5 Amazing Christmas Lecture facts about the natural world
The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have become a Christmas institution themselves, as much a part of the festivities as mince pies and the Queen’s speech. Each year, a prominent scientist steps up to deliver a series of lectures on his or her specialist topic, with the aim of enthusing a young audience – both the lucky ones who have seats in the Royal Institution’s famous Lecture Theatre, and everyone else glued to their TVs at home.
While I was researching and writing 11 Explorations into life on earth I uncovered a treasure-trove of fascinating facts delivered by the Christmas Lecturers who over the last century have focused on the natural world. Here are my top five:
- Lemurs fight with smelly tails
When Sir David Attenborough gave the Christmas Lectures in 1973, one of his favourite animal guests was quite obviously a ring-tailed lemur called Tammy. Attenborough cuddles the adorable lemur while explaining to the audience how in the wild, in Madagascar, this species will rub their tails over a scent gland on their wrists. Opponents then flick their pongy tails at each other, wafting the stink in battles over territories.
Attenborough filled his lectures with a parade of other animals, not all of which participated as he had hoped; his fear of misbehaving animals almost put him off doing the lectures at all, which were broadcast live on TV (nowadays they’re pre-recorded). In the end, there were only a few hiccups, including the porcupine who wouldn’t come out of its box and the chicks that ignored Attenborough’s recordings of mother hen clucks.
- Dinosaurs used to live in Antarctica
2004 Christmas Lecturer, Professor Lloyd Peck from the British Antarctic Survey transported his audience to the frozen continent at the bottom of the world, revealing the wonders of life that survive in the coldest place on earth. Today, Antarctica is covered in 30 million cubic kilometres of ice, weighing 30 quadrillion tonnes. But it hasn’t always been that way.
Peck brings out the skull of a three-foot dinosaur that roamed around Antarctic forests 75 million years ago. Back then, the southern continent was still attached to South America and a warm ocean current swept down the coast stopping Antarctica from freezing. When South America drifted away, it left behind an isolated land that grew colder and colder. Now, Peck warns, Antarctica is warming up again, faster than anywhere else on the planet, thanks to effects of human-induced climate change.
- There’s no such thing as an exploding beetle
In 1991, Richard Dawkins was the first RI Christmas Lecturer to tackle the topic of evolution. In his usual confrontational style, he doesn’t pull his punches and takes on the creationists who hold up certain animals as proof against evolution.
The bombardier beetle has the extraordinary habit of squirting boiling hot, corrosive liquid jets at their enemies. They do so by combining two different chemicals inside their abdomens. Only a divine creator – so the creationists say – could make a beetle that doesn’t blow itself up; it can’t have gradually evolved, but needs all the necessary equipment to prevent a dangerous accident to be in place from the start.
Dawkins delights the audience by mixing together various combinations of these dangerous chemicals in front of them. He shows that bit-by-bit he can produce hotter, more impressive reactions, with stronger and stronger chemicals, until the lecture room is full of steam. The beetle, he says, could quite feasibly have evolved through the gradual steps of evolution.
- Plants scream for help
In only the second botanical Christmas Lectures since their inception in 1825, Professor Sue Hartley introduces her audience in 2011 to the incredible war that’s been raging between animals and plants for 300-million years. Animals eat plants, and plants have evolved ingenious ways of getting their own back.
To demonstrate many wonders of plant-animal interactions, Hartley brings out a string of models including Kenny the caterpillar. She invites an eager member of the audience to come and help her; he pulls off Kenny’s head, reaches inside and brings out a handful of nasty goo and some grubs, laid by a parasitic wasp.
When plants are chomped by caterpillars they release an airborne chemical siren, calling for help from parasites that fly in and attack the herbivores. Parasitic wasps usually only lay eggs in a particular kind of caterpillar, so plants customise their messages accordingly, and send out an SOS to summon the right sort of wasp.
- Deep sea squid species were discovered in whale vomit
In his 1937 Christmas Lectures, Sir Julian Huxley (former secretary of London Zoo and co-founder of the World Wildlife Fund) talked about rare and disappearing wildlife. He told a story of the Prince of Monaco, a keen zoologist, who was sailing his yacht when he encountered a group of whalers killing a sperm whale (this was back at a time when commercial whaling was still legal). The harpooned whale coughed up a ball of partially digested food, which the prince gladly scooped up from the sea. Examining the vomit, scientists discovered two species of squid that were new to science.
Huxley delivered powerful conservation messages to his young audience, long before such ideas were mainstream. He warned against the greedy misuse of wildlife, including crocodiles for their skin to make shoes and butterflies to make into colourful jewellery. He even showed a film of seal pups in Canada being clubbed to death for their white, fluffy fur. Huxley also introduced various solutions to these problems, such as persuading hunters to stop killing animals for sport and the need for setting up more wildlife reserves.
11 Explorations into Life on Earth by Helen Scales is published by Michael O’Mara.
The 2017 Christmas Lectures by the Royal Institution, presented by neuroscientist Professor Sophie Scott, will be broadcast on BBC Four in late December, produced by Windfall Films.