Thomas W. Hodgkinson

Let’s talk about science

The Spectator, March 2024

If you were asked to name the world’s greatest research centre in terms of discoveries per square yard, the answer wouldn’t be an Oxford or Cambridge lab. Nor would it be anywhere in America. Or China, for that matter. The correct answer would be a handsome Georgian townhouse in the heart of London. 

For it was at the Royal Institution (Ri), in the 19th century, that Sir Humphry Davy identified nine new elements in the periodic table. And it was there that Michael Faraday teased out the relationship between electricity and magnetism, which enabled the creation of our modern electrified world. And it was there that, in the 20th century, in addition to a rockfall of other discoveries that took place at the Ri, the Nobel Laureates William Henry Bragg and his son William Lawrence developed their researches in X-ray crystallography, on which others would later build to discover the structure of DNA. 

Crucial to the building’s claim to greatness is that research continues there to this day—something that cannot be said of the Beijing Ancient Observatory, for instance, or Cambridge’s original Cavendish Laboratory building, which became museums in the 1920s and 1970s respectively. This is thanks to the smart decision of the Ri, which no longer employs scientific researchers directly, to embrace UCL nano-scientists as tenants on its third floor, as well as, on its second, the theoretical scientists of the London Institute for Mathematical Sciences.

This month, the Ri celebrates its 225th anniversary—which makes it a moment to consider the sweep of its history. Specifically, by what mad accident did a place that wasn’t created to do science, but rather for giving talks about it, end up accumulating such a remarkable record of discoveries?

That’s the hardest thing to get your head around. On 7 March 1799, the American soldier, spy and inventor, Count Rumford, co-founded the Ri with the aim not of doing science but of telling people how it could be applied to “the common purposes of life”, which remains its charitable purpose to this day. More particularly, he wanted to spread the word about useful household inventions of the kind that were his own specialism: his designs of stoves, fireplaces and cooking utensils, for example.

From these narrow beginnings, the mission crept. For one thing, the lectures expanded to include talks on pretty much any scientific subject that would bring in the punters. Far less predictably, the resident scientists, brought in to give and oversee the talks, started doing research in their spare time. 

What emerged at the Ri, then, were two records of excellence, one in doing science and another in talking about it. The question is: how did they interact? If you do research, it could inform your talks. But does it go the other way too? Can giving talks somehow inform and improve your research? 

For the Ri’s Director of Science Engagement, Daniel Glaser, it’s a yes. “Thinking about how you’re going to explain what you do makes you do it better.” For the Ri’s Director, Katherine Mathieson, the causality is unclear, but the correlation is “too significant to overlook, not to talk about, not to think about”.

One thing we know is that, at the Ri, serendipity played a role. For instance, when the managers chose the Cornishman Humphry Davy as one of the first resident scientists, he turned out to more than just a dazzling speaker. (The traffic jams his talks prompted on the road outside led to Albemarle St becoming London’s first one-way street.) He was also a man of such energy and curiosity that he simply couldn’t resist tinkering away in the Ri’s laboratory. 

That lab was only built to support the lectures. It was here, in the basement, that speakers would rehearse the demos with which they would wow the people upstairs: a practise that continues to this day. However, kit that was bought in or brought in for that purpose accumulated and soon the Ri had one of the best-equipped laboratories in the world.

Davy arrived early in 1801. Late in that year, the Royal Society’s journal, Philosophical Transactions, published his paper An Account of some Galvanic Combinations, formed by the Arrangement of single metallic Plates and Fluids, analogous to the new Galvanic Apparatus of Mr. Volta. It was attributed to Mr Humphry Davy, “Lecturer on Chemistry in the Royal Institution”, making it the first scientific paper to name the Ri as the address of its author, and inaugurating a tradition that is still ongoing. In a few days, Nature magazine is due to publish Non-reciprocal topological solitons, attributed to Dr Oleksandr Gamayun of the “London Institute for Mathematical Sciences, Royal Institution, 21 Albemarle St”.

This is the first way, albeit an indirect one, in which the early lectures empowered the research at the Ri. It was thanks to them that the Ri had such an excellent lab. It was thanks to that lab that Davy had the kit to make his discoveries, which included, most famously, the discovery of sodium and potassium in 1807, and then a slew of other elements in the years that followed. As Frank James, Professor of History of Science at UCL, points out, “It would have been very difficult for him to have undertaken this research anywhere else.”

Those same lectures attracted funding. People paid to attend and the richest of them sometimes made donations to the cause. They attracted talent, too. When Davy was on his deathbed, he is said to have murmured that his greatest discovery of all was Michael Faraday. Prof. James insists that Davy would be highly unlikely ever to have said this, since he was far more interested in blowing his own trumpet than anyone else’s. Nevertheless, it is true that Davy discovered Faraday, and that he would probably never have met him, if it hadn’t been for the eloquence of the talks he gave in the theatre.

A bookbinder’s apprentice with an amateur interest in science, Faraday first came to the Ri to listen to Davy’s lectures. He was so inspired that he noted them, bound his notes as a book, and then gave it to Davy as a gift. Davy eventually offered him a job, and in time, the student outstripped the master. Faraday proved a fine speaker. He created the Ri’s Christmas lectures, and one of his contributions, The Chemical History of a Candle, has never been out of print. But his discoveries were far more exceptional, confirming him as arguably the greatest scientist Britain has produced in the past 250 years. 

This brings us back to our theme. Did Faraday’s lectures influence his science? For Simon Schaffer, Professor of History of Science at Cambridge, the answer is: absolutely. For him, the idea that thinking inspires talking, but not the other way round, is “stupid, but fantastically widespread”. 

Prof. Schaffer argues that the Ri’s scientists “knew that what they did in the basement would count if, and in many ways only if, it worked upstairs” in the lecture theatre. The need to create a compelling spectacle, in other words, steered the direction of their work. “The dominant theme of Faraday’s science,” says Schaffer, “was making the invisible visible. Lots of people had the idea that you could demonstrate a magnetic field by putting a piece of paper over a magnet and then sprinkling iron filings on it. What Faraday did in the early 1820s was take it further, exploring the region around the magnet with a current-carrying wire, which not only made the field visible but also its rotational effects. And that is what we now call the invention of the electric motor.” 

It’s an extraordinary thought. Faraday invented the electric motor, now used in everything from fans to washing machines to electric cars, with no notion of usefulness. He was influenced by the Ri’s ethos, which was for making invisible phenomena visible, so they could be demonstrated to an audience. 

If this is a moment when the direction of Faraday’s thought was influenced by the ethos of lecturing, then how about the magnitude? Here Prof. James provides a dazzling example. In the 1840s, he reveals, Faraday gave a talk at the Ri that would alter the course of physics.

A religious dissenter with little formal education, Faraday was more inclined than most to question Newtonian physics, which envisaged a world of forces acting only in straight lines between particles. His discovery that everything in nature, including light itself, was affected by magnetism led him to the revolutionary view that particles themselves were due to lines of curved forces meeting at points throughout space. “He did not publicly propose this until April 1846, when he stepped in to give a lecture at the Ri at fairly short notice, after a friend pulled out. Faraday gave his talk on Wheatstone’s Electro-Magnetic Chronoscope, followed by a sketch of the basics of what became the field theory of electromagnetism.”

Crystallised by the equations of James Clerk Maxwell, field theory remains “one of the cornerstones of modern physics”, says James. It was owing to this contribution that Albert Einstein, with reverent awe, kept a picture of Faraday in his study. According to Dr Thomas Fink, the Director of the London Institute for Mathematical Sciences, Faraday might not have pushed through his thoughts on the subject if it wasn’t for the “urgency effect” of having to give a talk. “Academia is plagued by a terrible lack of urgency,” he says. “It never matters when you get stuff done. But when you’ve got to give a lecture in a fortnight, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.” 

Once the talk had been given, Faraday felt obliged to develop his thoughts further. A few days afterwards he wrote to Richard Phillips, editor of the Philosophical Magazine, expanding on his “vague impressions” about lines of force, which he insisted he wouldn’t ordinarily have shared. “It is only because they are sure to go abroad in one way or another, in consequence of their utterance on that evening, that I give them a shape.” 

In ancient Greece, Socrates, who never wrote a book, believed that the path to truth was by talking about it. Our legal system in this country has evolved as an oral one. We exchange spoken, as well as written, arguments. The history of the Ri is a third exhibit for anyone making the argument that talking is thinking: that it requests prior thought, compels present thought, and provokes future thought, when you reflect upon it afterwards.

The Ri’s lectures have attracted talent and funding over the years. Add in Schaffer’s need for spectacle, which whets the ambition, and Fink’s notion of urgency, which concentrates the mind. Then finish with a final word from Mathieson, who challenges the clichéd concept of scientists as solitary geniuses, each working in their individual cave. “They were always in collaboration and that collaboration has always been with public audiences as well as other specialists. Scientists need to be in dialogue in order to do their work. And what having a theatre gives you is the opportunity to be in dialogue.”

None of this amounts, quite, to a prescription for discovery. You don’t just build a lab below a lecture theatre and wait for the discoveries to roll in. But it does complete a case for the vital importance of talking about science, and for supporting the Ri by becoming a member and attending its lectures, either in person or online. You might try one later this month by Sky at Night presenter Chris Lintott, for example, or another next month on immortality by Nobel Laureate Venki Ramakrishnan. 

By listening to scientists, and responding to scientists, you will in a sense also be doing science—as well as contributing to the Ri’s glorious 225-year tradition.