Technicians Make the RI Christmas Lecture Happen - Part 1

The Royal Institution’s Annual Christmas Lecture is the highlight of the science calendar. Launched by Michael Faraday (who began his career as a technician at the RI) in 1825, its now broadcast on national television every year.

With the support of the Technician Commitment, three technicians successfully applied for the opportunity to join the production team for 2020’s lecture, Planet Earth: A user’s guide. Some even feature on camera, so keep your eyes peeled! We caught up with them to learn more about what is was like to work on one of the most famous science programmes on TV.

First up is Malcolm Holley, 58, Director of Faculty Technical Services, for the Faculty of Science at the University of Bath

Hi Malcolm! What led you to apply to support the creation of this year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lecture?

I have watched the Christmas lectures on and off since the 70’s. I was always fascinated by the role of Bill Coates (William Coates) a rather dapper gent who wheeled the demonstrations on, and occasionally operated them. I thought this must be the coolest job in the world. So, the opportunity to partly follow in Bills footsteps and actually, do, some of the work that Bill undertook couldn’t be missed. It was like coming full circle for me and was a great way to top and tail my technical career – but I’m not retiring yet!

Primarily I saw it as an opportunity to get back to hands on problem-solving and using my hands more than my mind. Although, it turned out both would be equally stretched during the placement!

What was your role on the show?

My official title was “RI Demonstrator Technician” This involved in varying degrees taking an idea and turning it into a physical prop for one of the lectures, or suggesting improvements on existing ones, setting up props backstage or on-stage and sharing hints and tips with others.

As probably one of the oldest participants in the scheme, I can absolutely refute the adage “that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks

 

What skills/ attributes do you normally need to do your job? Did you apply them differently in this context?

Much of my normal work is problem solving across a range of science disciplines, albeit the solutions and investigations into these solutions can take days, weeks or even months or very occasionally years, before they see fruition. The solutions are most often communicated in a written form or presented verbally.

The situation is very similar in supporting the Christmas lectures except the time scales differ significantly – solutions have to be found in hours, minutes or even seconds. And, the results being presented in a physical format as a demonstration piece for example.

What wouldn’t have happened without you on the show?

In a personal capacity, the flying sharks might have had a more successful maiden flight! But, without me one of them would never have flown as I discovered and fixed a fault in its control electronics.

Some of my ideas became the solution to how some of the props would be constructed or the materials to be used.

There would also have been more doughnuts left for the others to eat!

What was the best bit about taking part? 

Getting back to hands on practical problem solving and working in such an exciting building as the Royal Institution were both big wins for me. It’s both architecturally interesting but it also has has a very significant scientific back story, some of which is on display. Again it’s worth mentioning that it’s both great fun and a pleasure to work with other technical people – both the talented RI staff and the two other equally talented technician “secondees” who were working together to deliver a shared goal.

On a completely different, and possibly unique note, it was fascinating to be in one of the busiest capital cities in the world with almost no-one around, and very little traffic due to the lock down 2.

 

Have you learnt anything from the experience? 

Yes, very much so. As probably one of the oldest participants in the scheme, I can absolutely refute the adage “that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”.

Not only did I learn about the process of turning science into an exciting televisual experience and film recording in general, but I also picked up some hints and tips from fellow placement technicians and from the RI establishment staff.

You’ll also become very familiar with the concept that matt black gaffer tape can hide a multitude of sins and can hold things together just long enough to film them.

What was different in comparison to what you would normally do as a technician?

The speed at which you need to come to a solution and then turn it into a working solution was certainly different. As I’ve drifted up the ranks, I’ve spent more and more time behind a desk. This was a great opportunity to get back to basics and think of solutions and deliver them. It was like an adult version of play school and being able to do lots of “sticking, and gluing, and cutting and colouring” albeit with better machinery and generally on a bigger scale but always with a science content at the fore.

Being a technician and where it takes you is to many extents what you make of it.

 

What would you say to technicians thinking about applying next year?

Go for it!

What it is, is a fantastic opportunity to learn how to make complex science both readily understandable to a young audience and also present it in a very visual manner. You’ll also be working in a building with an immense history in scientific endeavour, that almost exudes science knowledge from its very walls. Being watched over by portraits of Faraday, Tyndall, Newton and a whole host of others and working in the very spaces that they did (Newton aside), you’ll be working alongside some fantastically skilled RI staff who have wrestled with supporting and delivering the Christmas lectures for many years.

Also, you might want to up your fitness levels before arriving. Being somewhat senior in years and a smidge overweight I went from being a couch-potato to Linford Christie (ask your parents) in a little under 24-hrs. The goodies table filled with doughnuts, sweeties (and uneaten fruit) and caffeine can only keep you going for so long. Sleep is all we craved by the end of the fortnight – and I have to say that we 3 placement technicians had it easy. The RI staff seem to work for around 20 hrs a day, 7 days a week!

So watch it, enjoy it and if the science involved sparks an interest in you - go for it. 

I’m convinced it wasn’t aliens that built Stonehenge but technicians.

 

Do you have any tips or advice to say to a young person about the show, or being a technician?

I’ve gone from watching it as kid that kindled my enthusiasm for science, to pursuing a career in scientific technical support, to actually being part of it, albeit with the passage of a half a century or so between the two.

Being a technician and where it takes you is to many extents what you make of it.

Never stop taking opportunities to learn new skills, be that at the start of your career, mid-way through or near to the end. Sometime this will mean doing it off your own back and in your own time, but each extra skill or bit of knowledge gained can be a way of slowly opening up doors along your career pathway.

Even sitting on the loo reading the backs of cleaning products can be a useful exercise, that’s in the era before you sat there surfing the net. (Many cleaning products contain Bittrex – denatonium - to deter accidental ingestion. This little fact was used by me in coming up with an idea to stop feral donkeys chewing ground laid radio cables. Mix your Bittrex in petroleum jelly and slather the cables in the mix. Result: annoyed donkeys but whole cables.)

Why are technicians like you important?

They are the people that can take someone’s ideas, or even their own, and turn them into reality and functional solutions.

I’m convinced it wasn’t aliens that built Stonehenge but technicians. Someone came up with the idea but it was a group of Palaeolithic technicians that made it happen (it’s just a shame they didn’t leave their lab books behind as it would have cut short much of the speculation around who and how it get built.!).

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