Body talk

18th December 1998 at 00:00
This year's Royal Institution Christmas Lectures will give plenty of food for thought, writes Chris Johnston

As we brace ourselves for the Christmas festivities, few will be wondering about the scientific pro-cesses which make them possible. Take mains power electricity, for example. Without it, there would be no fairy lights and no roast turkey. We have the English 19th-century physicist Michael Faraday to thank for that. Without him, there would be no Royal Institution Christmas lectures either.

Faraday was one of the Royal Institution's leading lights. Back in 1826, he introduced the Christmas lectures as a way of presenting scientific issues to a young audience. Guest lecturers have been carrying on the tradition ever since, and from 1966 the lectures have been televised in front of a live audience of children to millions of viewers worldwide.

The daunting prospect of making complex scientific ideas both entertaining and informative was perhaps why David Attenborough, who gave the lectures in 1973, described it as "by far the most difficult thing I've done on television".

This year it is the turn of Nancy Rothwell, professor of physiology at Manchester University. She should be an inspiration to any child who has missed schooling because of illness, because her own education was disrupted through ill health for two years when she was eight.

Stuck at home and bored, she cast about her home looking for ways to occupy her mind. She started with a skeleton - her father was a college physiology lecturer - and moved on to his illustrated textbooks. She went on to study physiology and biochemistry at university and from there to her current position and an international reputation for research on the brain.

The Making of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (BBC2, December 27, 11.20am) follows Professor Rothwell from her audition, through rehearsals, showing how she prepares the demonstrations, props and models that will be used for her five lectures on "Staying Alive: the body in balance". The lectures (all on BBC2) begin the next day. They will explore the resilience of the human body and how we sense and respond to the world.

In the first lecture, "Sense and Sensitivity" (December 28, 11.30am), Professor Rothwell investigates the range of senses that animals and people call on to survive. She tells us that we don't just have five senses but hundreds, many of them called into action while we are asleep.

Her second lecture should be a sobering affair. In "Fats and Figures" (December 29, 1.20pm) the professor tests the energy value of food and looks at why some people are fat and others are thin. Body temperature is the focus of the third lecture, "Chilling Out" (December 30, 2pm), in which Professor Rothwell swallows a temperature sensor, uses a thermal imaging camera and plunges an unfortunate colleague into a freezing bath to explain the mysteries of heat control.

The way animals and humans work to a rhythm controlled by genes is revealed in "The Times of Our Lives" (New Year's Eve, 1.15pm). Biological clocks can influence every aspect of life and might even tell cells and organisms when to die.

In the last of the five lectures, "Pushing the Limits" (New Year's Day, 12.35pm), Antarctic adventurer Mike Stroud helps to explain how the human body can survive in extreme conditions. It is a fitting conclusion to a series that demonstrates just how exciting science can be when a presenter has a passion for her subject and can pass on some of that wonder to her audience.

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