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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!

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.