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!

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”