Friday, June 19, 2015

Famous Speech Friday: Danielle George's Royal Institution Lecture

The Royal Institution's annual Christmas Lectures are a public forum that most scientists only dream of--and for most of the Lectures' 189-year history, dreaming was as close as a woman ever got to the Faraday Stage in RI's London headquarters. The Lectures began in 1825 as a way to introduce young people to cutting-edge science with the help of spectacular demonstrations and experiments. The list of Christmas Lecture luminaries includes Michael Faraday himself, John Tyndall, Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins. The first woman to give the Lecture was neuroscientist Susan Greenfield--in 1994.

That makes this year's speaker, University of Manchester engineer Danielle George, only the sixth woman to give the Christmas Lecture. George is a radio and microwave communications expert who has worked on everything from massive telescope arrays to Rolls Royce engines. Teaching is also a particular passion of hers, so the Christmas Lecture was a natural fit for her. Her "Sparks Will Fly" series is a rollicking good time of visually dazzling experiments, enthusiastic audience participation, and a London-wide stage that includes an office building turned into a video game and guests beamed in via hologram.

George is the first woman engineer to give the Lectures, and the first one to do so while eight months pregnant. There was a back-up plan in place, in fact, for a BBC commentator to give the Lecture if George's daughter arrived early. In an interview with The Independent, George said she hoped the sight of her on stage would be inspiring:
Hopefully, it sends a subconscious message that as long as your baby is fine and you're feeling fine it doesn't stop you from doing anything. So you can get on with your work, still make a difference and still change the world in a positive way--and you don't have to stop for nine months because you are pregnant."
There's a lot to learn from George's Christmas Lecture, but here are a few of the things that stood out in this famous speech:
  • Say "yes" to a speaking invitation. "When I first received an email asking if I might be interested in presenting the Lectures I thought it must have been sent to me by mistake so I ignored it," George recalled. "But then I received a second email a few days later which convinced me that maybe it really was a genuine request and not spam after all!" I hear a little bit of the "imposter syndrome" in this reply, and it's one of the reasons why women sometimes turn down speaking invitations. Why not say "yes" for a change, and see what happens?
  • Prepare, practice, and practice again. In an interview with The Eloquent Woman, George told us that she began working with a producer at RI in September to write a draft script. "This was mainly due to the type of lecture I wanted to give and the logistics involved," she said. "I wanted each lecture to have a grand challenge and spend the lecture working toward that challenge." Filming began in December, "and we usually had one rehearsal the day before and then a full dress rehearsal on the morning of the filming. There were certain parts we wanted to practice more than others, such as when I had a guest on the lecture," George said.
  • Be flexible with your speech if necessary. Each lecture has George moving into the audience to find children willing to help out with a variety of experiments, along with demonstrations that have to be moved on and off stage as George speaks. Both of these features meant that George couldn't be strict about sticking to a word-for-word script. "I had a screen to prompt me on what I was talking about but I didn't script my actual words so I was happy that we didn't need to re-take parts lots of times," she said. "I loved the feeling that I honestly didn't know how each grand challenge would end--would we complete it successfully? What would I do or say if it didn't work? It kept me on my toes."
I'd also add that this was one of those rare lectures that gets to the heart of how scientists think and work. George shows how researchers need to break down those "grand challenges" into smaller and more manageable tasks, and she demonstrates that seesaw of fear and excitement while waiting for an experiment to unfold. When things go a little bit wrong (I'm wincing with you, assistant who took a paintball in the side!), George doesn't shrug it off or explain it away. It's all just science in its messy glory.

You can watch all three parts of George's Christmas Lecture at The RI Channel. We especially like the second in the series, shown below. Which one is your favorite?

Sparks Will Fly: How to Hack Your Home

(Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this Famous Speech Friday post. You, too, could be lucky enough to hire her to write for you.)

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