Archive for Reith Lectures

Stephen Hawking’s Reith Lectures

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on January 8, 2016 by telescoper

Yesterday I took off early from work to head up to the Royal Institution in London to attend a recording of the Reith Lectures, this year given by Stephen Hawking.

Here’s a rather crappy phone pic to show I was there.


In fact they recorded two of this year’s lectures, as well as a lengthy question-and-answer session. The talks and answers to audience questions did of course have to be pre-loaded into Stephen’s computer before delivery which necessitated some pauses for uploads. This together with the recording of various intros, outros and idents made for quite a lengthy event but I found the whole process fascinating and didn’t mind that at all. I did have three glasses of wine at the drinks reception before the show, however, so was in quite a relaxed frame of mind generally.

In charge of the whole thing was the inestimable Sue Lawley who did her job brilliantly. On a few occasions, Stephen Hawking’s computer had a glitch and made a spontaneous interjection in an inappropriate place. Sue Lawley proved  completely unflappable.

The topic for the series is, not surprisingly because it is what Hawking is most closely associated with, Black Holes. The lectures were enjoyably sprinkled with some very witty asides, but I did get surprisingly technical at a few points; the audience members beside me were visibly baffled on more than one occasion. See what you think yourself when the lectures are broadcast, the first on 26th January and the second a week later, both at 9pm on BBC Radio 4. They will also be broadcast on the BBC World Service.

The Reith Lectures are open to the public. Apparently over 20,000 applied for tickets to attend last night, such is the draw of Stephen Hawking. The capacity of the Royal Institution lecture theatre is only about 400 so many were disappointed. Fortunately for me, owing no doubt to some form of administrative error, I was an invited guest. I was however somewhat relieved to find I was only on the B-list so although I got to use the VIP entrance I didn’t have to sit among the big nobs at the front in reserved seats.

A Reith Lecture

Posted in Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 13, 2010 by telescoper

I’m a bit late getting around to blogging today, primarily because I spent the evening at a lecture by Martin Rees. Not just any lecture, but one of the annual series of Reith Lectures that he has been chosen to present this year. This event took place in the splendid Reardon Smith Theatre in the National Museum in Cardiff, and was preceded by a wine reception where we mingled amongst the relics of Welsh prehistory. The audience for the lecture  included academics, politicians, journalists and students and there was a lively question-and-answer session afterwards.

The Reith Lectures were inaugurated in 1948 by the BBC to mark the historic contribution made to public service broadcasting by Sir John (later Lord) Reith, the corporation’s first director-general. John Reith maintained that broadcasting should be a public service which enriches the intellectual and cultural life of the nation. It is in this spirit that the BBC each year invites a leading figure to deliver a series of lectures on radio. The aim is to advance public understanding and debate about significant issues of contemporary interest.

The very first Reith lecturer was the philosopher, Bertrand Russell who spoke on “Authority and the Individual”. Among his successors were Arnold Toynbee (The World and the West, 1952), Robert Oppenheimer (Science and the Common Understanding, 1953) and J.K. Galbraith (The New Industrial State, 1966). More recently, the Reith lectures have been delivered by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks (The Persistence of Faith, 1990) and Dr Steve Jones (The Language of the Genes, 1991). Since 2002, the Reith Lectures have been presented as was tonight’s,  by Sue Lawley.

I think this is the first time any of these lectures have been delivered in Cardiff. Martin Rees is, in fact, almost a Welshman himself ,  being born in Ludlow in Shropshire only about a mile the wrong side of the border; since being elevated to the peerage a few years ago, he is now known as Baron Rees of Ludlow. He is, of course, an immensely distinguished astrophysicist (he has been Astronomer Royal since 1995) but now has a broader portfolio of responsibility in the higher echelons of British science as President of the Royal Society.

As well as being an eminent scientist, Martin Rees is also a very fine public speaker, possessing an effortless gravitas that  any politician would die for.  He speaks with great clarity, thoughtfully and to the point, but with an economical use of language. He comes across as not only highly intelligent , which he undoubtedly is, but also deeply humane, another rare combination. Martin Rees was therefore an excellent choice to give the Reith Lectures. I had been looking forward to the evening for months after I got a phone call from Auntie Beeb asking me if I’d like to attend.

His lecture this evening wasn’t about astrophysics, and neither are the others in the series which has the pretty vague overall title Scientific Horizons. This lecture, the second of the series of four, was entitled Surviving the Century,and it concerned the role of science in identifying and possibly counteracting the threats facing humanity over the next few decades. He touched on climate change, renewable energy, and the possibility of nuclear or bio-terrorism. Although he spelled out the dangers in pretty stark terms he nevertheless claimed to be an optimist to the extent that he believed science could find solutions to the most pressing problems facing our planet, but I also sensed he was more of a pessimist as to whether the necessary measures could be implemented owing to socio-economic and political constraints. Science is vital to safeguarding the future of the planet, but it isn’t sufficient. People need to change the way they live their lives.

I won’t say any more about the lecture – or the interesting audience discussion that followed it – because you’ll be able to hear it yourselves on BBC Radio 4. The Lectures will be broadcast at 9am on Radio 4 starting on Tuesday 1st June (Lecture 1, called The Scientific Citizen). The lecture I attended tonight will be broadcast at the same time the following week (8th June). Lectures 3 and 4 will follow on 15th and 22nd June. Of course they will also be available as podcasts from the BBC website. If you want to be informed, enriched and challenged then I recommend you check them out.