A highlight of my recently-completed visit to England was the honor of giving a public lecture at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London. It’s an honor to give public talks anywhere, of course — I always enjoy seeing people who are not professional scientists nevertheless decide that the best way they can spend a Tuesday evening is to hear a physicist lecture about the Higgs boson and the Large Hadron Collider. But the RI is special. Its leadership in bringing science to a wide audience dates back to 1825, when Michael Faraday inaugurated the famous Christmas Lectures. The lecture hall where I was speaking is the same one where Faraday spoke, happily with more comfortable seats and better audio-visual equipment. The connection was especially appropriate, as the hidden message (not so hidden by the end, really) of my talk was that we need to think about the world in terms of fields rather than particles, and it was Faraday who introduced the concept of an electric field.
Sadly, almost as soon as I left the RI announced that it is in serious financial difficulty. (I don’t think it was my fault — we had a nearly-full house for the lecture.) Their historic building in the tony Mayfair district of London, where the popularity of their events in the nineteenth century led Albemarle Street to become the first one-way street in the city, is now up for sale. Scientists and science lovers are in an uproar, and hope to save the RI building from being sold to an unsympathetic landlord, but it’s unclear whether that’s a feasible scenario. While it’s true that there are many more outlets for good science communication now than in Faraday’s time (I’m sure he would have been an enthusiastic blogger, but the technology wasn’t quite ready yet), it would certainly be a shame to lose or substantially alter such an historic and effective institution.
For the curious, here is the talk I actually gave, complete with location-specific jokes.
The audience Q&A, a lively discussion moderated by Alok Jha, was recorded separately.
And for the impatient, here is a much more brief (7 minutes) interview that I did just ahead of time.