The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures – 2014 – Sparks Will Fly.

I have been a fan of The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures for many years. Admittedly I have not watched so many in recent years but I always thought fondly of them. This year I made a concerted effort to watch them – after the event, and after Christmas via the mystical magic of t’interweb and BBC” eye” player. The titles and write ups seemed quite exciting and up my street, making stuff by using “technology” we have around the house. The presenter, Prof Danielle George is Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences, and a Professor in the Microwave and Communications Systems research group at the University of Manchester. She was bright, enthusiastic and engaging and I accept the target audience was a lot younger than me – though I am sometimes told I am just a big kid – so she needed to engage their imagination but pretty much from the off important facts and principles were glossed over, things were dumbed down, my expectations were raised way too high. We jumped from using an incandescent lamp to LED lamps for reasons of energy efficiency, no mention was made of the thermal lag of the filament making for blurry images. Then we got onto matrix displays, there was quite a good piece of demonstration equipment but it was not well explained, words like multiplex and matrix (I think) were sadly missing as was a very important phenomenon – persistence of vision – which allows us to get away with all sorts of tricks with visual displays. Things got worse when we had 40 Raspberry Pi’s apparently triggered in perfect synchronisation “by the internet”. No mention of latency and timing.  We were led to believe that wireless was better than cabling in a large building, we had a demonstration of a mechanical SERVO not a simple motor switching a light on and off, then magically someone pops off down B&Q and buys their entire stock of multicolour, wireless enabled LED lamps. Plug them in, throw in a ready made wireless controller from a stadium illumination and a game controller which had nothing to do with a load of Jellies! and the jobs a good one!

The second lecture was no better, in fact it was worse as in my opinion it had the biggest bit of misinformation of the three. What they showed in the studio was not a Hologram, it was a 2D image projected onto a curtain of water droplets, quite effective but NOT a hologram. There was a whole section on Haptics (not clearly explained) and then the final implementation didn’t use them – they could have done.

The third lecture bought in a load of ready made bits and robots to form an orchestra. All very interesting but little was explained about many of the things used, there were a few nice demonstrations but the fundamental science was glossed over.

I know it is difficult to get many of the concepts over in a one hour program but I often got the feeling that Prof.  George was out of her depth, there were so many things I could pick holes in (Sorry Prof. but it’s true). I also felt there were hidden agendas throughout – energy efficiency (LED lamps), high speed wireless internet There was also an over reliance on the Smartphone with little in the way of explaination of the basic principles.

The one good thing was the over arching message to the audience to go home and play, to make and do stuff. My only worry is that many will become quickly disillusioned when much of what they imagine they can do – like “code” a game (how I hate that term – almost as much as hack), and they suddenly find out its not a case of a couple of lines of program but many hundreds.

Raspberry Pi, Arduino and their ilk are fantastic and have fired many youngsters imaginations. Hopefully in 10 years time we will start to see the fruits of this emerging into main stream employment, I hope so as we are so short of engineers of all flavours right now. I think the program should have concentrated on this and showed right from the start of unpacking the kit what could be achieved from getting “Hello World” on a screen and blinking an LED to uploading a web page to the internet. Telling them how it all links together – its information no one thinks they need to know – but in the long run they do!