It is always exciting to teach children who demonstrate a fascination for the natural world. But amid ever-increasing academic pressure, I fear that the regurgitation of facts relevant solely to answering exam questions may increasingly become the norm. If only, then, that students would read 11 Explorations into Life on Earth: Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution (RI), so that they might share in the wonder that generations of young audiences have enjoyed for nearly 200 years.
In this charming book, Helen Scales cleverly recounts 11 of these lectures, the focus of which was the natural world. (An earlier book, 13 Journeys Through Space and Time, examined astronomical discoveries and the topic of space.)
Drawing from the RI archives, film footage of the lectures, books, newspaper accounts and interviews, Scales covers the lectures in chronological order, giving fascinating accounts of the diverse biological subject matter covered. She not only details the thought-provoking topics, and the wealth of animals and plants that were brought in by the various eminent scientists to illustrate their talks, but also notes the reactions of the young audiences to the lecturers and assembled wildlife.
In each chapter, the reader is also given the opportunity to benefit from Scales’ own extensive scientific knowledge – she is a marine biologist, broadcaster and writer and University of Cambridge tutor. She skilfully adds modern references where relevant, and this prevents even the oldest lectures from feeling dated.
Expressing the views of the time, Sir John Arthur Thomson, in his lecture of 1920, “The Haunts of Life”, states that the deepest oceans contain no bacteria, which in turn “means there is no rotting”. This is now known to be untrue and Scales puts this into historical context, explaining that numerous bacteria do inhabit such an environment, but special techniques must be used to keep them alive at the surface. She expands on this by saying that these very bacteria are currently being studied for unusual molecules, which are a potential source of new antibiotics, thus making the point highly topical and relevant.
The brief biographical inserts about the lecturers give a useful insight into their backgrounds and serve as a reminder of the time at which the lecture was given.
The crowd goes wild
Apart from being a fascinating read, this book highlights another potential teaching resource: the lectures have been televised since 1966 and all these are available to watch online. Some lectures neatly tie in with exam specifications and would be excellent extension material. In his lecture of 1991, “Growing Up in the Universe”, the outspoken scientist Richard Dawkins was the first to tackle the subject of evolution in a Christmas lecture, using a variety of ingenious props and animals to support evolutionary theory, and carefully illustrate and explain how natural selection takes place – a concept that students sometimes struggle with.
In the book’s foreword, naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough admits to the fear he experienced when asked to give the lecture; he tells how he even requested to be released from his BBC contract to avoid the ordeal of broadcasting live and unedited (as he himself had previously stipulated a few years earlier, when controller of BBC Two). But what teacher cannot envy the support and resources available to these speakers to enlighten the audience and enrich the learning experience? Sir James Gray was given permission to borrow a number of live animals from London Zoo for his lecture of 1951, “How Animals Move”.
These included a donkey, a gecko, a tree frog and even a tame Himalayan bear. A mudskipper (pictured, above) and small turtle were lent with careful provisos, but the loan of a hummingbird was denied.
The book itself feels old-fashioned, in the nicest sense – the black and white photos and hand-drawn illustrations adding to the charm. This may be less appealing to a younger generation who are more accustomed to state-of-the-art photography and have an expectation of colourful illustrations at the very least. But many readers may feel a twinge of nostalgia as they enjoy the tactility of the smartly bound hardback, which fits neatly into a handbag or pocket.
The aim of the book, Scales explains, is “to give a flavour of the most exciting discoveries and ideas discussed by each lecturer and to transport readers on an exploration into the wilds”. It certainly does achieve this and would widen the general knowledge of students reading around the subject of biology. Equally, it could be enjoyed by teachers who wish to know a little more about the history of teaching biology or simply to collect interesting anecdotes for the classroom.
Leonie Thompson is a biology teacher at Parmiter’s School in Hertfordshire