How to network with teenagers: Is this year's Faraday Lecture a tribute to the electricity hero, or a sales pitch for mobile phones? Jim Cusick reports

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The Independent Online
IN A HOLLYWOOD casting studio, sometime in the near future, Steven Spielberg, glowing with Jurassic success, will pronounce: 'This guy Michael Faraday. Founded modern electrical science, OK. He's private. He's deeply religious. Sounds like Jack Nicholson to me.'

The studio yes-men will say: 'Yes, Steven,' and Faraday will be transformed from the 19th-century self-taught son of a Yorkshire blacksmith and architect of classical field theory into 'Indiana' Faraday, the man who kicked electro-magnetism into shape.

The marketing men will cash in. Spielberg will make even more millions. And somewhere along the line a few kids will learn something about science that they didn't know before they went through the cinema door. Some may even go on to become electrical engineers.

Such an outcome would lend a touch of honesty to any big-bucks approach to explaining the drama behind Avogadro's constant and the charge on a electron. But before Hollywood 'options' Faraday, a multi-media production is hitting the road in Britain this week, aiming to play to more than 100,000 children aged from 14 to 18 between now and next March.

This is the annual Faraday Lecture, the largest touring lecture in the world, which is being sponsored to the tune of pounds 1m by Cellnet, the mobile phone network, and Motorola, the US electronics and semi-conductor corporation.

In the 19th century, when Faraday began to explain his discoveries - such as the lecture he gave to the Royal Institution in 1846 when he suggested that magnetism and electricity behaved in a unifying way - his talk consisted mainly of a few notes, a few scientific props, an elementary explanation of his experiments, and his conclusions.

This year the lecture, held to 'celebrate the impact Faraday and other scientific pioneers have had on the way we live', has acquired a few extras, such as: two 40ft articulated trucks, 56 tons of equipment, 50,000 watts for stage lighting, 10,000 watts for the sound system, 6,000ft of cable, a crew of 22, a 38ft-wide, 25ft-high set, and the largest liquid crystal display projector ever manufactured, incorporating a video-disc system capable of carrying 160,000 images.

One section of the hour-long lecture is devoted to 'history' and 'the principles of radio'. The lineage of Hans Christian Oersted, who first demonstrated the relationship between magnetism and electric current, is traced through Faraday to James Clerk Maxwell and the prediction of the existence of radio waves, to Heinrich Hertz's late-1880s confirmation experiment. This is followed by brief summaries of the contributions of Marconi and Alexander Graham Bell.

Then the fundamentals of radio; what lies beyond the visible light spectrum; the principles of tuning; and electronic valve technology are presented in what the teenage audience will by now have realised is no longer a lecture but a show.

From Benjamin Franklin to the Second World War takes 20 minutes. The remaining 40 minutes are devoted to 'how the mobile phone network is structured'. (As the Reader's Digest once observed, the longest word in the language is the one following the phrase: 'And now, a word from our sponsors . . .')

Pupils will 'build their own network on stage' - essentially arranging coloured shapes on a board - and hear how Cellnet engineers use computers to manage the network. 'The future', they are told, is GSM, Cellnet's national digital network . . . and the mobile phone.

Gone are the days of Latin grammars, rubbers, rulers, set- squares and log tables. The benefits of improved reception, greater privacy and, 'excitingly, the ability to use your phone in Asia and the Middle East' are expounded - followed by the prediction that within 10 years all members of the audience will own their own . . . mobile phones.

The journey is almost complete: the Faraday Lecture has metamorphosed into the Faraday Show, then the Faraday Sales Conference - not surprisingly, as its designers specialise in sales presentations to international conferences.

And here is another prediction, this time from Vance Packard's 1957 classic book on US advertising, The Hidden Persuaders: eventually everyone under 16 will become 'trainee consumers'. The Faraday Lecture/Show/Sales Conference would have brought a smile to Mr Packard's face.

In 1957 the mobile phone had yet to be invented. In 1958 Jack Kilby, an American electronics engineer, packed transistors, capacitors and resistors into one 'integrated circuit' on a single piece of semi-conductor. The microchip was the future. Kilby doesn't get a mention in this year's Faraday. But, as they say, that's showbiz.

(Photograph omitted)