Sunday, 30 September 2012

Royal Audience and the "Silent Rogue"

Thought I’d share some highlights from the Friday Evening Discourse we gave at the Royal Institution.

In answer to people who’ve asked, the lecture was not recorded so my hazy recollections and hasty photos will have to suffice.

The formal discourse on a Friday night is a tradition founded by Michael Faraday in 1825 and it was a great honour to be invited.

Adding to the atmosphere was the fact that institution’s president, the Duke of Kent, decided to attend.

Here’s a picture I took in the lecture theatre as we set up, with the Duke’s seat in prime position… slightly intimidating!?

Our talk was entitled "From Test Tube to YouTube" and told the story of our chemistry videos.

We arrived a couple of hours before the lecture so senior technician Neil Barnes could prepare his demonstrations. Here’s Neil and Professor Martyn Poliakoff setting up:

The discourse is traditionally given by one person, but our lecture was triple act - myself and The Professor doing the talking while Neil performed demonstrations.

At 7pm there was pre-lecture drinks for invited guests.

I was fortunate to be joined by fellow YouTubers Michael Stevens (aka Vsauce) and the enigmatic CGP Grey. They offered moral support and, as Americans, seemed amused by the UK traditions.

Also in attendance was the Governor of the Bank of England, Sir Mervyn King, who proved a very friendly chap and actually attended university with The Professor.

At 7.30pm the Duke himself arrived and spoke with myself, Professor Poliakoff and Neil.

As you’d expect he was very polite and made friendly small talk about our work, tennis and previous discourses.

As a seasoned attendee of such lectures, I asked the Duke if he had any advice. He recommended we finish on time and not talk far beyond our one-hour limit.

The Duke seemed quite down-to-earth… in a royal kind of way?!

At 7.50pm The Professor and I were locked in a side room (see below).

Apparently this is another discourse tradition, dating back many years to when a nervous speaker fled moments before his speech.

Then a few minutes before 8pm, we were led to the entrance of the famous lecture hall.

In-keeping with another tradition, the moment the clock struck 8pm the doors were dramatically swung open and we strode to the lecture bench (the very one graced by Michael Faraday) and started our presentation.

Another tradition (which I was told about only moments beforehand) was that I had to immediately start speaking without saying “hello”, “good evening” or introducing myself.

This felt odd, but I’d been thoroughly warned not to break this great tradition! Apparently a breach would be so dramatic it would likely make newspaper headlines the next day!?

I had no intention of becoming so infamous.

But if you’ve never done it, I can assure you it seems very strange to stand in front of a large audience of strangers and not greet them or say who you are!

We had no script or firm plan, but from memory my opening words were: “I used to be a video journalist for the BBC…” And so it began.


The lecture was supposed to last exactly one hour, and we finished pretty much on the dot (about 30 seconds under, I believe).

This was doubtless due to the skill of Professor Poliakoff, who padded things out nicely with his endless catalogue of anecdotes.

Sneakily snapped during our lecture

The discourse was followed by 15 minutes of audience questions – and then we were done.

I think one of the highlights of the night was when the Duke approached us immediately after, shaking hands and offering kind comments.

As he shook Neil’s hand, he said: “Well done, silent rogue.”

I like the idea that Neil is the first ever speaker at the Friday Evening Discourse who didn't actually speak!

And "silent rogue" could be a good new nickname for Neil.

We were then led to a side room for a very posh dinner with the Duke and other VIP guests.

It was very pleasant and everyone was kind, assuring us they’d enjoyed the lecture.

A few people passed on their contact details and hopefully we will have further contact, perhaps leading to new opportunities for The Periodic Table of Videos.

Another memorable moment was Sir Mervyn King taking out his pen and asking for the periodicvideos URL so he could watch some videos.

It was also a cheeky bonus to have my photo taken with a real Nobel Prize medal, kindly loaned to us by Sir Paul Nurse for the lecture.

It was a great honour to give a Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution, following in some far more famous footsteps. Another surreal twist on the periodicvideos journey.

Historic discourse

Our performance, courtesy of the RI Twitter

For those who attended, I am sorry we were not able to stay afterwards and speak with you all (we were whisked away to dinner).

But we really appreciate that some of our long-time viewers were in the audience.

For those who could not make it, here is a link to my best recollection of what we discussed and demonstrated.

Now I can take the tie off!


  1. Silent Rogue? Sounds on par with The Chemical Stig :P

    And congrats on being able to meet such distinguished people and spreading your presence within such a prestigious community!

  2. Silent Rogue is actually Neil's superhero name. Only the royal family knew his real identity - until now! Dun-dun-duuuuuuuuuuun!
    Also: bowties are cool. (Someone had to say it. :D)

  3. A well deserved honor! I love the description of the evening, and the photos are great. Especially the one with The Enegmatic CPG Grey. (That's his official title, right?)

  4. Great stuff, would have loved to have been there

  5. If I'd have known I would have extended my post-Olympics stay! Wonderful stuff, Brades. Quite a journey indeed.

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