The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures are perhaps best known for the noisy, messy physics and chemistry experiments, performed to demonstrate aspects of cutting edge-science in front of an eager, young audience. In years when the lecturer’s chosen subject is biology – in particular the science of the natural world – these demonstrations often take on a distinctly wilder tone, as menageries of living animals are welcomed into the RI’s world famous lecture theatre.
I delved into the last century of the RI’s biological Christmas Lectures for my book 11 Explorations into Life on Earth, and here’s my pick of the most delightful, intriguing and tricky animal assistants.
1. Ringtail lemur. Sir David Attenborough.
In Sir David Attenborough’s 1973 lectures on the Languages of Animals, he brought in a parade of animals, to illustrate how different species communicate with each other. Not all his guests cooperated. The porcupine refused to come out of his box to show his warning stripes and the mother mouse ignored the ultrasonic squeaks of her babies. But there’s little doubt that the creature Attenborough was most taken by was the ringtail lemur, called Tammy, who he cuddled for a few moments. He fed Tammy grapes while attempting to explain how in the wild, the lemur’s relatives use glands on their wrists to smear smelly secretions on their tails, before engaging in stink fights with their opponents. Luckily, Tammy was too busy scoffing grapes to make his long, stripy tail stink.
2. Antarctic sea spider. Lloyd Peck
Marine biologist from the British Antarctic Survey, Professor Lloyd Peck, wowed the audience at his 2004 lectures with gigantic sea spiders (which are in fact not real spiders, but distant relatives) that he brought back from the frozen southern continent. He draped the leggy creatures over his hand and the children gasped in horror and delight at their huge size. Some Antarctic sea spiders can be as big as dinner plate, Peck told them. He then went on the explain why they grow to be so much bigger than their European counterparts – he showed one of those that sits neatly on his fingertip. Their secret seems to be the cold, oxygen rich water of the Southern Ocean.
3. Lion cub. Sir Julian Huxley
Back in 1937, Sir Julian Huxley gave a series of lectures on rare species and the disappearance of wildlife. At the time, Huxley was Secretary of London Zoo, and later would help found the World Wildlife Fund. He brought with him a multitude of live specimens from the zoo to show his audience. There were snakes and crocodiles, a red kite (a bird of prey which at the time was almost extinct in Britain) and mice from the Faroe Isles with unusually large feet. The biggest reaction from the audience came when a handler from the zoo led in a reluctant lion cub, called Max, who was clearly unhappy being in the limelight, but nonetheless charmed the children.
4. Stick insect. Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins was the first Christmas Lecturer to tackle the subject of evolution. In 1991, he presented the audience with a papier mâché model of ‘Mount Improbable’ (made by his mother). He used this metaphorical edifice to explain how living creatures that appear to have been designed by a creator, can in fact have evolved in a series of small, evolutionary steps: rather than leaping all the way to the top of the mountain in one, improbable leap, species can gradually ascend along a winding path. Dawkins popped a live stick insect at the top of the model mountain and pointed out how it seems designed to resemble a twig. While he’s talking, the stick insect went for a stroll across Dawkins’ rather fetching flowery shirt. Bryson Gore, RI’s lecture assistant, came to the rescue, and tried to persuade the stick insect to let go, but got himself just as stuck to as Dawkins. The two of them wrestled for a few moments, desperately trying to disentangle themselves from the large insect. ‘Bryson and I are always doing double acts like this,’ Dawkins joked. Eventually the insect gave up and received a hearty round of applause from the audience.
5. Wind-up duck. James Gray
In 1951, Professor James Gray, a zoologist from Cambridge University, gave a series of Christmas Lectures about the how animals move. He borrowed lots of animals from London Zoo, which were allowed to fly, trot, walk and hop around the famous Lecture Theatre. He also brought in mechanical models to demonstrate key aspects of animal locomotion including an endearing wind-up duck, which paddled up and down a large tank of water, showing the audience how it moves forwards – like all animals do – by pushing backwards against the world around it.
11 Explorations into Life on Earth by Helen Scales is published by Michael O’Mara Books, priced £12.99
The 2017 Christmas Lectures by the Royal Institution, presented by neuroscientist Professor Sophie Scott, will be broadcast on BBC Four in late December, produced by Windfall Films.
Join us at Stanfords on Thursday 9th November, 6.30 where Helen will be talking about interviewing lecturers including David Attenborough and Richard Dawkins, accessing the RI’s amazing archives and finding out about the most unusual creatures – from jaguars and sloths to chimps and knife-fish – who have been introduced to spellbound young audiences. She’ll also spill behind-the-scenes secrets about the most amazing experiments, badly-behaved animal co-stars and nervous lecturers. Buy tickets here.