The 2017 CHRISTMAS LECTURES: The language of life

The CHRISTMAS LECTURES at the Royal Institution have been inspiring generations of budding scientists since the first lectures in 1825. This year, Professor Sophie Scott takes us on a fascinating journey through one of the fundamentals of human and animal life: the unstoppable urge to communicate.

“I don’t know a successful scientist today who wasn’t inspired as a child by the Royal Institution’s CHRISTMAS LECTURES. I grew up watching them with my parents and I now continue the tradition with my son. They’re fun and engaging and a great family-focused way to stimulate an interest in science.”

– Sophie Scott

In the past four years, I’m a Scientist, I’m an Engineerand I’m an Astronaut have joined forces with the Ri to give school students and the public the chance to ask questions inspired by the lectures. This year, once again, it’s the turn of I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here!

The CHRISTMAS LECTURES and I’m a Scientist

Sophie Scott | Image: Paul Wilkinson

The lectures will be aired on BBC FOUR over the festive period and will then be available to watch on BBC iPlayer and then on the Ri Channel from January 2018.

From December through to the end of January 2018 students and the public will be able to log in to ask any questions inspired by the The language of life lectures. We’ll have a team of scientists, researchers, and experts, including Sophie, online answering questions, and taking part in live chats with schools all over the UK.

School classes will also receive a free debate resource kit to help them run a debate about the issue of privacy in smartphones before their live chat.

Take part in the CHRISTMAS LECTURES Zone

Teachers — Deliver a debate lesson about privacy and take part in a live chat with your students: If you’ve applied to take part in any of the I’m a Scientist, I’m an Engineer, or I’m an Astronaut events, you’ll get an email in November asking if you’d like to register your students for the 2017 CHRISTMAS LECTURES Zone. Find out more about how to use the CHRISTMAS LECTURES zone with your class…

Help answer questions from school students and the public: Does your work or research relate to the themes of communication or privacy? If you’d like to join the team of experts answering questions from school students and the public, email us at, with your details and a couple of sentences describing your work and how it relates to the themes. Find out more about taking part…

Posted on November 24, 2017 by in News. 4s Comments.

4 Responses to The 2017 CHRISTMAS LECTURES: The language of life

  1. floss says:

    Can animals really cool ndestand us when we speak to them?

  2. floss says:

    That should say really understand us

  3. damienhall says:

    Certainly! But (**academic answer alert**) it depends what you mean when you say ‘understand’. Dogs can’t understand whole sentences, or the differences between similar sentences, so they wouldn’t know the difference between ‘Rex, get the paper’ and ‘Rex, eat the paper’ (unless they were a very intelligent dog). But they CAN understand tone of voice. So they know when they’re being praised or told off. And they can also understand what certain words refer to–their own name, ‘bed’, ‘bone’, other things that are familiar to them–so they could pick those out of a sentence you said to them.

  4. damienhall says:

    I’ve just watched the third Ri Christmas Lecture by Sophie Scott, about words, and there are a couple of really interesting bits in there about this exact question. First, there was a dog who could understand the names of 150 toys, and get the correct one when you asked him to. But they made it clear that 150 different names was really a lot for a dog to remember–most dogs wouldn’t be able to remember as many different names for things (apparently the record is about 1,000).

    Then, they showed videos of chimpanzees in the jungle communicating with each other by body movements. The interesting thing about that was that it seemed like the order of their movements might make a difference. So scratching yourself and then lifting up your arm might mean something different from lifting up your arm and then scratching yourself. This is interesting because it’s exactly what we assume that animals apart from humans can’t do–change the order of things that they say, to change the meaning. It isn’t proved yet that the chimpanzees are definitely doing that, but they might be.

    Here’s a link to the broadcast of the lecture I’m talking about–it’s really interesting, and aimed at people who aren’t scientists, so not hard to understand!

    The bit with the dog recognising toy names starts at 18 mins 17 secs and the bit about the chimpanzees starts at 26 mins 57 secs.

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