition has always been to present science as theatre
It is there, in 1826, that he began one of the great traditions in UK science - the Christmas Lectures for children.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.