Welcome to our blog from the British Science Festival. This year's Festival will be in Surrey from 5-10 September with hundreds events expected to happen at the University of Surrey campus and throughout the county. With workshops, hands-on fun, heated debates, talks, performances and field trips there's something for everyone!
Stay tuned for the latest news and developments from the British Science Festival.

from Yasmin and Natalie (Festival team)

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Best of the fest in Liverpool

Now that this year’s Festival is well and truly over and we’ve had a bit of a breather I thought I would add a few of my favourite highlights from Liverpool. Liverpool is a great city. Arriving in the city for the Festival, there was such a great buzz about the place. With the arrival of La Princess (see pic), thousands of people descended on the city to see the mechanical spider weave its magic throughout the city. I hate spiders, but it was pretty cool. Even though the Spider had nothing to do with the Festival is brought thousands of people into Liverpool, which we used to our advantage! Science buskers and butlers were out in force performing on the streets, shopping centres, museums and the train station. We also had a Science Explosion at the World Museum – a weekend of fun, hands-on family science activities. Taking a wander round was great fun – lot’s of families and a great atmosphere.

The rest of the weekend was great too. On Saturday we had a real mix of events from heart health checks with the British Heart Foundation and the Search for extra-terrestrial life to the Science of superheroes and Adam Hart-Davis talking about the history of the vacuum (not the Hoover). At the Adam Hart-Davis event, there were lots of questions from children. Best question of the day from a little girl in the audience: “how big is space?”.

On Sunday, I went along to Going Green with the Strawbridges. There were quite a few female members of the audience in the front row – Dick and James have a quite a following. Now I have never really watched their TV show, but after hearing their escapades with eco-toilets, living with camera crew and sticking bio-diesel in their cars (the sample they brought did stink a bit), I think they have a new fan. Following this, was The gr8 GM db8 and the entertaining Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The GM debate was quite heated with panellists from the Food Standards Agency, Friends of the Earth, Gene watch UK and SciDev.net. It was a really good mix of panellists, with great questions from the audience.

My three favourites from Monday were the Joseph Lister Award Lecture; Txt crimes, sex crimes and murder, The truth about hypnosis and Climb every mountain with Sir Ranulph Fiennes. The BA’s Award Lectures are lectures given by five early career scientists who are great communicators in their field. Tim Grant from Aston University is part of some really cutting edge work in the field of text message analysis and the event provided a fascinating insight into this. I attended the hypnosis event held in the lovely Bluecoat as did last year. I am a bit of a skeptic, but presenter Peter Naish provides a lovely history and overview of hypnosis through the years and whether you may or may not be susceptible to hypnosis. Last year, I was so tired that I apparently was not hypnotised, but fell asleep. So this year I went again and I was excited about the prospect of being hypnotised, as it would be all the proof I needed that it worked. There were indications that it was working for some people (I won’t spoil it for you by describing what they did), but this year I was too awake and every little noise distracted me and I wasn’t hypnotised. Finally I went along to see Ranulph Fiennes speaking at the Playhouse. With another full house of about 650 people, there was a great atmosphere was great. He was thoroughly entertaining and had some great images of both the environments he had explored and the scientific equipment (including those used for collecting bodily fluids) as well as all the gory ones of swollen limbs or toes with frost bite. His tales of exploration were very interesting and got quite a few laughs from the audience.

Tuesday brought another day of varied and interesting events. I had been very excited about the Murder, Mystery and Microscopes events – one on the university campus during the day and the other in the Bluecoat in the evening. Both were great. With a line up of forensic experts from the Macaulay Institute and three top British crime writers, Val McDermid, Margaret Murphy and Peter James. I went to the evening event and it kicked off with a look at crime scenes and how the criminal can leave plenty of evidence behind. We had a video of someone blowing themselves up accidentally and a fiery demonstration. We got a sneaky peak into new technologies used to combine maps with detailed location information such as the soil and vegetation type which is helping to solve crimes. We then had readings from the various authors with questions and discussions on the science behind the books and the accuracy of the science portrayed in crime novels. There was some excellent discussion around this topic with mixed responses to the level of accuracy of the science covered, with some authors being noted for their more “fictional” side. Those authors present had a very good understanding in the science and speaking with Peter James, some aspects of their research, such as shadowing detectives to visiting morgues seemed fascinating. There was plenty of time for one to one questions at the end with all the panel members, so it was great to see people asking their burning questions.

Two days left and we have appearances from Robert Winston and Phil Redmond discussing the role of science in culture and its impacts locally. Also, we were treated to not one, but two Award Lectures! Neil Ferguson explored epidemics and how we can control viruses spreading in light of recent new diseases. Maggie Aderin took us on a technological journey through space as she looked at the research beyond our planet to investigate climate change on planet earth. To end the day the world famous Cavern Club was packed out as some scientists, a singer, a comedian and Quentin Cooper delved into people’s memories of the Beatles, how the brain generates music, and looked at music and addiction. A few months earlier we launched a national experiment, the Magical Memory Tour (http://www.magicalmemorytour.com/) where people of all ages could add their memories of the Beatles to investigate the link between music and memory. They found that memory and music were definitely linked. They also discovered that most of the memories were from when people were teenagers, indicating this is when music has the strongest influence on you and was younger than anticipated. There were too many memories for me to pick a favourite, apart from my own which was about Paul McCartney in the video for the Frog Song. To view this memory and all the others check out the website.

It’s the final day and it’s nearly over. And it was a day of ageing… well we only got a day older, but got he chance to explore research into ageing, from the biology behind why we age and how we can age better to what the built environment can do for us and how long may we live in the future. SPARC presented an afternoon of talks and workshops followed by a talk from Tom Kirkwood who is the man behind the disposable soma theory on ageing. His insights into the biology of ageing are fascinating and highlight how a healthy lifestyle full of exercise, healthy eating and social activity is really helps keep us in tip top condition for longer. Hugo Spears, one of our Award Lecturers explored the Sat-Nav in our brains where we listened to the sound of taxi-drivers and got an insight into their brains as they travelled round London. And keeping with the brain Richard Wiseman entertained us with Mind Magic – tricks and tales of the magic and the brain, and the secrets of sorcery. The venue was fantastic – in the new Victoria Gallery and Museum at the University of Liverpool. There was a lot of history to the building and an eery feel as the audience was going in.

Throughout the whole Festival the Liverpool audience were great – so many questions put to the experts and they immersed themselves in the debate. There was a huge buzz around the campus and in the city from those attended the Festival and other Capital of Culture 08 activities.

We hope to see you next year, but stay tuned for Festival developments throughout the year.

Natalie, Festival team

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