CHRISTMAS LECTURES Past: Richard Dawkins

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Remembering Growing up in the Universe.

Professor Richard Dawkins talks to us about his experience of presenting the 1991 Christmas Lectures. 

The series explored our "growing knowledge of how life grows up in the universe" - from  the child growing up amidst the wonder and complexity of life, to the evolution of mankind and humanity's increasing understanding of the world and how it works through the devlopment of modern science.

Prof Dawkins talks about the challenges of presenting in front of an audience of children and recalls the good will shown towards him once people heard he was involved in the prestigious Lectures. 

Amongst his personal highlights are a cutting-edge Virtual Reality version of the Lecture Theatre and working with a range of special guests - including the author Douglas Adams who 'volunteers' to read an extract from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  

Watch the Growing up in the Universe lectures.

Themes

Being Human

Details

Type:
Interview
People:
Professor Richard Dawkins
Location:
London, UK
Filmed in:
The Theatre
Published:
2012
Filmed:
2012
Credits:

The Royal Institution

Collections with this video:
CHRISTMAS LECTURES 1991 - Growing Up in the Universe

Licence: © The Royal Institution

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Transcript

I'm Richard Dawkins, University of Oxford. And I gave the Christmas Lectures, Christmas 1991.

This is a heavy cannonball. I'm going to stand here and I'm going to release it and it's going to go over there and it's going to come roaring back towards me. And all my instincts are going to tell me to run for it. But I have enough faith in the scientific method to know that it's going to stop just about an inch short, or perhaps less, of my head. So here goes.

The title of the lectures was Growing Up in the Universe. And I meant growing up in a number of different senses. There's the child growing up and discovering for herself what a wonderful place the universe is and what a thrill it is to understand it. Then there's humanity growing up in understanding, which is the progress of science, the history of science.

Then there was growing up in the sense of evolution. In the sense of our evolution from our bacterial, whatever they were, beginnings through mammals and primates, to become the species we are now when we really do have a large measure of understanding, thanks to the development in history of modern science.

DNA comes like an ever-flowing river down the generations. The river of DNA that flows through us into the future is a pure river that leaves us exactly as it finds us, with one exception. There are very occasional random changes called mutations. Because of these, there is genetic variation in the population and that opens the way for natural selection.

A children's audience is quite a frightening audience, because they're in some ways harder to please than an adult audience. One of the nice things about doing the Christmas Lectures is that it's a key to open many doors. And if you ring up almost anybody in the country and say I'm doing the Christmas Lectures can you help me, they instantly say yes. And so you can get really quite complicated and expensive apparatus and people from all over the country will deliver.

We had a virtual reality company that sort of down tools and spent an enormous amount of time and trouble making a virtual reality version of this lecture theatre, no doubt very advanced for its time, where a child could come up and put on headphones and goggles and would see a very vivid representation of a three-dimensional world. So you could fly around the Ri Lecture Theatre in virtual reality. And that was something which I couldn't have done but for the Ri. Because the Christmas Lectures have become so well respected in the country, with their noble history going back to Faraday, that you can get whatever you like.

Well, this idea reminds me of a brilliant passage from one of my favourite works of fiction, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. In fact, I'm so fond of this passage that I was wanting somebody to read it out. Would anybody like to volunteer?

We put in various jokes, and one was because I wanted to have somebody read from one of Douglas Adams' books. A very interesting idea, very wittily expressed, of the idea that one might breed a species of animal which actually wanted to be eaten and was capable of telling us so. And that would remove at a stroke the moral objections to eating meat.

And Douglas Adams had a very, very witty story, a science fiction fantasy about such an animal. And the obvious thing to do would be to ask a child to come up and read this paragraph. But then we thought, wouldn't it be fun to get Douglas Adams himself?

Your name is?

Douglas.

Douglas what?

Adams.

Douglas Adams, what an amazing coincidence.

[APPLAUSE]

"A large dairy animal approached Zaphod Beeblebrox's table. A meaty bovine quadruped with watery eyes, small horns, and an ingratiating smile on its lips. 'Good evening,' it lowed, and sat back heavily on its haunches. 'I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body?'"

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