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!

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!

Voyage of discovery

By James Kay, on 12 June 2010

Ann Fenech takes us on a whistle tour of the Discovery room in the main hall of the Cheltenham Science Festival.

A Delicious End to a Delicious Day

By Meghan Harper, on 12 June 2010

I have been looking very forward to the discussion regarding chocolate, and not just for the samples! Food chemistry is so interesting to me because its something that everyone encounters every day, and how different ingredients react at certain temperatures with other ingrediants. Chocolate is a notoriously difficult food to work with, between the tempering, the melting point, and making sure its smooth and creamy, so I was really interested in learning a little bit behind the science of it all.

Scientists Mark Miodownik and UCL Chemist Andrea Sella taught about how the fats in chocolate are the triglycerides, with three carbon atoms and 18 carbon atoms. This means that the saturated nature of this fat has a low melting point. We got to put this into practice when we learned how to properly taste a pieces of chocolate. Are you ready to learn how to property taste?

First, plug your nose. Then put the piece of chocolate in your mouth, and chew it up a bit. When you unplug your nose, inhale through your nose and mouth. This way you can taste all of the flavour notes in the chocolate, and decipher the true flavour. Mmmmmmm. Although for dark chocolates, it is also recommended to let it melt in your mouth. Be patient! When it melts, it releases more tastes and aromas, and in it liquid for it is a richer and fuller taste.

And the ones we tasted last night? To die for! We were really lucky to have Thorntons’ Chocolates and their Master Chocolatier Keith Hurdma provide us with samples of six very fine and really different kinds of chocolates. My favourite was the Crudo chocolate which was an older technique of making chocolate, which was much grittier in texture, as you could feel the large, intact sugar crystals. But we also got to taste samples of cocoa nibs, French Dark, Tonka Milk, Columbia Dark and Madagascan Dark.

And, just in case you need a justification to dive into such an indulgent treat  chocolate affects serotonin levels in the brain, which increase the feelings of happiness. Mark Miodownik also told us about how the physical act of eating chocolate has been linked to the physical feeling of kissing. As part of a balanced diet, in can help you live longer as well. Dark chocolate has almost twice the amount of antioxidants that are present in prunes!

What a sweet way to wrap up the week. Decadant indeed!

Funding the future

By James Kay, on 11 June 2010

Dr Lucie Green from UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory took part in a Question Time-style debate at Cheltenham with new Minister of State for Universities and Science David Willetts.

Here she reflects on what he had to say and talks about the reasons for optimism despite the difficult decisions ahead.


The dangers of creativity

By James Kay, on 11 June 2010

Christianne Guillotte listened to Robert Winston ask whether our creative ideas always produce desirable results.


Food for thought

By James Kay, on 11 June 2010

Ann Fenech gets her teeth into celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal’s showstopping performance at the Cheltenham Science Festival, where he appeared in conversation with Harold McGee.

What’s going on this year…

By Rachel Lister, on 4 June 2010

Mark LythgoeListen to Dr Mark Lythgoe, Director of UCL’s Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging and Cheltenham Science Festival Director, talk about this year’s theme of decadence, who’s making an appearance from UCL and just how good chemist Andrea Sella really is at demos…