The art of communicating science to kids


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Professor Anthony Ryan, a user of the ESRF, presented last month the traditional Christmas Lectures for teenagers organised by The Royal Institution of Great Britain. This scientist from Sheffield University talked about how we humans copy nature in objects that define our modern world.

If you attend a lecture about science and you find yourself surrounded by children and in addition the first thing you see is a guy abseiling from the roof, you probably think you went into the wrong room. Believe it or not, you wouldn't have made any mistake in the context of the 2002 Christmas Lectures of the Royal Institution. These Lectures are an annual event, consisting of presenting complex scientific issues to an audience of children in an informative and revealing manner, and encouraging their participation in demonstrations and experiments. This edition's outstanding lecturer was Professor Tony Ryan, who is the ICI Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Sheffield  and a regular user of the DUBBLE Beamline (BM26). And he used the clever idea of abseiling from the roof as an introduction for his lecture about the resistance and flexibility of spiders webs.

Under the title "Smart stuff", this scientist presented five lectures showing how everything we do and use involves a bit of chemical know-how. His lectures included topics such as the spiders webs and how their structure is copied even for building bridges, the link between ice cream and cryogenics, the chemistry contained in tiny mobile phones that connect people, how trainers resist all the sweat and impacts, or even what makes plasters, soap and beauty products work.

The Christmas Lectures were started in 1820 by Michael Faraday, a former Director of the Royal Institution. Many scientists known world-wide, such as William Bragg, have been lecturers of this event. The lectures have featured an impressive range of subjects including astronomy, music, botany, chemistry and architecture in the early years, and more recently covering exploration of the universe, animal behaviour, robotics, the brain and human genetics. And now even synchrotron radiation!

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