Sitting in a room with 3800 other people, while orchestral music heralds footage of the transit of Neptune and waiting for the next graph on the solar emission spectrum of the Sun, I start to think how remarkable it is that a cosmology could reach this scale. I am quite aware that in other universes, they are still playing the chicken in the basket circuit, even if the chickens are ten times the size of the chickens that remain within the laws of our universe.
Pessimistic as I am, perhaps it is hopeful that an age dubbed post-fact still has such an audience eager to understand the laws of physics, even as our politics seems to be infiltrated by narcissistic and nihilistic emoticons.
There is spectacle in the current Brian Cox lecture, a sorbet of colour and explosion to offer brief downtime from information, and I occasionally upset the flow with some appearances containing interjections and questions, but over the two hors, there really is a lot of science.
When I first looked at the proposed lecture, I was hesitant. Could we really live in times when a series of slides, graphs and words explaining the methods of weighing and dating the universe, and eventually revealing (spoiler alert) the potential of the existence of an infinite number of universes, was an acceptable live entertainment for thousands? Wouldn’t Brian need to throw in some more wistful stares towards the skies, or the roof at least?
Having played to over 6000 people in Australia over the last two nights, maybe not.
The make up of the audience is broad, and so are the questions, some from eight years olds, some from 60 year olds, some on relativity, some on dark energy, some of black holes, but all revealing a hungry curiosity.
Throughout the 19th and into the twentieth century, there have been remarkably popular science lectures. Albermarle Street became the first one way street in the world in an attempt to control the gridlock created by the hugely popular lectures by Humphrey Davy at the Royal Institution.
The Thinker’s Library, published the Rationalist Press Association between 1929 and 1951, put big scientific and philosophical ideas into small and affordable books. Workers’ libraries were built and funds gathered to buy books of Huxley, Darwin and Einstein, and there were the public libraries too (still important today, despite government derision) .
Despite the runaway success of Professor Cox, the press and television are sheepish with their science output, frequently worrying about the limitations of their audiences’ intellect and ambition.
Perhaps it is more convenient to project onto your audience the image of a flighty glutton happy to be fed by gossip, outrage and noise and unable to concentrate on thoughts without constant recap and tacky spectacle.
I am in a hopeful frame of mind, it must be both the delightful sunlight and charming audience of Brisbane.
After lunch, Brian bumped into some of last night’s audience. Neither were scientists, both had been unable to sleep last night. This was the insomnia of cosmological revelation, the best kind of insomnia, a sleeplessness created by having information imparted to you that disturbs your mind in the best of ways.
Let’s hope the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures are soon a regular event at Wembley Arena, you can make some big test tubes for some big explosions there. Why should the classical musicians have all the Prom fun?
Robin and Josie’s Book Shambles podcast has many interviews with lovely people like Chris Hadfield, Stewart Lee, Sara Pascoe and next week has a Blue Dot special with Brian, Monica Grady, Ben Miller and many more HERE