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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

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?