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!

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.