How to survive in space – The Royal Institution’s CHRISTMAS LECTURES team joins Real Scientists!

This week Real Scientists will be curated by Dr Kevin Fong, space medicine expert and 2015 CHRISTMAS LECTURER. Joining him will be Olympia Brown, Jon Farrow and Lucy Haken who are part of the CHRISTMAS LECTURES team at the Royal Institution and are working to help create the annual television series which has become a festive, scientific hallmark.

The theme of the CHRISTMAS LECTURES, entitled ‘How to survive in space’, are set to coincide with British ESA astronaut Tim Peake’s Principia mission to the International Space Station. The Lectures will deal with the science of getting someone from Earth to the ISS, how our bodies are affected and change whilst in space, and finally what the future holds for human exploration and what we can hope to discover in the future. Kevin Fong has a wealth of knowledge in these areas; he is a consultant anaesthetist at UCL Hospitals;the co-ordinator of the Centre for Aviation Space and Extreme Environment medicine (CASE) at UCL; and flying doctor for Kent, Surrey and Sussex air ambulance. He is also author of the 2014 book ‘Extreme Medicine: How Exploration Transformed Medicine in the Twentieth Century’. His passion for understanding human physiology in the most challenging environments has led him to work with NASA and other space agencies to research how to keep humans in the best of health whilst in space.

Olympia Brown and Jon Farrow are part of the CHRISTMAS LECTURES team at the Royal Institution. Olympia has overseen 12 CHRISTMAS LECTURES in her role as Science Learning Manager and has created and led a number of other science outreach events for children. Jon Farrow is an astrobiology graduate with a master’s degree in science communication from the University of Edinburgh. He joins the CHRISTMAS LECTURES team as their assistant, tasked with creating live demonstrations of space and rocket science. Lucy Haken is a producer at Windfall Productions and has 11 years of experience creating factual programming for the BBC, Channel 4 and National Geographic.

Together the Ri team will deliver a special behind-the-scenes dialogue, looking at what goes into creating the world-famous CHRISTMAS LECTURES, covering everything from the science that they include to the process of creating a live theatre show and exciting science television. Days 1-2 will focus on the content and science of the Lectures themselves, as well as touching on Kevin Fong’s experiences and research with UCL and CASE. Day 3 will then move on to discuss the CHRISTMAS LECTURES rich 190 year history with Olympia Brown before Jon Farrow talks us through turning scientific principles into live demonstrations on Day 4. Days 5 and 6 will focus on how the CHRISTMAS LECTURES are made and the whole process, from their conception to broadcast, both from the perspective of the Royal Institution and the television production company. Day 7 will round off with a discussion on the modern role of science communication and how it stands alongside scientific research in the modern world of STEM.


6 December: ‘How to survive in space’

Paul Wilkinson Photography Ltd.

Paul Wilkinson Photography Ltd.

Kevin Fong/Jon Farrow

The focus of this day will largely be the content of the lectures themselves, setting the scene for the rest of the week and discussing the science that will make up the lectures’ content.

  • What are the CHRISTMAS LECTURES?
  • What are this year’s Lectures all about?
  • Why is human physiology in space interesting?
  • What are the big issues for space science currently?
  • What sort of experiments will Tim Peake be doing?




7 December: ‘How to survive in space’ II

Kevin FongJon Farrow

A continuation of Day 1’s discussions, however on this day we will move on to discuss Kevin’s career and some of Kevin’s space-related research with CASE and UCL.

  • What got you interested in space?
  • What have been your career highlights?
  • What’s it like to balance space research with working as an air ambulance doctor?
  • How frequently do doctors engage in cross-disciplinary research?
  • What’s the UK space research sector like?



8 December: The history of the CHRISTMAS LECTURES

Olympia Brown

Paul Wilkinson Photography Ltd.

Paul Wilkinson Photography Ltd.

With the CHRISTMAS LECTURES discussed, this day will focus on the Lectures’ history from 1825 to the present day, including ground-breaking science, interesting stories, anecdotes from recent years, controversies, Lectures going overseas etc.

  • Why were the CHRISTMAS LECTURES started?
  • What’s been their place in British culture?
  • How have the Lectures evolved over the years?
  • Who were some of the most famous Lecturers?
  • What’s the wider reach of the CHRISTMAS LECTURES outside of the TV show ie. Overseas, education work etc.?


 9 December: How do you go from a scientific concept to a demonstration?            

Jon Farrow

How does science go from thoughts and ideas to visual representation? Demonstrations of scientific principles are a hallmark of the CHRISTMAS LECTURES and weren’t commonplace at all before the Lectures began. This day will include discussion on the process of going ‘from science to seeing’, describing the research process, testing, creating a story.

  • How do you decide what science to demo?
  • Do some subjects lend themselves to demos better than others?
  • What makes a good demo?
  • Why are demos better than just telling people the science?
  • How do you test a demo?
  • How do you source everything you need for a demo?


10 December: The CHRISTMAS LECTURES as a collaboration                  Lucy Haken

Olympia Brown/Lucy Haken

The CHRISTMAS LECTURES aren’t just a series of demonstrations, they’re a huge project that involves a number of people across the Ri, including development getting funding, media getting word out, membership and programming organising the ballot, channel team and advent etc. This day will give some insight into how science communication is a collaborative effort and shine a light on the unsung heroes of sci-comm.

  • How does the Ri manage to put on such a large-scale project?
  • What’s the advent project all about?
  • How does the Ri function as a charity and where do the Lectures fit in?
  • What’s it like to work in a collaborative way with so many departments?
  • What sorts of backgrounds do people have if not science?


11 December: The process of making a science TV show          

Lucy Haken

What’s the process of taking scientific content, demos and ideas and actually turning them into something people will want to watch? This day will provide insights into science media, what it’s like to work in factual programming and the various challenges that Lucy has encountered, regarding the Lectures and any other projects.

  • Do you need a science background to work in science TV?
  • How do you get a job in science TV?
  • What are the most important things to consider when making a science TV show?
  • Do you ever have to concede factual accuracy for the sake of an interesting story?


12 December: The modern science communication environment         

Kevin Fong/Jon Farrow

On the final day we will discuss the role of science communication in the modern science landscape.

  • What’s the purpose of science communication and what are the most effective methods of communicating science?
  • Where do the CHRISTMAS LECTURES stand in the wider world of science communication?
  • What are the challenges people face when communicating science?
  • What are the different sorts of job people interested in scicomm do?
  • Is there debate about the ‘usefulness’ of science communication, what are the arguments for and against?

You can follow The Royal Institution on twitter @Ri_Science, and read more about the CHRISTMAS LECTURES at Please welcome the CHRISTMAS LECTURE team to Real Scientists!



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