The sexiness of ideas

Suddenly people are queuing to see scientists, philosophers, writers. What's afoot?

The auditorium was packed. The spotlights brightened and the capacity crowd of 2,300 applauded as the stars walked on stage. One was tall, donnish, elegant; the other a nervy American, whose shoulder-length, curly grey hair made him look like the bass guitarist for Steely Dan.

They were not rock 'n' roll stars, though: the hottest tickets in town last week were for Westminster Central Hall, where two scientists were booked to have a chat. No lasers, no fanfare, no show tunes - just Professors Richard Dawkins of Oxford University and Steven Pinker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, debating "Is science killing the soul?".

The audience was mostly young and intense. Academic tweeds and pearls were outnumbered by nose studs and black fleece tops. Meryl Fergus, an art graduate from Crouch End, had come out of curiosity because she had heard the two bestselling authors talking to Melvyn Bragg on the radio. Given the Methodist heritage of the huge domed venue, she thought it was like a revival meeting for Darwinians.

Afterwards, when the speakers had agreed that all religions were wrong but science was soulful, devotees lined up to meet them, armed with new copies of Pinker's latest book, How The Mind Works, and Dawkins's Unravelling the Rainbow.

Despite the popular theory that young people can hardly sit still long enough to play computer games, there are thousands who trek across town on a night of freezing temperatures for an hour of erudite thought.

According to Professor Roger Scruton, the broadcaster and philosopher, Britain has become two nations. "There are those whose attention span has become shortened to such an extent that they cannot bear to leave the television set; and the others, who are so frustrated by this that they seek a longer, more over-arching vision. Because of the collapse of standards in broadcasting, the lecture has become the only place that they can find the nourishment they need."

Professors Germaine Greer and Lewis Wolpert are among those practising voice projection in preparation for major public appearances next month. Such events give readers the chance to meet their intellectual heroes, and publishers get to sell more books.

THE QUEUE wound twice around the block on Tuesday night at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, where the headline act was Professor Noam Chomsky, the world's most famous linguist. A woman held her child up above shoulder height as he passed, and said: "I want you to be able to say you saw that man."

It was almost as though she had come to Chomsky for healing, joked Nick Owen, who organised the lecture as one of a series to benefit Amnesty International. About a thousand people squeezed into the lecture on human rights, but hundreds had to be turned away. Some were so desperate for tickets that they offered to pay pounds 25 - five times the face value.

"Chomsky gave his usual message, that human rights have been neglected even by those countries that claim to observe them, and the only answer is to develop an alternative media that cannot be controlled by government," said Mr Owen. "You know what someone like that is going to say before you turn up, but people still want to hear it for themselves."

The demand for such events is huge, says Simon Clydesdale of Dillons, who organised the meeting of Dawkins and Pinker. "There is an insatiable curiosity around, a desire to be at the cutting edge of debate."

Authors with new products to sell do not usually get paid for lectures, he says, and their expenses are met by the publisher.

The biggest draw of recent times has been the broadcaster and scientist Sir David Attenborough. "The man is a folk hero. People travel from all over the country to attend his lectures."

The revival of the lecture circuit owes much to the booming health of bookstore chains such as Dillons, the newcomer Borders, and Waterstones, which has organised a weekend conference at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith in March called "Culture wars: dumbing down, wising up?". The long list of scientists due to speak includes Professor Susan Greenfield, the Oxford neuroscientist who gave the Royal Institution Christmas lectures before BBC cameras in 1994. She is also scheduled to give one of six Millennium Lectures before an invited audience at No 10.

Although the biggest events are in London, the lecture revival is not confined to the capital. The Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society runs events every week, and some draw up to 500 people. "I do not subscribe to this idea that Britain is dumbing down," says the administrative secretary, Heather Bradshaw. The society was formed in 1781 and had its heyday during the Industrial Revolution, but it has been rejuven- ated in recent times. Nearly 100 new members have joined in the last year, and other societies in Newcastle, Leicester and around the country are doing as well.

Among the biggest draws in Manchester have been Lord Owen, talking about the euro, and Professor Russell Stannard on whether science and religion are incompatible. Out of respect for the society's history, guests often accept no more payment than a crate of wine.

ALL ORGANISERS agree that the secret is to find speakers who are well known and can entertain. "The people who get the big turnouts are showmen," says Dr David Starkey of the London School of Economics, a famously combative panellist on Radio 4's The Moral Maze. Like himself? "Indeed."

Dr Starkey restricts his public lectures to one a month. "If I accepted all the invitations I would do five a week." They do not pay as well as after-dinner speeches. "For one of those you might be paid pounds 4,000 for about 20 minutes. On the other hand, a sixth-form conference might pay pounds 400 for a half-hour lecture - but then they do have several speakers to pay for, usually."

Richard Dawkins, about to embark on a two-week tour of the States, says: "I can fill big halls both here and in America, and other scientists can too." But who is his audience? "The same people who go to literary festivals and read the books pages of serious newspapers. Within those circles, people are starting to look upon science as an important part of our culture, as well they might. Science is the study of what is happening in real life. Anyone who does not find that interesting must be brain- dead."

Brain power: ten of the most seductive academics

Sir David Attenborough British institution, tells funny stories about birds.

Professor Richard Dawkins Passionate evolutionist, made his name with The Selfish Gene.

Dr Jonathan Miller Satire, theatre, art, neuro-science ... you name it, he knows it.

Dr Susan Greenfield Synaptic pharmacologist, runs the Royal

Institution, comes over well on TV.

Professor Steven Pinker Long-haired expert on the mind, sounds like Woody Allen.

Dr David Starkey Camp historian famous for winding people up on The Moral Maze.

Professor Roger Scruton Sardonic philosopher, writer, broadcaster who likes to hunt.

Professor Germaine Greer Feisty feminist following up The Female Eunuch in March.

Professor Lewis Wolpert Expected to climb chart with new TV series and book on depression.

Lord Bragg of Wigton Anyone who can boss this lot about must be worth listening to. CM

Arts & Entertainment
Shaun Evans as Endeavour interviews a prisoner as he tries to get to the bottom of a police cover up
tvReview: Second series comes to close with startling tale of police corruption and child abuse
Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
Review: New 10-part series brims with characters and stories

Arts & Entertainment
Schwarzenegger winning Mr. Universe 1969
arts + entsCan you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez celebrate during Liverpool's game with Norwich
football Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
The star of the sitcom ‘Miranda’ is hugely popular with mainstream audiences
TVMiranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth-II by David Bailey which has been released to mark her 88th birthday
peoplePortrait released to mark monarch's 88th birthday
Life & Style
The writer, Gerda Saunders, with her mother, who also suffered with dementia before her death
healthGerda Saunders on the most formidable effect of her dementia
Manchester United manager David Moyes looks on during his side's defeat to Everton
footballBaines and Mirallas score against United as Everton keep alive hopes of a top-four finish
Tour de France 2014Sir Rodney Walker on organising the UK stages of this year’s race
Arts & Entertainment
Jessica Brown Findlay as Mary Yellan in ‘Jamaica Inn’
TVJessica Brown Findlay on playing the spirited heroine of Jamaica Inn
YouTube clocks up more than a billion users a month
mediaEuropean rival Dailymotion certainly thinks so
Arts & Entertainment
The original design with Charles' face clearly visible, which is on display around the capital
arts + ents The ad shows Prince Charles attired for his coronation in a crown and fur mantle with his mouth covered by a criss-cross of white duct tape
Arts & Entertainment
‘Self-Portrait Worshipping Christ’ (c943-57) by St Dunstan
books How British artists perfected the art of the self-portrait
Luis Suarez celebrates after scoring in Liverpool's 3-2 win over Norwich
Football Vine shows Suarez writhing in pain before launching counter attack
People White House officials refuse to make comment on 275,000 signatures that want Justin Bieber's US visa revoked
Sir Cliff Richard is to release his hundredth album at age 72
Lukas Podolski celebrates one of his two goals in Arsenal's win over Hull
Arts & Entertainment
Quentin Tarantino, director
The speeding train nearly hit this US politican during a lecture on rail safety
news As the saying goes, you have to practice what you preach
Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain (front) drives ahead of Red Bull Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia during the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at the Shanghai International circuit
Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Geography Teacher

£130 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Secondary Geography Teacher Lo...

Do you want to work in Education?

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energeti...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: SEN TAs, LSAs and Support Workers needed...

Private Client Senior Manager - Sheffield

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: The Sheffield office of this...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit