The Royal Institution of Great Britain is one of the world's most venerable scientific societies. Established over 200 years ago, by three gentlemen scientists, its dual role today is in cutting-edge research, but more critically, perhaps, in improving the public understanding of science.
Even 200 years ago, it had a mission statement:
"Institution For diffusing the Knowledge, and facilitating the general Introduction, of Useful Mechanical Inventions and Improvements; and for teaching, by Courses of Philosophical Lectures and Experiments, the application of Science to the common Purposes of Life".
It still holds true to these ideals, and is best known for two well-established lecture series: the Christmas lectures
for young people, and the Friday evening discourses
. However, the RI does a lot more than that
- Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution
- Friday evening discourses
- Genes, Medicine and Society
- Scientists for the New Century
- Maths in Action
- Discussion Seminars
- Research seminars
- Public Lectures
- Symposia, Conferences and Special Events
And mainly for schools:
- Mathematics Masterclasses
- Computational Science Seminars
- Science Summer School in Australia
Almost all the adult events are open to all members of the public. However, for the more popular events, such as the Christmas lectures, tickets are vital. The only events open exclusively to members and their guests are the Friday evening discourses, and some special events and debates. The Friday evening discourses are formal affairs. Members wear dinner suits or posh frocks. Ordinary office wear, or lab clothing is frowned upon. Previous Friday evening discourses have been the place where, among other things, the electron was first identified.
Another tradition of the RI is that lectures last one hour exactly. The tradition is that if the lecturer goes over the 60-minute limit, then the doors are locked and no-one is allowed in or out. Lecturers are strongly encouraged to remain within their time limit.
While the RI counts Nobel laureates and very senior scientists among its members, anyone with an interest in science and technology can join. There are no academic or professional requirements.
A brief history of the RI
The Institution was founded in 1799 by a trio of scientists, led by Joseph Banks, who became the first president. Initially the group met at his house in Soho, but within months, the Institution had acquired its premesis at 21 Albemarle Street, in London's Mayfair, where it still is based today. The Institution was also awarded a royal charter by King Charles III, and its name was changed to the Royal Institution.
That building, previously a private house, was adapted to include a large, circular lecture theatre and laboratories, as well as support services for the working scientists. The lecture theatre is still in use today, and the view from the top tiers of seats is very impressive.
In 1801, the RI appointed a young man, named Humphry Davy to set up experiments and help with laboratory work. Davy became a well-known scientist in his own right, and in 1802 became professor of Chemistry at the RI and regularly gave lectures to members. Ten years later, in 1812, a young apprentice bookbinder named Michael Faraday listened to one of Davy's lectures, and was inspired to seek a job in science. Faraday became a chemical assistant in 1813, and later became one of the most famous and distinguished scientists of his generation.
Faraday transformed the RI. He introduced the Friday evening discourses and the Christmas lectures among other things. Many of his original apparatus are still available for viewing and experimentation in the RI's museum.
Other famous scientists to have worked at the RI include John Tyndall
who worked on crystallography
, Lord Rayleigh
who discovered argon
gas and won a Nobel prize for his light scattering research, James Dewar
who invented the dewar
flask, later commercialised as the Thermos flask
The current director is baroness Susan Greenfield, recently photographed in provocative pose in the RI lecture theatre to advertise English Heritage (Thanks)