Christmas Lectures 2012 – Behind the Scenes

The beautiful reaction seen between Caesium and Fluorine

The Modern Alchemist

One of the great pleasures of working at the Royal Institution is witnessing the frenzy that goes on behind the scenes in the lead up to the Christmas Lectures. This year the lectures cover the chemical elements and are presented by Dr Peter Wothers, a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and teaching fellow at the University of Cambridge.

The beautiful reaction seen between Caesium and Fluorine
The beautiful reaction seen between Caesium and Fluorine

The lectures themselves are available for a limited period on iPlayer, but will also be available to stream indefinitely on the Ri Channel, the team behind them have done an incredible job and so they’re well worth a watch – you don’t necessarily need any scientific background or knowledge of Chemistry to enjoy them!

Naturally this year’s subject lends itself well to the presentation of scientific demonstrations and there has been plenty of opportunity for loud bangs and fire spewing explosions. However, the lectures have also provided chance to perform some very rare and unusual demonstrations – and it’s these that have formed the subject of a couple of behind the scenes films produced for the Ri Channel:

Reacting Caesium and Fluorine (First time on camera)

Fluorine and Caesium are the two most reactive elements in the periodic table and so for the lectures, Peter was very interested in trying to react them both together. However their extreme reactivity also means that they’re both very dangerous to work wit, so it was important Peter found the right person to work with! Enter Dr Eric Hope a Fluorine specialist at the University of Leicester and so on a grey day in November we travelled up to see how this reaction might work and I think it might be the first time it has ever been caught on camera!

What was particularly nice about this meeting was that Peter had never previously seen Fluorine and Eric had never seen Caesium! This demo features in the second lecture, ‘Water: The Fountain of Youth’.

Cloud Chamber

I was so pleased I got to see this demo with my own eyes, I’d previously heard a lot about cloud chambers and seen a few bits of ropey footage on the internet, but never actually seen one in the flesh (so to speak). It’s essentially a particle detector with a sealed environment that is supersaturated with alcohol vapour and as charged particles zip through the vapour they ionize it, allowing condensation trails to form.

It’s an absolutely beautiful thing to look at, as it makes visible the background radiation that exists all around us and on the last day of recording I was lucky enough to capture this close-up on camera:

This demonstration features in the third lecture entitled ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’.

Testing Hydrogen Balloons

Lastly, the Christmas Lectures wouldn’t be complete without some sort of gratuitous explosion and so here’s a little film about testing different sized hydrogen balloons:

Taking a Peek Inside the Living Lung

Screen Shot 2012-12-24 at 12.15.33

For the final Royal Institution Advent film, I travelled to the University of Sheffield MRI Unit at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital, to look at how a very strange element is being used in a pioneering MRI technique to image living lungs.

The film is presented by this year’s Christmas Lecturer, Dr Peter Wothers (University of Cambridge) who takes part in the research programme by having his own lungs scanned. Conventional MRI is usually pretty poor at imaging areas such as the lungs, which have very little fatty tissue and water (MRI scanners essentially detect radio frequencies given off by protons in Hydrogen nuclei) – and so this novel technique involves the inhalation of hyper-polarised Xenon to image the ventilated lung. Xenon is an inert gas so is relatively safe to inhale, although it does have some unusual effects on the human body, especially on the voice – it’s also a mild anaesthetic – so watch the film to see how it affects Peter!

Xenon Lungs

As the Xenon is only present within the respiratory system, signal is only detected within ventilated areas – areas in which Xenon is not present appear black on the resulting image. This therefore allows medical professionals to identify damaged or obstructed areas of the lung which may be poorly ventilated or not at all, providing a novel method of efficiently and non-invasively examining the lungs of a living patient.

Screen Shot 2012-12-24 at 12.15.33
Images of Peter’s lungs captured through the Xenon MRI method.

The research is being conducted by Dr Jim Wild and his research assistant Helen Marshall (both featured in the film) at the University of Sheffield and is funded by the EPSRC. More information on this technique can be found here.

The films forms part of a series of 24, released daily in the Ri Advent Calendar here. The films are also available on YouTube and on the Ri Channel.

24 Films for Advent…


…or how to kill yourself slowly before Christmas.

Advent Tilt

With the 2012 Royal Insitution Christmas Lectures exploring the chemistry of the modern world, we wanted to produce a suitable project to promote the lectures online.

So for the last two months I have been working frantically to create 24 short films, each asking a bunch of well known scientists, science communicators and famous faces what their favourite element is – the films are being released daily and are housed within a beautiful interactive advent calendar built by Archive Studios. View the advent calendar here.

Trailer for the series:

It’s a bit of a silly question so the films are all a bit tongue in cheek to a certain extent, but there’s a nice variety across them – from simple pieces to camera, to more involved short films centered on specific elements. The films also include a lovely animated ident produced by the friendly folks over at 12foot6.

The idea for the series came from a question posed to interview candidates for the Christmas Lectures Researcher role – who were asked what their favourite element was and why – the answers given were often surprisingly personal and often witty, it seemed like a great way to explore the elements from a very personal perspective.

We’ve worked hard to produce a nice variety across the films to avoid repeating the same format – hopefully this will encourage people to keep checking back on a daily basis! The series also includes a huge range of individuals including, amongst others: Brian Cox, Mark Miodownik, Dick & Dom, Helen Czerski, Dara O Briain, Liz Bonnin, Andrea Sella, Jerry Hall and this year’s Christmas Lecturer, Dr Peter Wothers. We hope there are a few surprising faces amongst the line up.

My favourite films of the series so far are…

Andrea Sella in the glassblowing workshop:

Helen Arney’s Boron Song:

Jerry Hall talking about Copper:

Helen Czerski’s piece on Calcium:

Tech stuff:

The films were pretty much all shot on a Panasonic AF101 – using a range of lenses, however mostly with a Panasonic Lumix 12-35mm lens. For a couple of the films I was lucky enough to work with BBC producer Tom Hewitson, who brought with him a Cannon XF305. Sound was recorded via Sennheiser ew100 G3 wireless radio mic set and also with a Rode NTG-2 shotgun mic. Edited on FCPX and exported as 720p, h264. The films can also be viewed on YouTube and on the Ri Channel.

Hope you enjoy them!