One of the great holiday season traditions in the UK is the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. Started by Michael Faraday in 1825, these lectures feature a top scientist talking to an audience of children. The BBC naturally picked up on this, and have been broadcasting the lectures for longer than I’ve been around. When I was a kid I would have been thrilled by lectures from the likes of David Attenborough and Eric Laithwaite (the inventor of MagLev). While I was at university Carl Sagan did a series. It was great stuff.
Of course in the early days the lectures were quite stuffy and the lecturers mostly male. That has most definitely changed. This year’s lectures were given by Danielle George who is a professor of engineering at Manchester University. And the lectures are not just being given by a women engineer, they are being given by a heavily pregnant woman engineer, because it is important to show the kids in the audience that mums can be engineers too.
Prof. George has a lot of fun in her three lectures. For each one she set herself an engineering challenge to do something awesome with fairly everyday kit.
Lecture 1 saw her turn the side of the Shell Center in London into a giant Tetris game, playable by wifi with a remote console.
Lecture 2 involved getting her assistant for the show to be telepresent in the lecture theatre as a talking hologram, and adding in kit to demonstrate the state of the art technology for remote touch, taste and smell.
And finally lecture 3 saw the Doctor Who theme being played live in the lecture theatre by a robot orchestra. In addition to more traditional instruments, the orchestra included a dot matrix printer, a cymbal played by a flying drone, and a theremin played by a humanoid robot. Keyboards were played by members of the University of Plymouth robot soccer team (each of six robots taking one portion of the keys).
All three lectures were a lot of fun. Those of you in the UK can find the programmes on iPlayer. The RI website has information about seeing the programmes in other countries — currently Singapore and Japan. It also has an archive of some of the star past lecture series, and these may be available anywhere.