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A Decadent Festival

By Ann Fenech, on 15 June 2010

Cheltenham Science Festival 2010 is over. I am back in London and back to my research. However, I will definitely not forget the brilliant time I had there. So thanks to the UCL graduate school for that (and UCL communications for allowing me to write about it).

The festival was great on so many levels!

There was a real buzz in the place. There was something for everyone, be it entertaining science or intellectually stimulating activities for those wanting a bit more.

As I have mentioned a couple of times before, I was also surprised by how interactive the whole experience was. There was no intimidation for participating in anything, be it having a go at a demonstration, or asking questions during events.

A few events will definitely remain with me. First of all are the ‘demonstration-based’ shows, The Bigger Bang, Science vs Magic, but particularly Chemistry: A Volatile History. I don’t think any kid could have watched those and not themselves becoming excited at the prospect of becoming a scientist. Also, Heston Blumenthal in Conversation with Harold McGee: the questions asked were really all over the place, but both of them answered them in a brief but definitely entertaining way. The last show I wanted to flag up was The School for Gifted Children. It was hilarious, it was entertaining…and it was scientific. What shouldn’t you love about that?

I have returned with an enthusiasm for research, an enthusiasm for science…but most of all I have become infected with an enthusiasm for getting science out there to the public.

As the festival’s theme was ‘Decadence‘, I thought I would leave you with some of the festival’s decadent highlights. Expect lights, bangs…and science!

The end of Cheltenham Science Festival 2010

By Christianne Guillotte, on 14 June 2010

I’m not sure how I could possibly wrap up my thoughts on the Cheltenham Science Festival in a neat, conclusive way. Where would I even begin – with the fascinating things I learned? The wonderful events I attended? The new friends I made? The venture into a new town? Even if I discussed each element, it wouldn’t do justice to the full experience. It is a case of the whole being so much more than the sum of its parts.

But if I absolutely had to pick a favorite event, it would be Jim Al-Khalili’s talk on chaos theory. Not only is it a subject that I love, Jim also has a special way of making a complex subject easy to understand (and his visual demonstrations left me feeling amazed!) Like I mentioned in a previous post, it is fortunate for all of us that he has committed part of his career to using this talent. He inspired me to want to be a better scientific communicator.

Outside of the festival grounds, my most cherished part of the experience was meeting people from various fields, from students to professors to journal editors. It opened my eyes to the multifaceted nature of the scientific community.

I knew there would be plenty to learn, to do, and to see. I suspected that I’d meet a few people, and that I would generally enjoy myself. But what I will miss most is the genuine excitement about science I’ve experienced the last five days, something that often gets buried beneath the stress of daily life. For now, my enthusiasm has been renewed, and if at any time it seems to be fading, I will recall my time in Cheltenham and remember how much I truly love the field of science and desire to be a part of it.

The facts of science

By Ann Fenech, on 14 June 2010

Did you know that the smell of seaside is really dimethyl sulfide from bacteria (Coast), or that the probability of winning the lottery is equivalent to the probability of dying in 1hour…27mins…and 2s (Matt Parker)?

As a scientist, I love facts. ‘How can you not’ I ask? And this festival provided me with more than its fair share of them. I slipped quite a number of them into other posts, but some of them have escaped that fate…until now!

What else did I learn? Well, Henrietta Lacks‘ cells, known as HeLa – the first immortal human cells ever grown in culture – double in number every 24hrs (Is this the golden age of science writing?). Or that most Mexican waves require 25 people to start and travel at 27 miles per hour? (The Wavewatcher’s Companion).

However my favourite is probably this: Did you know that the fraction line is known as the vinculum. Mathgasm anyone? (Stand-Up Mathematics). Yeah I’m ever so slightly geeky!

Moving on to the somewhat bizarre? Quentin Cooper (FameLab International) stated that the periodic table is the scientific equivalent of a six-pack…where did he come up with that?

But the most inspirational thing I heard? The distinction would fall on the Moroccan Famelab contestant:

“If I wasn’t a scientist I would do my best to become one”

And that is what I have reminded myself during this festival…exactly why I do what I do and why I love what I do. And I will echo his words once again: If I wasn’t a scientist I would definitely try my best to be one!

the first immortal human cells ever grown in culture

Liar Liar Pants on Fire

By Ann Fenech, on 14 June 2010

What is this that I am hearing? Two teams, Decay and Dense (decay-dense…decaydense…decadence?…A laugh? Anyone?) battling it out against each other…to declare a winner the best liar of them all?

Call my scientific bluff was the name of one of the last events I watched at the festival. The team Decay was led by Timandra Harkness, while Dense was led by the festival director, and UCL’s own Mark Lythgoe. Decay was completed by Robin Ince and Robert Winston while Mark Lythgoe was joined by Sarah J. Arney, and one of my favourite entertainers from this festival, Quentin Cooper.

For all of you out there who do not know the concept of the show, it involves one scientific term, three definitions, but who’s bluffing and who’s telling the truth?

The terms ran the whole gamut from ekistics to pledget, linkboys to climactery. I didn’t know what any of them meant…and it seemed like neither did any of the contestants.

Winning was just plain guesswork, but one team did come out victorious. Guessing pledget, espyne, and parison, and bluffing on tegestologist and ekistics, Dense proved their name wrong, and decimated what was left of Decay.

An entertaining show hosted by Marcus Moore. Whoever said scientists don’t lie?

Jay’s post-festival thoughts

By Jay Stone, on 14 June 2010

So the Cheltenham Science Festival is over for another year and I just wanted to take some time to reflect on what I thought, enjoyed the most and would do differently.

If you would like to listen to my musing thoughts I would suggest having a cuppa and a biscuit handy as I think I ramble on for about 5 minutes….

Listen!

Notes on the final day

By Christianne Guillotte, on 13 June 2010

In Stopping the Spread of Superbugs, a short play was performed in four parts, taking the audience on an imaginary hospital experience where we learned about screening, prevention, and contraction of MRSA. Between each act, we were asked a few questions about dealing with superbugs, then the floor was opened for audience questions. Though I left feeling a bit scared, I now know how crucial it is to take the proper precautions when in contact with hospital germs.

The Wavewatcher’s Companion enlightened me on the various forms of waves we encounter here on Earth, including light waves, microwaves, Mexican waves, waves of traffic, waves in the ocean, and so many more. As the speaker Gavin Pretor-Pinney put it, they’re always seen and heard, but never paid attention to. I was most amused by his fixation on Mexican waves. Apparently you need at least 25 people for a true Mexican wave. They travel at an average of 27 miles per hour. In the northern hemisphere, they move clockwise 60% of the time, while in the southern hemisphere, they move counterclockwise 70% of the time. Honeybees do Mexican waves for protection. If you’re interested in them further, visit Pretor-Pinney’s website called The Mexican Wave Experiment.

I concluded my time at Cheltenham with a lecture on sleep. Considering I’ve spent a good portion of the day dreaming about the wonderful night of rest I will be getting tonight, it was a rather fitting end to the festival. I learned that my chronotype is “moderately evening type.” Well, I already knew that, but it is now scientifically confirmed. Did you know that couples consisting of one morning type and one evening type have better success? I’m not quite sure how that works. If an early bird were to disturb me at the crack of dawn everyday, I’d be one miserable person!

For now, I’ll be getting that sought after shuteye, and I’ll be back tomorrow to discuss my final thoughts on the festival.

Bug Bites

By Meghan Harper, on 13 June 2010

A few years ago, I got a call from a friend who was working in public health in Malawi. “I have malaria,” he said. “Don’t tell my mom.” Despite taking his antimalarials, he had become very ill, but thankfully in the end, recovered just fine.

Today I learned just how lucky he was, as malaria runs rampant in many areas of Africa and similarly warmer climates. It is most devastating to those under 4 who contracting and there nearly 1 million deaths worldwide every year, from a completely treatable disease. The three largest pharmaceutical companies, Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKlein, and Novartis all work together in order to develop and distribute drugs across affected regions to help improve both the life span and quality of life of the populations.

There was also some talk of how the UK may be at an increased risk for Malaria in the coming years. Historically, people in Britain have always known that malaria came from the marsh air (ma-l meaning bad, -airia indicating air). However, with the effects of global warming, the climate may once again make the specific mosquito that can spread malaria from person to person more prevalent.

It was a great talk, and it was great to hear exactly how far treatments from malaria had come, and how effective they are. There were actually quite a number of people in the audience who had contracted malaria at one point in their lives, and the perspective they brought to the group discussion was really unique.

We learned gin and tonics were originally an invention developed by the British military stationed in India to help combat malaria; the quinine in tonic water is an antimalarial. But don’t count on only a delicious cocktail to keep you safe, the dosage isn’t quite high enough!

Taking some time out to explore the Gallery

By Jay Stone, on 13 June 2010

In February this year I was lucky enough to showcase some design work I had done with my friend Berit Greinke at the Dana Centre in Kensington. Berit and I had been paired up as part of the MRC NOBELini scheme and had endevoured to create an art piece which attempted to turn negative science data into a positive design outcome.
Since taking part in this scheme I have become increasingly interested in how well art and science can collaborate to produce work that is completely novel, mind blowingly entertaining and almost always great to look at.

This year I noticed there was a ‘Gallery’ tent at the CSF and today I finally managed to find some time to pop in and have a look around… I was not disappointed!

Inside the plain white tent was a selection of projects from the IMPACT! exhibiton fusing designers from the Royal College of Art (RCA) and scientists sponsored by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) with support from NESTA. The visual pieces on display aimed to inform the public on matters ranging from fair trading, alternate universes, self reliant machines and synthetic immunology.

After having a look around the exhibits I have to say I became somewhat fixed on ‘The 5th dimensional camera‘, an idea born from the minds of Anab Jain, Jon Ardern, Prof John Rarity, Prof Andrew Briggs and Dr Simon Bejamin. Proposing the idea of alternate universes and endless possiblities for parallel words resulting from each and every choice we make in our lives Anab Jain et al had created a stream of photographs depicting how so many things are possible even in our supposedly ‘boring’ lives. They also posed questions such as ‘could you be jelous of an alternate you?’ Something to make you think!

Lasers

By Ann Fenech, on 13 June 2010

Dr Z It’s 50 years since the lasers were discovered…and 46 years since Goldfinger threatened Bond with one. In that time lasers have come a long way, from being ” a solution looking for a problem” to the solution for a lot of problems.

Kate Lancaster (who was also at ‘The school for gifted children‘ event yesterday) was first up. She spoke to us about Chirped pulse amplification, Q-switching, mode locking, and a lot of other such things. But what’s more important is that her pet project is trying to make miniature stars, and that Vulcan, where she works, has an open-door policy! Organise a trip…anyone?

Next up was David Payne. He now works with high-powered fibre lasers – these are better than the fiddly ones Kate Lancaster works with he opined. He also spoke about WMD. No…not Weapons of Mass Destruction (though those too)…but Weapons of Mosquito Destruction. Don’t believe it? Check this out!

Then we got Stephen Bown, from UCL’s National Medical Laser Centre. Unlike the others, he’s a simple guy. He just wants “lasers in just the right place at just the right intensity”. High power? Not for him! For him, lasers are “A gentle way to get rid of nasty bits of tissue…without upsetting all the nice bits”.

But most importantly…X factor? Lasers have definitely got it!

Science – 1; Magic – 0

By Ann Fenech, on 13 June 2010

Science vs Magic Yesterday a boy told me “you cannot make a perpetual motion machine” while discussing water rockets and Newton’s laws. But today I think I’ve seen one! Running around the stage at breakneck speed Alom Shaha has just presented Science vs Magic.

For Alom, magic school took 10 weeks and £250; Science, including time at UCL, cost him 20 years and over £15,000. Which was worth it?

With a card trick we delved into ‘How does that work?’

  • Magic? Simple explanations!
  • Science? It’s about “fundamental things”

Another difference?

  • Magic = cheap props…”Magicians are obsessed with handkerchiefs”
  • Science = real phenomena…”Understand the nature of reality at its fundamental level”

From vanishing handkerchiefs, to mind-blowing mind-reading, we saw it all. But of course there is a scientific reason behind everything…and a scientific phenomenon which is even more exciting than the magic trick!

Alom Shaha said, “Science is hard”, but there is the “satisfaction of getting to grips with it”. I think that is one of the most important messages. It is more the satisfaction of getting my teeth into a problem and solving it that I appreciate about science, rather than necessarily the learning of ’stuff’. And I think that is what we need to get across to the general public: the ‘good feeling’ you get from finally seeing the light in any problem.

I want to end by echoing Alom Shaha’s excellent sentiment at the end of the event:

I don’t care that I’m just a physics teacher, because that is what I want to be”