December 22, 2014

Makey Christmas and a Hacky New Year!

Christmas lectures by Ben Nuttall

Christmas lectures 2014 by @Ben_Nuttall

Our homes are full of technology that we typically take for granted and understand little. Your average smartphone or tablet, for example, is a “black box”, that deliberately discourages modification by tinkering and hacking. This Christmas, Danielle George takes three technologies we routinely take for granted – the light bulb, the telephone and the motor – and shows you how to hack your home as part of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures broadcast on BBC Four.

Lecture 1/3 The Light Bulb Moment: First broadcast Monday 29th December

Inspired by Geordie inventor Joseph Swan, Danielle attempts to play a computer game on the windows of a skyscraper using hundreds of light bulbs. Along the way, Danielle will show the next generation how to hack, adapt and transform the technologies found in the home to have fun and make a difference to the world.

This year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have been inspired by the great inventors and the thousands of people playing with technology at their kitchen tables or tinkering in their garden sheds. When Joseph Swan demonstrated the first working light bulb in 1878 he could never have dreamed that in 2014 we’d be surrounded by super-bright LED screens and lights that could be controlled using mobile phones.

In this lecture, Danielle explains how these technologies work and show how they can be adapted to help you realise your own light bulb moments. She shows how to send wireless messages using a barbecue, control a firework display with your laptop and use a torch to browse the internet. (via richannel.org/the-light-bulb-moment)

Lecture 2/3 Making Contact: First broadcast Tuesday 30th December

Inspired by Alexander Graham Bell, Danielle attempts to beam a special guest into the theatre via hologram using the technology found in a mobile phone. Along the way, Danielle shows the next generation how to hack, adapt and transform the electronics found in the home to have fun and make a difference to the world.

This year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have been inspired by the great inventors and the thousands of people playing with technology at their kitchen tables or tinkering in their garden sheds. When Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the first telephone in 1876, he could never have dreamed that in 2014 we’d all be carrying wire-free phones in our pockets and be able to video chat in crystal clear HD across the world.

In this lecture, Danielle explains how these technologies work and shows how they can be adapted to help keep you connected to the people around you. She shows how to control paintball guns with a webcam and turn your smartphone into a microscope, whilst also investigating a device that allows you to feel invisible objects in mid-air. (via richannel.org/making-contact)

Lecture 3/3 A New Revolution: First broadcast Wednesday 31st December

Inspired by the Royal Institution’s very own Michael Faraday, Danielle attempts to use simple motors to construct the world’s greatest robot orchestra. Along the way, Danielle shows the next generation how to hack, adapt and transform the electronics found in the home to have fun and make a difference to the world.

This year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have been inspired by the great inventors and the thousands of people playing with technology at their kitchen tables or tinkering in their garden sheds. When Michael Faraday demonstrated the first electric motor in 1822, he could never have dreamed that in 2014 we’d be surrounded by mechanical devices capable of performing nearly every human task.

In this lecture, Danielle explains how these robotic and motor-driven appliances work and shows how they can adapted to help you kick-start a technological revolution. She shows how to turn a washing machine into a wind turbine, how Lego can solve a Rubik’s Cube and how the next Mars rover will traverse an alien world. (via richannel.org/a-new-revolution)

If you miss the television broadcasts, the lectures will also be available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days then at richannel.org/christmas-lectures.

This will (probably) be the last post of the year at O’Really, so if you’ve visited, thanks for reading during 2014. Wherever you are, whatever you’re up to, have a Very Makey Christmas and a Hacky New Year in 2015.

December 21, 2012

Happy Christmas Lectures (Merry “Chemist-mas” everyone)

Peter Wothers

Peter Wothers lights the blue touchpaper.

If you hate Chemistry [1] it’s probably because your Chemistry teachers weren’t up to scratch. Peter WothersThe Modern Alchemist, is someone who might rekindle your interest in Chemistry through his delivery of the 2012 Christmas Lectures. Wothers will unpick the chemistry of the world around us, looking at Air, Water and Earth, three of the original Greek ‘elements’ that tantalised alchemists for centuries. He’ll also be exploding and burning things too.

The lectures will be broadcast on BBC Four at 8pm on 26, 27 and 28 December and available online afterwards via iPlayer and RiChannel.org (for those outside the UK). Here’s some more blurb from the R.I.:

Lecture 1: Air: The Elixir of Life

Take a deep breath. Inside your lungs is a mixture of highly reactive and incredibly stable gases. Oxygen is the most reactive constituent. When we eat it’s these O₂ molecules that seize electrons from our food to give our bodies the energy to live. Add a third oxygen atom and we make ozone, a gas so reactive that it’s toxic if we breathe it in, but high up in the stratosphere this gas protects us from the sun’s radiation. Add a carbon atom and we produce carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas responsible for warming the planet. We will unravel the puzzle of how and why these compounds of oxygen hold the key to the viability of life on the planet.

Nitrogen, the most common element in air, is an unreactive gas, but a key atom in every cell in every living thing on Earth.  How can we imitate nature to bring this suffocating gas alive?  Even less reactive are the Noble or inert gases. They’re so stable they are the only elements that exist naturally as individual atoms – but what is it about them that make them so inert? And how can we excite these gases enough to join the chemical party? We’ve come a long way from the days when alchemists thought air was a single element.

Lecture 2: Water: The Fountain of Youth

Water is essential to life since every reaction in our bodies takes place in it.  But what makes this fluid so special?  What happens when you add a lighted splint to a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen? Kaboom! But why? What makes this particular rearrangement of atoms to form water so explosive? Can we tap this energy release to provide environmentally friendly solution to our energy problems?   Plants have the ability to reverse this reaction by using the energy from sunlight to release oxygen from water.  We are starting to learn how to do the same.  In this lecture we unpack how energy lies at the heart of chemistry.

We’ll also look at the salts contained in water. Once again we will see the startling difference between a compound and its constituent elements. Take sodium chloride – aka table salt. Sodium is a soft silvery metal that explodes with water; chlorine a deadly poisonous, choking green gas.  Both elements are lethal to us, but after they have met, a dramatic change takes place.  The sodium and chloride ions that form are essential components in our bodies. They help generate the electrical impulses that make our brains and nerves work. We begin to see how chemistry plays a vital role in our lives.

Lecture 3: Earth: The Philosopher’s Stone

The rocks that form planet Earth have always fascinated alchemists. Deep in the bowels of the Earth they thought the metals literally grew in the rocks and that one metal over time matured into another.  They dreamed of replicating these natural processes turning ‘base metals’ into gold. Today the extraction of minerals and metals from rocks has made fortunes, but not quite in the way the alchemists imagined. We now know many rocks are the result of oxygen combining with different elements – each with individual properties. Breaking the strong bonds between oxygen and these elements has always been a challenge. Humankind learned how to release copper in the Bronze Age, and iron in the Iron Age, through smelting. Now we can extract even more exotic materials.

By understanding the properties of materials, such as the silicon present in computers, or the rare earth magnets generating our electricity in wind turbines, we are entering a new era of chemistry in which we can engineer electrons in new configurations for future technologies. We can now put together the unique cluster of protons, neutrons and electrons that form each of the 80 elements in exciting new ways. If the ancient alchemists were alive today they’d be dazzled by the wonders created by the Modern Alchemist.

The lectures this year have been promoted with a fun Christmas Advent calendar at advent.richannel.org, which included a few star turns from the likes of Jerry Hall and many others, describing their favourite elements:

Whatever your favourite element, have yourself a Happy Chemistmas. If you’ve read stuff here at O’Really? in 2012, thanks for visiting and hope to see you again in 2013.


  1. Lippincott, W. (1979). Why Students Hate Chemistry Journal of Chemical Education, 56 (1) DOI: 10.1021/ed056p1

December 20, 2011

Happy Christmas Lectures 2011: Meet your Brain with Bruce Hood

Filed under: Science — Duncan Hull @ 5:25 pm
Tags: , , , , ,
Bruce Hood

An animated Bruce Hood. Creative Commons licensed picture by Dave Fayram

The holiday season is upon us which means it’s time for the Royal Institution Christmas lectures. This year the lectures are on the meaty subject of how our brains work and are delivered by psychologist Professor Bruce Hood from the University of Bristol [1,2]. Broadcast over three episodes at 8pm on BBC4  (27th, 28th and 29th December) the talks will also be freely available online afterwards, see trailer.  Here’s the blurb on the first episode: What’s in your head?

Why does your brain look like a giant walnut, how does it fit in enough wiring to stretch four times around the equator and why can a magnet on your head stop you in mid-sentence? In the first of this year’s Christmas Lectures, Professor Bruce Hood gets inside your head to explore how your brain works. He measures the brain’s nerve cells in action, reads someone’s mind from 100 miles away and reveals how the brain ultimately creates its own version of reality.

The second episode is titled Who’s in charge here?

Your brain is constantly being bombarded with information, so how does it decide what to trust and what to ignore, without you even being aware? Professor Bruce Hood leads us through the second of this year’s Christmas Lectures – testing the limits of our memory, finding out how we learn, how our brain takes shortcuts and why multi-tasking can be dangerous. Bruce will make you say the wrong thing and fail to see what’s right in front of you. Can you really believe your eyes? Possibly not.

The final episode is Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking?

Have you ever seen a face in a piece of burnt toast, or given your car a name? Why do you feel pain when someone else is hurt? Why are people so obsessed with other people? In the last of this year’s Christmas Lectures, Professor Bruce Hood investigates how our brains are built to read other people’s minds. With a little help from a baby, a robot and a magician, Bruce uncovers what makes us truly human.

This year the Royal Institution have relaunched their website at richannel.org and made some of the previous lectures available at richannel.org/christmas-lectures. Hopefully Santa will eventually get around to adding many more lectures from this fantastic series to the archive soon.

This will (probably) be the last post of the year at O’Really, so if you’ve visited, thanks for reading during 2011. It’s been an eventful twelve months, with not much time for blogging, maybe that will change next year…

Wherever you are, whatever you’re up to, have a happy holidays and a prosperous 2012.


  1. Hood, B., Willen, J., & Driver, J. (1998). Adult’s Eyes Trigger Shifts of Visual Attention in Human Infants Psychological Science, 9 (2), 131-134 DOI: 10.1111/1467-9280.00024
  2. Hood, B. (2009) Supersense: From Superstition to Religion – The Brain Science of Belief. ISBN:1849010307

December 22, 2010

Happy Christmas Lectures 2010

Mark Miodownik by Joe Dunckley, on FlickrAs Tom Lehrer once sang on his christmas carol:

“Christmas time is here, by golly,
Disapproval would be folly,
Deck the halls with hunks of holly,
Fill the cup and don’t say ‘when.’
Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens,
Mix the punch, drag out the Dickens,
Even though the prospect sickens,
Brother, here we go again…”

Which must mean it’s also time for another seasonal tradition: the Royal Institution Christmas lectures. This year they are being given by the materials scientist and engineer Mark Miodownik with the title “Size Matters“. After nearly a decade in the wilderness of More4 and Channel 5 and elsewhere, this year the lectures will be back with the BBC broadcast on the 28th, 29th and 30th December at 8.00pm (also subsequently on iPlayer). Topics this year include:

  1. Why elephants can’t dance (but hamsters can skydive) see “crash test pets” video below.
  2. Why chocolate melts and jet planes don’t – chocolate is “one of the most sophisticated and highly engineered materials on the planet”!
  3. Why mountains are so small (Yes, small) – how rocks behave like liquid.

Mark has a reputation for being an entertaining and passionate [1] speaker, who unlike some previous lecturers – likes to improvise without a script which will probably make for lively and educational viewing.

Where ever you are this winterval, have a happy holiday.


  1. Mark Miodownik (2005). Facts not opinions? Developing both the physical and aesthetic properties of materials Nature Materials, 4 (7), 506-508 DOI: 10.1038/nmat1416

[Creative commons licensed picture of Mark Miodownik at the Science is Vital rally earlier this year in London by Joe Dunckley]

December 21, 2009

Happy Christmas Lectures 2009

Sue Hartley: Christmas lecturerIf you weren’t able to attend this years Christmas lectures in person, they are being televised tonight in the UK on More4 from 7pm. This year, they are given by Professor Sue Hartley [1] (pictured right) from the University of Sussex. Here is some blurb on the series from the Royal Institution called “The 300 million year war“.

Plants might seem passive, defenceless and almost helpless. But they are most definitely not! Thanks to a war with animals that’s lasted over 300 million years, they’ve developed many terrifying and devious ways to defend themselves and attack their enemies. Vicious poisons, lethal materials and even cunning forms of communicating with unlikely allies are just some of the weapons in their armoury. Using these and other tactics, plants have seen off everything from dinosaurs to caterpillars.

In the 2009 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, Professor Sue Hartley will show you plants as you’ve never seen them before. They are complicated, cunning, beautiful and with plenty of tricks up their sleeve. And what’s more, we humans are dependent on them in ways you’d never imagine. As well as much of our food, our drugs, medicines and materials are all by-products of this epic 300 million year war.

So if you’re festively feasting this holiday, those brussel sprouts, carrots, potatoes won’t look so innocent now. The lectures are aimed at children, but can be enjoyed by kids of all ages (including grown ups). You can follow some of the action on twitter: hashtag #xmaslectures and @rigb_science. Speaking of Brussel sprouts, the related Royal Institution video How Much Methane Does A Cow Produce In An Hour? might also be of interest.

Since it’s the end of the year, happy holidays to you all (thanks for visiting O’Really?) hope to see you again in 2010.


  1. Hartley, S., & Gange, A. (2009). Impacts of Plant Symbiotic Fungi on Insect Herbivores: Mutualism in a Multitrophic Context Annual Review of Entomology, 54 (1), 323-342 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.ento.54.110807.090614

August 24, 2009

I bet you think this blog is about you, don’t you?

Science Online London 2009Last Saturday, The Royal Institution of Great Britain (R.I.) hosted a conference called Science Online London (#solo09) co-organised by mendeley.com and network.nature.com. The event centred around the fantastic Faraday Theatre which according to the R.I. is a “beautiful, historic theatre [which] has deeply raked seating that creates an intimate atmosphere, even when full to capacity”. Absolutely. Just like last year, this event attracted delegates and speakers from a wide range of backgrounds in science, publishing and communication from around the world. This post is an approximately alphabetically ordered link-fest of some of the people involved. People are, after all, the most interesting thing about any conference. If you’re not listed here it’s not because I don’t like you (honest!) it’s because we didn’t speak or I didn’t listen or (unlike many people) you’re not vain enough [1] to have a have a blog (yet) 🙂

Now I’m told the presentations mentioned above will be on Nature Precedings in due course, which will be good. Thanks to all the organisers, speakers and participants this year that made Science Online London 2009 well worth attending. Hopefully see some more of you again next year!


  1. Carly Simon (1972) You’re So Vain
  2. Geoffrey Bilder (2006). In Google We Trust? Journal of Electronic Publishing, 9 (1) DOI: 10.3998/3336451.0009.101
  3. Matt Brown (2008). Venerable institute gets a refit Nature, 453 (7195), 568-569 DOI: 10.1038/453568a
  4. Matt Brown (2008). Reimagining the Royal Institution Nature, 453 (7195), 595-595 DOI: 10.1038/453595a
  5. Duncan Hull (2009). Slides from the author identity session: Authenticating Scientists with OpenID
  6. Jennifer Rohn and Richard P. Grant (2009). Pre-conference video: Live Roof Surfing at Mendeley Fringe Frivolous

December 17, 2008

Happy Christmas Lectures 2008

Machines that learn by Kaustav BhattacharyaOne of the most important Christmas traditions in Europe, aside from drinking too much, excessive eating and generally conspicuous over-consumption, are the Royal Institution Christmas lectures. This year, they are being given by Professor Christopher Bishop (pictured right), Chief Scientist at Microsoft Research and are on the subject of the Quest for the Ultimate Computer. This hi-tech trek includes subjects such as machine learning, microchip design, artificial intelligence and Web technology. Here is the blurb from the one of the lectures to give you a flavour:

“Computers are extraordinary machines, able to perform feats of arithmetic that far exceed the capabilities of any human. They can store a huge quantity of data, and recall it perfectly in the blink of an eye. They can even beat the world champion at chess. So why do computers struggle to solve apparently simple tasks such as understanding speech, or translating text between languages? Why is a 3 year old toddler better at recognising everyday objects than the world’s most powerful supercomputer? In the last of this year’s Christmas Lectures, Chris Bishop will look at one of the great frontiers of computer science. We’ll see how some of the toughest computational problems are now being tackled by giving computers the ability to learn solutions for themselves, in much the same way as people learn by example. This has led to impressive progress with problems such as recognising handwriting and finding information on the web. But we are only beginning to explore the power of computation, and there are many challenges ahead in our quest for the ultimate computer.”

Broadcast on Channel 5 (starting Monday 29th December, consult your UK TV guide for details), these lectures are aimed at children, but can be enjoyed by kids of all ages (including grown ups). The lectures will also be available as a webcast from rigb.org and probably youtube as well. Whatever you’re doing over the coming holidays have a very happy Christmas, pagan solstice festival, winterval. Wherever you are, don’t forget to enjoy an intellectually nourishing side-portion of Computer Science with your festive feasting!


  1. http://www.rigb.org/christmaslectures08/
  2. Watch this: Royal Institution Christmas Lectures 2008, The Guardian 2008-12-29
  3. Review of Last Night’s TV: Christmas Lectures, The Independent 2008-12-30
  4. John Benyon Christmas Lectures: Untangling the Web
  5. Rich from Bechtle Christmas Lectures 2008, much better!

[Picture of Chris Bishop by Kaustav Bhattacharya]

August 27, 2008

Science blogging at the Royal Institution, London

Filed under: web of science — Duncan Hull @ 8:02 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

sciblogNature Publishing Group are organising a workshop on science blogging, this Saturday 30th August 2008 at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London. Why would you care? Because there are:

  1. Lots of interesting people
  2. talking about a range of interesting subjects
  3. .. in a distinguished venue that has recently been refurbished. It is also home to the fantastic Christmas lectures and much more besides.

To cap it all, I think it will be great fun too. So if you’re going, see you there. If you’re not, it is never too late to publish your fantasy science funding entry. Much of the conference will be televised and blogged, making it available online too.

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