In 1825, Albemarle Street became the first one-way street in Europe, such was the crush of carriages and cabs to get to the Royal Institution to hear Samuel Coleridge's celebrated lectures on science. Fashionable Georgian society was agog with the new discoveries and later even more so when its director, Michael Faraday, began to demonstrate the secrets of electricity.
Today, however, apart from being aware of its televised Christmas lectures for children, few people have even heard of the Royal Institution, founded in 1799, or they confuse it with the Royal Society, the premier club for successful scientists, founded more than a century earlier. Fourteen Nobel prizes later, the RI had ceased being a cauldron of public interest in science to become a worthy, dull and dusty emblem of our past. When my brother, Rick Stein, and I organised a Saturday of cooking and lectures on "fabulous fish" at the RI in 2004, some 600 people came, but virtually none had ever heard of it before.
However, over the last 10 years its fusty image was beginning to change: the RI Council had boldly appointed Susan Greenfield to become its first female director, following her very successful Christmas lectures and her popular books on the brain. She was told to reinvigorate it. Her appointment was indeed controversial because she was the Versace-miniskirted opposite of the tweedy, bearded stereotype of a scientist. With her exceptional gifts as a lecturer, she is able to capture the minds of thousands of young people to consider science seriously as a career. She shows that science can be much more sexy than the dry accumulation of facts that is so often how it is taught. As a medical admissions tutor, I was always impressed by how many applicants had been turned on to an interest in the brain by Susan's lectures and books. (For the record, she was a post-doctoral student with me.)
Her media exposure as a favourite talking head did not endear her to those who privately believe that her approach trivialises serious science, and who (wrongly) claim that her own research on degenerative diseases is lightweight. Undeterred, she set about transforming the RI into a science club for everyone, where you would want to go to see science in action, to talk about it with like-minded visitors and to have a nice meal and drink in an attractive scientific environment.