Q: Can you offer any hints of what we can expect from the 2020 Christmas Lectures?
Chris: You can expect to find out about the natural dynamism of the Earth and how we, Humans, are impacting the Earth’s climate. You will find out that, yes, climate has always changed over billions of years, being raised by things like the tilt and wobble of the Earth itself, as well as volcanic eruptions. However, we, Humans, are now causing the global temperature to rise at unprecedented rates, and we must act now to address this life-threatening environment change. The lecture I’m presenting will align nicely with Helen’s and Tara’s, and between us, we hope to give a pretty rounded insight into the fundamental infrastructure that sustains us and every other living thing on the planet.
Helen: When discussing the best way to live as a human on Planet Earth we don’t often take time to consider the basic question; ‘How does the planet work?’. Life has existed on Earth for billions of years, and all life is part of the Earth system, a component of this great engine. That includes us, whether we like it or not. Knowing how the planet works provides some really important context for the decisions that we have to make about the next steps of our civilisation. But Earth’s planetary engine is also beautiful and intricate and endlessly fascinating, and it’s an astonishing thing to be part of. There isn’t nearly enough time in these lectures to really dive into all of that, but we can at least share some of that perspective.
Tara: You can expect a holistic view of our planet looking across the systems that make it a wonderful pace for life to flourish. We will look at how the oceans, the land and the air interact to provide us with a safe climate, clean air and food to eat. And we will look at our influence as human beings on those systems and the impacts we are having on our own wellbeing as well as that of other species and ecosystems. You can also expect the usual amazing demonstrations that the Lectures are renowned for – albeit without a live audience this year unfortunately – and a few unexpected insights into the systems that drive planet Earth.
Earth’s planetary engine is also beautiful and intricate and endlessly fascinating, and it’s an astonishing thing to be part of
Left to right: Helen, Chris and Tara
Q: You all have TV and writing careers but tell us a bit about your fundamental research interests
Chris: I am interested in the structure and evolution of the Earth, and how its landscapes and seascapes have changed over many, many tens of millions of years. I do this by: (i) looking into the Earth, deep beneath our feet, with seismic-reflection data, which are essentially CT-scans of the Earth; (ii) directly sampling the Earth using boreholes; and (iii) by looking at the composition and structure of rocks exposed around us on the Earth’s surface. We can use this knowledge to find natural resources and to understand how the Earth has changed in response to climatic and tectonic perturbations.
Helen: When discussing the best way to live as a human on Planet Earth we don’t often take time to consider the basic question “how does the planet work?”. Life has existed on Earth for billions of years, and all life is part of the Earth system, a component of this great engine. That includes us, whether we like it or not. Knowing how the planet works provides some really important context for the decisions that we have to make about the next steps of our civilisation. But Earth’s planetary engine is also beautiful and intricate and endlessly fascinating, and it’s an astonishing thing to be part of. There isn’t nearly enough time in these lectures to really dive into all of that, but we can at least share some of that perspective.
Tara: My research interests are really varied. I am curious about the intersections between disciplines, so for example, how climate change science connects with behaviour change science and communications; or how ethics, human rights and gender equality inform climate action. I have been researching policy responses to climate change adaptation for years, as even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases today, we have already locked in changes to our climate system that we will have to learn to plan for and cope with. That doesn’t mean we should give up efforts to eradicate greenhouse gases, but we have to acknowledge the damage that’s already been done. That’s a part of climate action that often seems forgotten about.
Q: Do you think scientists should do more to engage the public?
Chris: Absolutely! It’s fun to talk about things you are passionate about, whether they are of societal importance or not. Much research is paid for by the public, via their taxes, explicitly so that they may benefit from the research. Some of the research results are complicated and the processes to achieve them messy; however, there are still opportunities to boil-down these stories to their essential message. We can make science engaging in this way. People might then have more trust in the public guidance arising from this complex, sometimes opaque, research. We can communicate our work to the public and engage them in many, many ways. Whether via flashy TV shows or trips to local schools. These medias reach different, but equally important, audiences.
Helen: I don't think that there’s any debate left about whether scientists “should” make an effort – the question is about the sort of effort that brings the most important benefits, who gets to decide what the most important benefits are, and how it works in practice. The first major step is still making all research articles open access, and it’s staggering that this task is not yet complete. But the raw research isn’t really much good without clear context, and so we need everyone to do some grass-roots work of explaining what they’re doing to a non-expert audience.
There’s a lot of focus on ‘big’ schemes, documentaries, videos that go viral etc, mostly because humans do like a magic pill that looks like it solves everything. But really, we need all scientists to do a little bit, and that little bit comes in two stages: listening to society (really listening!), and then talking. And I really think it’s just as powerful to have all scientists talking respectfully to their neighbours, their communities, and local businesses as it is to have a few big tv documentaries. The culture of science has to change to make that part of everyone’s job, in whatever way they can.
Tara: Yes, I love communicating science and am a firm believer that the full impact of scientific discovery and advancement is achieved when we communicate it effectively and use it to create positive change or enhance understanding. In fact we have a responsibility as scientists to do this and I’m pleased that’s very much part of the ethos at the Royal Institution. The COVID pandemic shows us the important role of science in informing both government response and individual action. We need to use climate science in a similar way to shape decision making that can deliver a safe, equitable and sustainable future.
…I don’t look at a tree and immediately do calculations of whether the branches might fall down. I look at it and imagine the likely outcomes using intuition built both on science and on my perspective. The evidence is common to everyone…
Q: In a time where there is a rise in ‘fake news’ and even anti-scientific viewpoints held by some politicians, are we seeing a backlash from the public with a greater demand for fact-based knowledge?
Chris: Yes, we are. Mainly because more science-based policies are being developed…yet at the same time the number and power of those holding anti-scientific viewpoints keeps increasing. The public can feed off these viewpoints when made widespread via the media and social media. Scientists clearly play a role in combating these views by engaging directly with the public.
Helen: It’s really unhelpful to paint this as an us-and-them battle, even if it sometimes feels like it. Humans almost all share some fundamental motivations: they want to be healthy in mind and body, they want basic respect, they care about their family, and they want to feel part of a culture. Lobbing a cannonball labelled ‘FACT’ across the barricades can be really damaging. So “fact-based knowledge” is the wrong phrase. What we want is evidence-based understanding, and we have to explain the evidence (and its uncertainties) when we present the understanding. And we have to do that with humility. The public may be demanding “fact-based knowledge” but we have to be better than that, and to set a better example. We scientists are supposed to be the ones with the training in this, after all. What people want, I think, is to understand the context for their life and the decisions that they have to make. And we need to listen *first*, and respect the fundamental motivation, and then be better than the people lobbing cannonballs.
Tara: I think people are more intelligent than they are sometimes given credit for. Of course, there are many different people lumped together in ‘the public’ so it shouldn’t be a surprise that we have different attitudes and different appetites for science and facts. But people are usually swayed by what makes sense and what delivers results – and well researched facts and data, as well as a strong story, can support that.
Q: When you think about outreach, what’s more important to you – the science or the entertainment?
Chris: Both are important, to varying extents, depending on the audience. However, it is non-negotiable that the science is correct.
Helen: It’s a false separation. Satisfying curiosity is immensely entertaining, when you look at the raw definition of what entertainment is. The science has to be correct, but there’s no problem with presenting any bit of science in a way that delights people. You just need to put the effort and creativity into doing it properly (often people don’t bother). The science has to come first, partly because that’s the point, but also because nature is weird and wonderful enough and once you understand a piece of science properly, it only gets more entertaining. But you have to put the work in to find that crossover.
Tara: Well it has to be a mix of both. We all have shorter attention spans these days, so we do need to work harder to grab people’s attention. But to keep their attention we need to surprise them and engage them, and science can do that. It awakens curiosity. I certainly think that as scientists we have responsibility to make our work not just understandable, but even more so, relevant to people. For me, science that affects improvements in people’s lives is the most powerful – and to achieve that science has to be accessible to, and its application informed by, the widest possible audience.
Q: Why is scientific outreach important in an age where information is so easily accessible?
Chris: Scientific outreach has always been important, even before ‘scientist’ was a recognised profession; witness the founding purpose of the Royal Institution, set out in 1799 and still the same today. Thankfully the likes of Faraday, Davy and Lonsdale recognised that importance. They saw communicating the outcomes of their research as being as important as the research itself. Today, we have the added imperative to combat fake news. Climate change is a classic example – with the sheer weight of evidence, you’d think it was impossible that anyone could doubt our impact on our planet, yet they do.
Helen: There’s a persistent misunderstanding that science communication is about facts. It isn’t, and we need to stop propagating that myth. It’s about perspective. My scientific training gives me a perspective on the world, one informed by our understanding of what’s going on around us. It’s a perspective that lets me understand and predict what’s going on around me, but I don’t look at a tree and immediately do calculations of whether the branches might fall down. I look at it and imagine the likely outcomes using intuition built both on science and on my perspective. The evidence is common to everyone, but there are many perspectives on what that means. We need to keep creating and sharing those perspectives and do it honestly and with integrity. The need for that will never end.
Tara: People learn and engage in different ways and while online information works for some, it doesn’t for all. We need to employ the full range of human emotions to connect with people. And we also need to focus on scientific outreach to counter the fake news that exists and can clog up our social media feeds and inboxes. Scientific outreach by credible and trusted organisations can help people to cut through the noise and find the facts they need.
Q: And where do you see the Christmas Lectures in the mix – as a 200-year-old concept, how relevant are they today?
Chris: They are hugely relevant! They convene scientifically valid experts who are able to communicate their science in an engaging way to the next generation of scientists, as well as the next generation of the public! The lectures can also shine a bright light on important, socially relevant topics, such as climate change, or the role of maths and Artificial Intelligence in our lives. The quality and relevance of the science are central to the Ri Lectures, even if the mode of communication, via TV and with more entertainment, has changed over the centuries!
Helen: Human knowledge and culture is an astonishingly collaborative endeavour – centuries of trying and failing and sharing have built the enormous edifice of understanding we have today. Every act of learning is an act of sharing between humans. And a lecture is the process of trying to take what’s inside one human brain and give it, as a gift, to another human brain. The Christmas Lectures represent the fundamental building block of that sharing: one human giving an intellectual gift to another. It’s one of the most human things that you can do, and the day we stop doing that, we’ll have lost part of our humanity. So the Christmas Lectures are just as relevant as ever.
Tara: Very relevant. The Christmas lectures are constantly adapting to remain relevant. This year we are adapting to COVID and we have 3 lecturers addressing one common topic from different perspectives rather than one lecturer delivering 3 lectures on their field of study. We have 2 women scientists and the first black scientist to deliver a Christmas Lecture working together to provide an interdisciplinary view of our planet. And we will aim to entertain and inform, to inspire and engage, just as the Christmas Lectures have done for the last 200 years.
Watch this year’s lectures
Usually, tickets to the live recording of the Christmas Lectures are available exclusively to Ri Members, Young Members, Patrons and UK registered schools, via a ballot which opens in September. For obvious reasons, this year will be different! Be sure to check the Ri website for updates: www.rigb.org
Catch the lectures between Christmas and New Year on BBC Four and keep an eye out for Phil’s follow up podcast.
About our interviewees (left to right):
Dr Tara Shine is an expert in the field of climate change and climate justice, social entrepreneur, author, tv presenter and public speaker
Prof Chris Jackson is a geologist and adventurer, who is currently a Professor at Imperial College London and makes regular tv appearances as an expert
Dr Helen Czerski is a physicist and oceanographer, columnist, tv presenter and public speaker