Visiting the Royal Institution of Great Britain

Written by: Captain Skellett // March 4th, 2013 // Science Communication

This story has been a month in the making, and I should have just posted it back then! I’ve been really busy with visiting Hong Kong and coming back to Adelaide and seeing friends and family again, excuses excuses. Still, here ’tis, better late than never.

One of the things I was most excited to see on my trip to London this month was the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Over 200 years of science history are within those walls, where Michael Faraday toyed with electricity and magnetism in the basement.

Today the basement is a museum, but it still has Faraday’s lab down there – at least a recreation – right opposite a mini modern lab all sterile white and bright. Personally I loved Faraday’s soft yellow lamplight on parchment and sprinkling of dark carbon… the old lived-in laboratory, where the mind is encouraged to jump between ideas and tinker with equipment. Give me a well-stocked garage over a chrome kitchen any day! I hate bright lights *hiss* *hides in the shadows*. I may be part vampire. I hear that’s trendy right now.

The museum wasn’t terribly interactive, but it was brilliantly nerdy – as in “ooh, this is the actual journal Michael Faraday wrote his results in.” That was cool actually, they had one journal full of experiences from taking different drugs (like laughing gas) where the scientist described what it felt like to be under the influence. There was a lot of drawings of Isaac Newton’s name (like a teenager might doodle in love hearts) – apparently he was an inspiration.

It’s a terribly fancy establishment, a nod to the days of top hats and cravats in illustrious May Fair. Right from the moment you walk through those big wooden doors you feel like you’ve stepped into a manor house, with proper marble busts of notable minds beside the staircase. If a cluttered desk of a scientist hides the lofty ideals of science, the Royal Institution sees to it that the art is esteemed and valued.

Painting by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (1793-1864)

Nonetheless it’s not a stuffy sort of place, especially not in December when they hold the Christmas lectures – which are more like shows for students with explosions and bright colourful demonstrations. As much as it values brilliant minds, it values young ones too. Children are encouraged not just at Christmas time but in the standard lectures too, I’ll get to that shortly.

Apparently the beautiful building and new conference rooms and updated lecture halls have come with a hefty price tag, that has now put the RiGB into several million pounds worth of debt. There’s now an online petition for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills to purchase the building (for 60 million pounds) to allow the RiGB to stay in their historic building indefinitely.

Off topic, it just occurs to me that a lot of Aboriginal Australians lost their historic land, and 60 million pounds would buy quite a lot of it back. Guess that’s not relevant though.

If you’re keen, you can read and sign the petition to save the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

I feel sure the government won’t let something as historic and important as the RiGB to simply be sold and moved. It would be such a waste. Even if they don’t buy the whole building, I’m sure they would sort something out.

On a snowy Friday night I was lucky enough to attend one of the monthly lectures, which was on biology and quantum physics titled “Quantum life: how physics can revolutionise biology”. It was one of those topics which is incredibly hard to wrap your head around, because the quantum world is so counterintuitive and downright weird that even Niels Bohr said “if you aren’t confused by quantum mechanics, you haven’t really understood it.”

For example, the speaker Prof Jim Al-Khalili said that during photosynthesis an energised electron will appear to take multiple paths through a cell to its destination, find out which is the most efficient, and then rewind time and decide it took the most efficient route all along. Say wha???

The part I most remember was a kid, probably 10 years old, asking at the end of the lecture whether a particle moving faster than the speed of light would constitute a paradox by Einstein’s theory and rip the fabric of space and time. No joke, a 10 year old. Mind. Blown. Everyone applauded, and Al-Khalili agreed it would, but fortunately that neutrino particle travelling faster than light which was announced a couple of years ago actually wasn’t, there was a mistake with the equipment. So the fabric is intact, no paradoxes have yet been found.

Since I’ve been back in Adelaide I’ve visited the sister institute, the RiAus a couple of times for Fringe events. It’s great to see it’s still going strong and thankfully a financially independent group that isn’t suffering the same issues as the RiGB. Though the RiAus is a bit smaller, I prefer the casual atmosphere it has and the fact that speakers are encouraged to mingle with the audience after a show. Just that fact is what makes science more accessible to the public, because it pulls down the boundaries and invites dialogue. I quite wanted to speak to Al-Khalili after the quantum life event, but he was taken into another room behind a curtain, and if he reappeared later I didn’t see it.

Captain Skellett

I be Captain Skellett. Me blog started in April 2009 when I was working full time and didn’t get a chance to talk science. Now I have changed jobs and talk science all the time, but that doesn’t stop me blogging. More About Captain Skellett   Google

   

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