For the first time in the Royal Institution's 165-year history, a woman is presenting its Christmas lectures for young people. The tradition of giving a series of science lectures to a youthful audience during the Christmas holidays began with Michael Faraday, perhaps the institution's most celebrated scientist. The lectures are now broadcast on BBC television; recent lecturers have ranged from researchers of international renown, such as Richard Dawkins, to indefatigable popularisers such as Sir David Attenborough and Carl Sagan.
Dr Susan Greenfield of Oxford University faced her first audience before Christmas. In her lectures "Journey to the Centres of the Brain", the first of which will be broadcast tomorrow, she will be telling her young listeners that it will be up to them to solve the ultimate problem of the nature of human consciousness because her own generation of researchers has only just begun to scratch the surface of the problem.
It might seem unreasonable to expect the average teenager to grapple with the nature of consciousness, but Dr Greenfield herself has been at it since she was eight years old. "It started with my mother saying that she had no way of knowing that what she saw as red was the same as what I saw as red," she says. "I found this idea absolutely tantalising - I couldn't see a way round it."
This little philosophical exchange evokes an image of some north Oxford hothouse in which the young Susan was groomed for a life of intellectual inquiry. In fact, she grew up in London, the daughter of a dancer and an electrician, neither of whom received more than a secondary education. "I was brought up against a background not of very disciplined or formalised questions, but certainly of curiosity and respect for education. One advantage was that my parents didn't try and dictate to me what I should do. From a very early stage, I realised I was responsible for myself and could make my own decisions."
Known as "Springy" to her friends, Dr Greenfield studied Latin, Greek, ancient history and mathematics at A level. She then won a place at St Hilda's College, Oxford, to read psychology with philosophy. "What really intrigued me at the time was the nature of subjectivity and consciousness, as I'd learnt about it through reading Plato, and I thought psychology was the area to study. But I was rather disillusioned when it turned out to be all about rats in mazes, imprinting in birds and so on."
Nevertheless, she did discover a fascination for the physiological side of psychology - how the brain actually works. "I never realised that the brain was divided into bits, that different bits did different things, and how you could record electricity from brain cells." As soon as she got her degree she was offered, and accepted, the opportunity to do a doctorate on brain chemistry in the department of pharmacology.
In 1985, she was appointed university lecturer, reaching the safe haven of academic security in her early thirties after several years of living from one grant to another. …