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Slam the atom

By Christianne Guillotte, on 13 June 2010

My last event yesterday was completely different than any of the others I’ve attended so far. Slam the Atom was a freestyle poetry competition involving science! It was incredibly entertaining and a great way to end the night.

Poems in the first round had to relate to science or decadence, so topics ranged from food production to E. coli, the science of love to the decadent use of alcohol. Some were humorous, others were serious, but all were extremely well done. The performers each had unique writing and speaking styles that made for a real variety show.

Six contestants were chosen as semi-finalists, and this round had no subject specifications. The assorted verses touched on war, blonde jokes, dates gone wrong, STDs, airports, and Jeremy Clarkson. Finally, votes from a judging panel were tallied until only two poets remained. The final pieces were performed, and at last, the victor was named!

I’ll spare you the dirty details of his winning performance, but let’s just say it was absurdly hilarious. Though my personal favorite was the runner-up, I totally enjoyed every bit of Slam the Atom.

Harry Potter vs Alom Shaha

By Jay Stone, on 13 June 2010

The EDF tent became centre stage this morning with physics teacher Alom Shaha daring to take on magic and show the audience science demonstrations can be more thrilling, entertaining and memorising.

He started the show with a few simple card tricks that he had learnt from the ‘International Magic School’ he had done a £250 10 week course at. The school may not be as grand as Hogworts, in fact it can be found nestled above an Italian restaurant in North London, but it still managed to show him the basics in transformation, illusion and mentalism.

After each magic trick Alom would remind the audience that it was not real and ultimately this was why science could trump magic, because not only is it real, but it is important.

The children loved his stage presence and ate up the tricks with invisible balls, disappearing beakers, collapsing balloons and elephant toothpaste?!.

The show then finished with a demonstration of how psychic abilities can be faked with the aid of mobile phones (plants in the audience texting Alom with the results) and a challenge of £1 million for anyone who could demonstrate real psychic ability.

My favourite ‘mind trick’ of the show was when Alom manged to convince the entire audience to rotate their legs anti-clockwise after strict instructions never to do so… interested in giving it a go? Maybe I can take a leaf out of Alom’s book and attempt to control your actions all the way from Cheltenham?

1. Sit back in your chair and lift your legs just off the floor
2. Rotate both of your legs in a clockwise motion
3. Concentrate
4. Take your left hand and draw the number 6 in the air with your hand….

Did it work?

Make me laugh ‘Oh Gifted Children’

By Ann Fenech, on 13 June 2010

Helen Arney - School for Gifted Children I very brightly managed to book for two overlapping events. So after watching the  Famelab participants perform, I snuck out during the voting process and made my way to the EDF Arena for ‘The school for gifted children‘ (thanks Jay for posting the results though!).

The school for gifted children was billed as “a fabulous night of debate, polemic and glorious comedy that shows what would result from the collision of The Royal Variety Performance and The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures“. I have never been to either of those shows, but if last night was anything to go by, why ever have I not?

I arrived at the venue as Robin Ince was introducing Kate Lancaster from the Rutherford Appelton Laboratory. She talked to us about lasers – did you know it is their 50th birthday this year? She pulled through a (laser based?) laptop failure to talk to us about lasers, and more importantly…laser hobbyists. I am sure if I was her I would be very scared of being zapped by one of them anytime soon…but she’s made of tougher things than me it seems.

Next up was Helen Arney, a musical comedian based in London. Accompanied by her ukulele, she entertained us all with tales of love-lorn mathematicians, randy chemists, and that scourge of science – risk assessments. You can check out one of her songs: Helen Arney – Indecent Proposal.

By this time the end of the show should have been fast approaching. But we were by no means closed to finish (how’s that for some extra value for money?). It was now the turn of Ray Tallis to enlighten us on the issue of atheism and the evidence for it.

Ahh – and then it was Matt Parker! I had already heard him present at the Famelab competition as the UK finalist. I was definitely not disappointed to be entertained by him again…and that’s a good thing, considering I’m going to his show tonight as well (over-dose? I think not!).

Last up was then Brian Cox (O-B-E). I must admit that not being British I have somehow only just heard about him quite recently…and never saw any of his shows (yes – boooooo to me!). So errr – I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Not to worry. Even at 11:30 at night he managed to get through an explanation of relativity…and I actually got something out of it – light bouncing off mirrors anyone? Definitely says something for his skills.

After a long day I left the show and the Cheltenham festival grounds very tired but very much enlightened as well as entertained by the science on show. Last day today. What awaits?

Looking Over Your Shoulder?

By Meghan Harper, on 13 June 2010

Today’s lecture on paranoia actually left me feeling a lot less worried about what’s going on in the world. Psychologist Daniel Freeman really put my mind at ease, discussing how paranoid we have become as a society, and some of the societal causes of paranoia. Previously in history, paranoia had occurred only in those where were severely mentally disturbed and now it is incredibly common across society. High anxiety, worry, mistrust, past incidents, and according to some new research, insomnia all put us at a higher risk of developing paranoid thoughts.

However, the way the media reports stories to the public also is a huge contributor to the problem. For example, each year  approximately 140,000 people die of cancer, while about 700 people are murdered. The comparatively smaller statistic on murder receivers twice as many mentions as cancer, leading society to misinterpret what the more probable threat to our lives may be. Paranoia itself may be a a threat to our health; a study from the States indicates that when mistrust is up 10% there is also an 8% rise in mortality.

People who live in urban areas are twice as likely to be paranoid, and our chair mentioned that in the last century people had retreated to spa towns like Cheltenham in order to ‘get away from it all’ and relax. I can definitely vouch that although the Science Festival has kept me plenty busy this week, just being out of London has been relaxing. Looks like the Cheltenham Science Festival is doing my brain good in more ways than one!

Cocaine, Alcohol and Micromorts….

By Jay Stone, on 13 June 2010

Today I, like Maghan attended the ‘Decadent use of drugs’ debate. UCL’s Daniel’s Glaser chaired the debate between risk expert David Spielgelhalter and the ex-government drug advisor David Nutt.

After Professor David Nutt’s public sacking last year over his comments about some illegal drugs carrying the same amount of risk as other life pursuits like horse riding, this was bound to be a sell out event at the festival today and as expected there was not an empty chair to be seen.

The debate began with David Nutt discussing the history behind drug taking and commenting on how the changes in drug preparation (for example cocaine changing from plant leaves to a powder form and now into crack cocaine) has led to these harmful substances having faster entry into our brains, increasing their decadent affects and addictive nature.
He mentioned that 1 young person dies everyday from alcohol poisoning and that a person of average build would only need to consume 10 units (5 drinks) in an hour to become unconscious. He also cited a scary statistic that Scotland now has the highest rate of cirrhosis in the world and the highest occurrence of binge drinking… coincidence?

Risk assessor David Spielgelhalter then took the stand introducing the audience to the term ‘micromorts’ (MM). This alien measurement is basically your average daily risk of dying (what a cheerful job a risk assessor must have!).
A MM = 1 in a million, so very small but he then went on to demonstrate the risks in micromorts attached to activities like scuba diving (1 session = 5 MM) or displayed how far you would have to travel in some forms of transport to use up 1 MM; 6 miles on a motorbike, 8 miles by foot or 250 miles in a car.
So when it came to the drug analysis I was expecting the micromorts to be off the scales… but no, they weren’t. Using cocaine was the equivalent of 1.5MM and cannabis less then 1. There was one drug however who’s single use was shown to be as risky as being a soldier on the front line in Afghanistan… Heroin… it has a MM measurement of 258!

So then the floor was opened to questions and I found myself wondering how many MM were being used up in an ‘average’ binge drinking session? I am usually quite a shy audience member, I prefer to sit, listen, analyse and take notes but on this occasion I was so caught up in the concept of micromorts and the dangers of alcohol my curiosity overcame my shyness and I dared to raise my hand and ask my question.

If you want to hear me asking my question and what the answer was then have a click and listen (the sound quality is not great so I would recommend being in a quiet room or maybe adorning some headphones).

Drug debate question time – Listen!

The world cup alternative

By Jay Stone, on 12 June 2010

Tonight saw participants from 12 countries battle to be crowned king (or queen) of science communication.

The famelab international competition gives enthusiastic early career scientists a forum and opportunity to take centre stage and demonstrate their passion in a challenging 3-minute time slot.

We had a whole range of topics being covered ranging from the big bang, alien hand syndrome, enzyme catalysts and the ‘red queen’ effect.

The audience sat riveted for 2hrs listening to everyone’s presentations and sometimes painful grillings from the judging panel. After each contestant had been suitably prodded and probed about their 10 year career plans and their scientific integrity had been checked by Mark Lythgoe the audience were asked to vote for their favourite.

A 10-minute interval enabled the scores to be counted and the judges to reach their own decisions about the famelab top 3 (it also gave host Quentin Cooper a chance to check the England match scores… not such good news considering we were winning when the famelab event started). We were then called back to our seats where we waited for the results….

The audience winner was snail lover Ivana Strazic from Croatia, her topic of choice was snail mating which she demonstrated incredibly with the aid of some white gloves and hand mimicking motions… I’ll leave you to imagine the scene.

Mark Lythgoe then stepped forward to announce the judges top 3…
In third place came 26 year old Hazem Shoirah representing Eygpt. His talk discussing brain anatomy had ended in a demonstration of his left hand undressing him in an alien hand rendition… thank goodness he ran out of talking time otherwise we could of had the full monty on our hands!
In second place came audience winner Ivana Strazic, I am sure glove sales and hand puppetry is going to see a boom in Cheltenham over the next few weeks!
And finally in true X-factor, incredibly drawn out fashion Mark announced Vasilis Grigoriadis from Greece as the top place winner. Vasilis had chosen to tell us all about his failed attempt to chat up a girl with his knowledge of nebulas and iron formation, might not work on the women but it certainly won the judges over and Vasilis now walks away International Famelab champion and the proud owner of an i-Pad. Well done Vasilis!

More chemistry…and bangs!

By Ann Fenech, on 12 June 2010

Chemistry: A Volatile History wasn’t the only demonstration-based chemistry show I saw today. In fact, the first show I saw this morning was The Bigger Bang with Dr Hal and his team.

This show was definitely impressive, with the bangs getting bigger and bigger as the show progressed. We learnt about gases of different densities, luminescence, and about how things burn…and that we ’shouldn’t try this at home’. There was light flashes, boats floating, and I repeat: big bangs.

However, I think there was two things that I was slightly concerned with during this event. First of all, the presenter at certain intervals outlined what were the learning outcomes of the just-performed demonstration. Hearing those words made me feel like I am back on the school bench and I am there to ‘learn something’ rather than there to enjoy the event and subtly learn about what I am observing, which is what I think science communication at such a festival, and especially if aimed at kids, should be about.

Another thing I observed was the use of chemicals including sulfur hexafluoride were used. This chemical has been identified as one of the most potent greenhouse gases out there. I agree that the quantities used were not big, but couldn’t another chemical be used instead?

Other than these two quibbles, the show was highly entertaining. The presenters kept the show flowing quite easily and fluidly. I am sure everyone there came out in awe of chemistry, but confident that they can manage it.

Risky Business

By Meghan Harper, on 12 June 2010

This morning I attended two lectures that dealt with risk, Worth the Risk and The Decadent Use of Drugs. Both featured speaker David Spiegelhalter, Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University and David Nutt, a nueropyschopharmocologist weighed in about drug policy in the second lecture.

One important thing to understand before discussing risks are the measures in which it is measured. The term micromort refers to a 1 in a million chance of dying. This term is now frequently used because some members of the general public were having trouble determining which was larger, a 1 in 10 chance or a 1 in 100. So, with that universal term of measurement, with 50 million people living in England and Wales and 50 people dying each day of unnatural causes, each person experiences a micromort a day.

Other things that equal a micromort:

- Driving 250 miles

-Cycling 20 miles

- Walking 17 miles

-6 miles on a motorbike

Each soldier serving in Afghanistan has 33 micromorts per day, but by far the most staggering statistic is that going into hospital in the UK is 75 micromorts, which makes it a huge risk. Of course, all of these statistics take different people, and different situations into considerations, but all are interesting to consider.

The Decadent Use of Drugs also addressed the risks of drugs both legal and illegal. The measures of micromorts per week for those use use drugs during a year:

Cocaine and Crack- 1.5 micromorts

Amphetamines- 1 micromort

Ecstasy- 1 micromort

Cannabis- .01 micromort

Heroin- 258 micromorts

A lot of discussion however, revolved around the dangers of alcohol and how it can be a drug that can be abused just as any other, with some severely more damaging effects than some illegal drugs. One of the effects of alcohol is that it disinhibits people and allows them to ignore risk factors, increasing the chance of riskier incidents. There are also a lot of cultural ties to alcohol, with a number of audience members noting that there are quite a few pubs in the Houses of Parliament that are subsidized by tax payer money, and that prices for alcohol are consistently falling in accordance to legislation by the government.

Chemistry’s love of volatility

By Ann Fenech, on 12 June 2010

Andrea Sella
Interspersing his speech with words including “spectacularly brilliant”, “stunningly beautiful”, “just mesmerising”, Andrea Sella, from UCL Chemistry has just reminded me exactly why I love chemistry. He is clearly enthusiastic about his subject, and that enthusiasm was definitely infectious.

Today I attended a full-house event for Andrea Sella’s event Chemistry: A volatile history with Jim Al-Khalili. The event was based on the recent television series of the same name.

As Sella stated, chemistry always seems to be thought about in connection with pollution, cancer and other negative terms. However, there is so much more to it.

The ancient Greeks believed that the world was made up of 4 elements: water, earth, air and fire. However, as chemists (or alchemists) tried to discover more, they started identifying individual elements, culminating in the development of the periodic table. Quoting Sella, “It’s true that chemistry is about the elements. But it is also about much more than that”.

During the event we saw slow-motion videos from the series, but even more impressively Andrea Sella had numerous demos prepared for us – from burning potassium, to burning diamonds…yes there was a lot of burning!

A truly inspiring event, both for how much information it provided, but even more so for the way it brought that information to your attention in a subtle but exciting manner.

As a chemist I cannot resist ending with this quote, again from Sella:

If it stinks and burns: it’s chemistry;

If it doesn’t work: it’s physics.

Blood, breakfast, and other early morning considerations

By Christianne Guillotte, on 12 June 2010

Just a word to the wise: you really shouldn’t try your hand as a surgeon for the first time right after breakfast. Thank goodness I have a fairly strong stomach, because at 10 a.m., I attended a workshop called “Fancy Yourself as a Surgeon?” Not only did I get to perform a rather realistic mock surgery to remove a fatty tissue tumor, I also witnessed a live simulation of a medical team treating a stab victim, a geyser of fake blood included. No really, trust me when I say there was no shortage of red liquid dramatically shooting in every direction (and the unlucky anesthetist received a face full of it).

But back to the point. I’ve always loved medicine, and as a kid, I was absolutely positive that I would one day become a doctor. Needless to say, I didn’t follow that career path, but this workshop brought back my childlike excitement, and I could tell it did the same for many others. Participants ranged from children to the elderly, all of whom shared the same enthusiasm for the event, regardless of age.

One woman, who volunteered as a helping hand in the simulated operating theatre, was asked after the surgery if she enjoyed her experience. She pulled down her face mask and declared, “I want a new career!”

I thoroughly enjoyed the workshop, not least because it sparked that same little fire in me. Then I remember my initial feeling of “I just woke up and ate my breakfast and ohhhhh dear, this is an absurd amount of blood,” so I think I’ll let that idea go. However, I do have a new found respect for doctors, who can perform their job first thing in the morning, mere moments after eating. That alone takes a truly special person.