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

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