11 Explorations into Life on Earth

‘Life makes the wonders of technology seem commonplace… It is worthwhile, from time to time, shaking off the anaesthetic of familiarity and awakening to the wonder that is really all around us all the time.’

~ Richard Dawkins. From ‘Growing up in the Universe’ Christmas lecture series at the Royal Institution, December 1991.

My knowledge of science is, I am embarrassed to say, very limited. When I was at school science was not a compulsory subject, and so I dropped it at aged thirteen in favour of languages and humanities. Now, later in life, I regret this and wish that I had taken biology back then at the very least. Still, I can begin to address some of the gaps in my education, with books! I was very grateful to receive a review copy of Helen Scale’s book: 11 Explorations into Life on Earth, Christmas Lectures from The Royal Institution.

The Christmas Lectures are a highly regarded British tradition. For nearly two hundred years, a scientist has been invited to the Royal Institution in London to give a lecture for young audiences on a topic of scientific interest. In this book by Helen Scales we have a taster of some of those lectures from the past. It is a beautiful little book with an intricate gold-veined leaf on the cover, designed by Anna Morrison, and I loved the natural history illustrations inside the cover on the endpapers.

It was interesting to read which views have changed over the years, and also how some of the concerns in the past are still very much concerns of today. Some topics of the lectures include ‘The Childhood of Animals’, ‘The Haunts of Life’, and ‘The History in our Bones’.

There is other intriguing ephemera alongside the words – historical drawings of the lectures, invitations, letters and even an inventory of fossil specimens that were borrowed from the natural history museum.

Sir David Attenborough’s lecture of 1973 was titled ‘The language of Animals’. And when he discussed the complexities of bee communication, he produced a large model of a dancing honeybee to emulate the movements with which the bees communicate the location of flowers and their angle to the sun to each other. This book is full of these wonderful examples of scientists who are passionate about their area of exploration.

I’ve heard it said that it ought to be enough to just spend time in nature, that we don’t need to learn the specific names or know how it all works. There are many ways to interact with nature, but I do think it can only enhance our sense of wonder to learn more about the science behind it all.

As Helen writes in the epilogue:

More than half of the human population now lives in cities and many children are growing up with little contact with nature. There’s never been a more important time to find ways for people to reconnect with the natural world and to know and care about what’s out there. The R.I. Christmas Lectures play a vital part in bringing nature into vivid view for so many people and nurturing a sense of curiosity, encouraging everyone to think about the living world in new ways, and simply to go out and explore it.

This is the second book celebrating the Christmas lectures, the first is 13 Journey’s Through Space and Time. The Royal institution is an independent charity connecting people with science. For more information on the lectures and book, you can visit here: The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures.