The Royal Institution: Science Lives Here

by Katie Lewis and Keira Andrews

RIThe Royal Institution is a scientific gem in the heart of London. It was founded in 1799 by leading British scientists of the age with the aim of bringing technology and science to the general public. On nearly any day of the year, a member of the public can take part in live events with the world’s leading thinkers, experiment in a research laboratory, and take part in hands-on masterclasses with specially trained experts. The lecture theatre at the Royal Institution is infamous; some truly remarkable scientific breakthroughs have occurred within its walls as a result of the Friday Evening Discourses where top scientists of the time would show off their research. It was here that Thomas Young established the wave theory of light; John Tyndall discovered the greenhouse effect; Humphry Davy discovered nine chemical elements; and Michael Faraday developed the electric motor and electric generator.

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The Royal Institution has left—and continues to leave—a lasting legacy upon the scientific community. One of the more publically-recognised services is the Christmas Lectures that were started by Michael Faraday in 1825 and continue to this day. In today’s world these lectures come in the form of a televised Christmas broadcast aimed at children with a changing theme each year and guest speakers that range from David Attenborough to Richard Dawkins. Originally, however, the lectures are thought to have come to fruition after adults began bringing their children along to the adult afternoon courses in the early 1800s, and someone had the idea of a yearly lecture to inspire a new generation of scientists. These lectures have continued to run every year since 1825—only being put on hold between 1939 and 1942 when the majority of London children had been sent away as evacuees. The Royal Institution also holds over one hundred other events each year on a wide variety of subjects.

It is at these events that many of our Princeton University Press authors have spoken. On average, five of our authors step the boards of this famous lecture theatre each year, and talk animatedly to an audience that ranges from the curious layperson to the science graduate and above. In this, the Royal Institution has never changed; science is for everyone. In recent years, the Royal Institution, colloquially known as the Ri to mimic an element on the periodic table, has hosted Princeton University Press authors across a wide range of scientific subjects from astronomy and the evolution of the human mind, to first impressions and how to clone a mammoth. Last week, it was the turn of Professor Peter Ungar, Distinguished Professor and director of the Environmental Dynamics Program at the University of Arkansas, and author of the Ungarrecently published Princeton book Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins (May 2017).

In his fascinating talk, Ungar illustrated how important teeth are for understanding the story of human evolution. Ungar described how a tooth’s “foodprints”—distinctive patterns of microscopic wear and tear—provide telltale details about what an animal actually ate in the past. These clues, combined with groundbreaking research in paleoclimatology, demonstrate how a changing climate altered the food options available to our ancestors—what Ungar calls the biospheric buffet. When diets change, species change, and Ungar traced how diet and an unpredictable climate determined who among our ancestors was winnowed out and who survived, as well as why we transitioned from the role of forager to farmer. By showing us the scars on ancient teeth, Ungar made the important case for what might or might not be the most natural diet for humans.

Ungar also revealed some fascinating facts about teeth in modern humans. Orthodontic issues such as crooked teeth, overbites, and impacted wisdom teeth did not affect our distant ancestors. The reason our mouths are overcrowded lies in the modern diet: our ancestors would have had to chew hard to break up tough foods. Bone responds to strain by growing, and our tooth size evolved to fit perfectly into a jaw exposed to a hard or tough diet. Our modern diet of pizza and burgers does not provide the same challenge for our jaws, and so they are not put under the strain required to reach optimum jaw size. In some tribes around the world, there are groups of people who still eat a similar diet to our ancestors, and it is no coincidence that these people tend to, on the whole, have beautiful straight teeth.

It is amazing what you can learn from teeth; Ungar explained how toothwear shows us how dinosaur jaws moved, allowing us to build muscle onto the bones of the face, to see what they would have looked like. In this way, teeth play an important role in the reconstruction of prehistoric animals, and also the face shapes of our ancestors. Ungar’s talk was a fascinating addition to the Royal Institute’s line-up this year.

Keeping in tone with the idea behind the Christmas Lectures series, it is fascinating to see the number of young children—usually one in ten—in the audience at these adult-level general lectures. It is a benchmark of the accessibility of the Ri that it is not uncommon to see a nine year old articulating her ideas about ecosystems or an eleven year old asking for more details about CRISPR. The Institution, the lecture hall, and the people that encompass it continue to be a point of inspiration for anybody who chooses to listen.