This year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on BBC Four explore the world of communication, revealing how we and other animals use a whole host of means to send messages and exchange information. From mosquitoes singing love duets, to the dazzling light displays of deep sea fish and the complexities of human language - Professor Sophie Scott explores the unstoppable urge to communicate.
Delivered from the Royal Institution lecture theatre in London, Professor Scott addresses three big questions in communication: how do we and animals send messages with sound? How much can we communicate without ever speaking a word? And how do we turn our thoughts into language?
To do this, Professor Scott performs dramatic demonstrations, harnesses cutting-edge technology and enlists the help of special guests ranging from hissing insects to the latest robots.
Royal Institution Christmas Lectures 2017: The Language of Life – Ep 1 8pm Tuesday 26th December, BBC Four
1. Say It With Sound
From musical mosquitoes to rumbling elephants, Say It With Sound explores how humans and other animals use noises to communicate.
Sophie Scott, a professor of neuroscience at University College London, is joined in the theatre by a chorus of chirping crickets, hissing cockroaches and groaning deer to reveal the very different ways that animals have adapted their bodies to send audible messages that are vital to their species. She also explores how and why the human voice evolved to become the most versatile sound producer in the natural world. In a dramatic experiment Professor Scott reveals how our vocal cords can open and close more than a thousand times a second and how we can use our throats for breathing, eating and communicating.
Professor Scott demonstrates what sound actually is and how it travels, not just through air, but water and solid materials. Unpacking the power behind sound, she uses it to shatter glass and reveal how the human body can resonate in a way that amplifies our voices to send our messages further. She also explores how different species use very different frequencies to communicate and why humans can only hear a fraction of these animal messages.
Professor Scott investigates why our voices all sound very different, to the degree that we all have unique vocal prints, She also looks at how computers are learning to recognise these. She further shows how we have developed the biological functions that enable us to create such incredible noises - from the arias of an opera singer to the complex sounds of a beatboxer.
Royal Institution Christmas Lectures 2017: The Language of Life – Ep 2 8pm Wednesday 27th December, BBC Four
2. Silent Messages
In this second lecture, Professor Sophie Scott explores the world of silent communication in the animal kingdom and the human world – showing how much we can actually say without ever opening our mouths or making a noise.
Professor Scott’s investigation of silent messages begins with the smells that animals and even plants produce to communicate with each other or to send information. She illustrates how a plant can use pheromones to attract predators that will attack the insects eating it and how a snake’s forked tongue helps it decipher smell messages in its surroundings. Professor Scott delves into just what dogs learn about each other from smell when they first meet and why their olfactory abilities are far more powerful than ours.
Professor Scott reveals how some species have harnessed bacteria to generate light and how light messages are used by insects and deep-sea fish for a range of reasons including attracting prey.
Exploring how body language communicates huge amounts about us and other species, Professor Scott shows why a dog’s wagging tail does not always mean it is happy and how humans can tell a lot about someone’s state of mind from their posture alone. She reveals why yawns and smiles are contagious and how this can play a key role in social bonding and cohesion.
With the help of the lecture theatre audience, Professor Scott also unpicks how we use our hugely expressive faces and eyes to communicate. She opens up the concept of microexpressions – brief, uncontrollable facial expressions that may reveal our true state of mind. Could these be a new way to tell if someone isn’t really telling the truth?
In a glimpse of how we might send messages silently in the future, Sophie also explores the possibility of direct brain-to-brain communication. Could the science fiction idea of telepathy ever become reality?
Royal Institution Christmas Lectures 2017: The Language of Life – Ep 3 8pm Thursday 28th December, BBC Four
3: The Word
One skill in particular seems to give humans an advantage over all other animals – our superior talent for language. We have the power to express exactly what’s on our minds through speech and writing. This final lecture, The Word, asks where our incredible linguistic ability comes from and whether any other animals use language in any form at all?
Professor Sophie Scott first explores what language really is, and how close other animals come to having it. Dogs can be very good at following our commands, but do they actually understand any of the words we use? Birds are the only other species that can say human words and Professor Scott reveals how humans and birds share some common brain functions that make this possible. She also shows what happens when this section of our brain cannot function properly. But are birds simply mimicking us or can they comprehend anything of the human words they can be trained to utter?
Professor Scott considers the world of primates and the theory that some apes may communicate through sign language. Does this contain any form of grammar and how complex are the messages that they can communicate with these gestures?
With large-scale experiments, Professor Scott tests out fresh ideas of how humans have been able to develop such complex language skills – revealing how, even in the womb, we start to practice making the mouth movements needed for speech. She also illustrates how the brain develops to favour the sounds of one’s mother tongue and why, at a relatively young age, it becomes impossible to become truly bilingual in a new language.
But language isn’t just a power to combine words. Professor Scott explores how we convey a huge amount of information through the tone of voice, our accents and the pace and pitch of our speech. But in a world when we regularly talk to computers, she also shows why scientists need to develop machines that can understand the subtleties or our speech to be able to fully comprehend human language.
Finally Professor Scott will look at language in this digital age and explore the role that emojis play. Can they put the subtleties of spoken speech into written form by adding an extra level of understanding? With the help of the audience she investigates their true potential and reveals additional emojis that may say far more than words.
This week the pop-up tattoo parlour receives a visit from porn star Rachel who wants rid of her feline inspired tattoo that is stopping her from getting frisky, Mark whose Greek tattoo has turned into a Greek tragedy and Emma’s whose punchy cover up needs knocking out. Meanwhile Alice helps Lois celebrate her penguin persona with a humorous tatt, Jay helps Gary to nip his freaky James Bond design in the bud and Sketch takes on Ex solider Terry who no longer wants to pay tribute to his favourite pastime.
ASHLEY PEGRAM, S. CAROLINA
28 year old Ashley Pegram was a mum to three young children. Her world fell apart when her partner, and the father to her youngest son, was killed in a car accident returning home from work. Lonely and depressed, Ashley began to use dating apps to meet guys. On Friday 3rd April 2015, Ashley hastily arranged to meet a guy she’d met online just a few hours earlier. He called himself ‘E Money Bon’. She left for her date around 9pm. She was never seen again. That night, she had left the phone she shared with her family at home, and the police were able to use a text that her date, Edward Bonilla, had sent her, to track him down. Bonilla denied any involvement in Ashley’s disappearance but Bonilla’s story didn’t stack up. They found Ashley’s blood in his work van and the car he was driving that night. It was a month later that her body was found. On 11 August 2016, a jury found Edward Bonilla guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole. In his summing up, the judge stated ‘If there’s a lesson to be learned at all in this case, I hope the young people and anyone else who uses social media to meet people and to, blindly go out with them knows the inherent dangers that it presents”.
SHARON SIERMANS, BALLARAT
29 year old Ballarat mum Sharon Siermans was looking for love when she began chatting online to a man named Jason Godfrey, in January 2013. They arranged their first date but when Sharon met him at Ballarat train station, he looked nothing like he did online. Sharon was so embarrassed to be seen with him in public that she made a catastrophic decision: she invited him to her house. The date didn’t go well, so Sharon called it short. Sharon forgot all about her disastrous date and moved on. Meanwhile Jason was beginning a relationship with another local single mum, Sonji Beacham. But Jason Godfrey was not the man he claimed to be online. He was actually called Jason Dinsley and he was a man spinning a web of lies to hide his violent criminal past. Three months passed with no further contact. When Dinsley went for a late-night walk in the early hours of Saturday 6 April 2013, he walked past Sharon’s house. It brought back his intense feelings of rejection and he flew into a rage. He got a cricket bat from home, broke into Sharon’s house and beat her to death. What no one knew is that Jason Dinsley was on parole for a previous rape at the time of Sharon’s murder. He was sentenced to life in prison with a non-parole period of 32 years.