Original URL: https://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/03/25/royal_institute_lectures/

Help save the endangered QUANTUM OWL, pleads Reg man

Chip in for proper science with balls and bad smells

By Dominic Connor

Posted in Science, 25th March 2013 08:29 GMT

Tin rattler I’m sitting in Faraday’s lecture theatre where electricity was first demonstrated, taking part in yet another Royal Institution near-death experience.

You need to drop your simplistic idea that the RI is about the Christmas Lectures we all know and love: it runs by far the largest UK science outreach programme, hitting around 100,000 kids per year with hands on science and lectures from the sort of scientist you wished you had as a teacher when you were at school. My kids were deeply impressed by the antimatter - pesky health and safety regs (plus certain practical issues) prevent it being a lot of antimatter - but if your kid doesn’t delight in a 5 foot high antimatter detector with flashing lights, you might as well sign them up for their media studies degree right now.


The Family Fun Days may sound worthy but the last one had the Christmas lecturer reprising a chunk of it and demonstrating gas molecules by being bombarded with balls thrown by a room full of proto-geeks.

The problem is that all this costs and the RI is peering over the financial abyss: and it’s not even a picturesque abyss, either. The basic reason the RI isn’t going to be insolvent next month is that some money fell out of the sky from an anonymous donor. For breathing space this is good, but as a business plan it sucks harder than the black holes explained in some of the Christmas lectures.

The problem, dear reader, is you. The RI needs the membership to grow, since that is sustainable cash flow and a useful source of donations and legacies.

Terry Pratchett and the Quantum Owl

Another wrong idea that people have is you being impressed by me being a Member of the Royal Institution. It’s the Royal Society that requires members to be eminent scientists: RI membership is less exclusive than the Northern Line, albeit with better seats and more interesting people on board.

It gets you a into whole bunch of lectures (aka Discourses) given by top people in their field - Lord Henry Winston, Brian Cox, Aleks Krotoski* and others who you haven’t heard of but should. You'll get to enjoy such things as Medical Robotics, spray-on clothes, quantum theory, questionable mathematics and a good sprinkling of explosions and bad smells.

Joining is pathetically easy and surprisingly cheap. Associate membership starts at £28 (yes really), full membership is £85 and if this has been a good year you can become a Fellow and get free beer and a nice dinner for £295. For some irritating reason they don’t do family membership, but Faraday membership is £13 for each kid/student.

There’s a pile of extras, like pTerry and Stephen Baxter ganging up with a physicist to talk about what (if anything) quantum theory means.

If you must know, I’m the bloke in the video who asked the question about quantum owl brains. If you want to ask better questions, you need to join.

Because you’re worth it

Apparently L’Oreal, yes the cosmetics people, actually take “the science bit” seriously and paid serious money to create a proper science lab right next to Faraday's old workplace and there’s a slick operation doing things that sadly have faded out of schools.

The other thing that’s your fault is that with the exception of Microsoft (who you might recall are American) the UK IT industry is conspicuous by its near total absence in support. The only reason the whole thing didn’t go titsup after Baroness Susan Greenfield’s innovative approach to financial management is that Hiscox - an insurance firm - gave an interest free loan. Nice of them of course, but why weren’t you lobbying your firm to help? You didn’t know? You do now. Or if you are Mike Lynch or another big beast of the UK IT industry get your PR people to contact me and I’ll buy lunch.

The Dark Side

Of course there are those who would argue that the RI could bail itself out of trouble fairly easily by simply selling off its West End headquarters. Sitting in the Lair of the Dark Emperor being tortured nice Kensington home of an RI Trustee drinking tea, the Sith Lord explained his cruel intentions to me thus:

"If you had 55 million quid for science education, would you really spend it on buying a big building in Mayfair?”

After all, the RI already has a channel for its rather good videos courtesy of Microsoft and could hire university science labs pretty cheaply for Discourses. I was stumped for a good response to that, though I knew that there was no way that I’d join this dark side even if he hadn’t (yet) threatened my Midichlorians.

Anyway the Trustees as a body are clear that they want to keep the building, but why?

In the end I had to take it to the OS/2 developer group (yes we still exist). It was John Kozak (Digital FX for Harry Potter, Stardust et al) who pointed out that if it stopped having a centre, people would stop caring and the RI would just end up being a brand on the Royal Society’s website. And you do care, don’t you?

The RI enjoys a level of warm fuzzy general support that is pretty much unique but unfocused since until you read this, like most people, you sort of assumed it would take care of itself. Well it can’t, and when in this article I’ve said it’s your fault I meant that you can do something, the links are up here.

The Future

The RI has assembled a committee of the great and the good, AKA every TV scientist who’s not yet dead and the head of BBC Science to work out a pitch to blag donations from the government, the Gates foundation and frankly anyone who wants science in the UK to have a future. This is all very well, but the members are more than a bit keen to start doing something now.

The celebrity committee AKA the Future Direction group sees that we need to go beyond Discourses and bangs and get involved in upgrading the skills of science teachers to help them communicate better and keep up with new developments as well as getting hardcore science outreach more evenly distributed across the UK and internationally. The international angle is important for the economy as a whole: Britain has an image problem - we are seen as the home of evil bankers and occasionally accomplices to American invasions - our image as a hi tech manufacturer is nowhere near where it needs to be and more British accents coming from a place with “Royal” in the name is a cheap way of making that less bad.

Wet Science

Some things have to go. There was a time when a man in a shed could change the world beyond recognition, albeit a Faraday level genius in a rather nice shed in Mayfair. A bitter pill now being swallowed is that Wet Chemistry research is to be abandoned, sad but inevitable.

So, the choice is yours. You can support a world class British science institution and get cheap entertainment, perhaps by trying out a one-off Discourse here.

Or you can let it die and be replaced by a posh restaurant and flats for expatriate Russian gangsters. ®

Dominic Connor MRi BSc


*We are aware that "Dr" Krotoski might not be accepted as the type of scientist we would prefer to see more of (as opposed to more media-studies graduates): or indeed as a scientist at all - her degrees all being in the liberal-arts subject of psychology and mainly related to such things as gamification and Sadville. But it's Mr Connor's piece, so he can mention her in the same breath as Winston and Cox if he wants to. Not that we would. - Ed