Cheltenham Science Festival (better late than never!)

3 08 2010

Cheltenham Science Festival happened ages ago (9th-13th June actually…), so I’m a bit slow off the mark in getting this blog post published, but whatevs, I hope you’ll still find it interesting – I’ve been busy!

This year was the first time I’d ever been to Cheltenham Science Festival, and to be honest, I didn’t really do it justice as I only attended for one afternoon of the 4 day event, but what little I did see of this annual tribute to all things geeky was superb. As a bonus, I got to briefly catch up with fellow ex-Warwickian, science writer and Geekpopper Hayley Birch (Twitter: @gingerbreadlady), who was editing the Festival’s daily news sheet, The Litmus Paper, so that was lovely.

The historic town of Cheltenham Spa doesn’t instantly grab one as being a hub for scientific celebration, but although the Cheltenham Science Festival is the youngest of the Cheltenham Festivals, it has, since 2002, quickly established to become the most important public scientific event in the UK. Well, that’s what Wikipedia told me anyway.

Members of the debate panel looking to Ben Miller to say something funny. It didn't really happen.

I went to see two ticketed events at the Fest’. Firstly, there was the debate between Rebecca Skloot (Twitter: @RebeccaSkloot), author of “The Immortal Life of Rebecca Lacks”, Graham Farmelo (Twitter: @grahamfarmelo), author of another biography, “The Strangest Man”, this time of physicist Paul Dirac, and lastly Ben Miller (Twitter: @bennylicious), columnist in the Times’ science magazine, Eureka. These three science communicators discussed “Is this the Golden Age of Science Writing”? Actually, they didn’t seem to spend much time discussing this question, although two conclusions to the hypothesis were drawn: 1) this is a golden age of science writing and 2) this is a golden age for science. The debators spent rather more time talking about their backgrounds and, of course, plugging the books they had written, as well as discussing science communication and the public’s engagement with science in a broader sense.

Ben Miller, failed PhD turned funny man-cum-science commentator, attributes the recent perceived rise in the public’s interest in science to media coverage of the Large Hadron Collider. This single event – one of those historical “Where were you when…?” moments, he believes, has captured the imagination of the general public and led to a current inquisitiveness about scientific ideas. For Miller, it was the moon landings, but for young people today, the LHC is a source of unending fascination. What is it? How does it work? What are they trying to find out? Will it blow up and kill us all?

For Rebecca Skloot, that “pow” moment came when she was just 16 years old and in a high school biology class.

Nice masculine sitting-down pose there, Graham

When explaining a point about cancer, the teacher mentioned HeLa cells; cancerous cells that had been taken from a woman called Henrietta Lacks that have been propagated ever since this 1950s and are still used for scientific research today. The teacher left it at that, but Skloot was hooked and made it her mission to find out who Henrietta Lacks was, who her family were, why her cells were taken and why they are so important to medical science. As an aside, I was interested to note that Skloot “only” has a bachelor’s degree and her Masters in Creative Non-Fiction writing is not overtly science-related. Coming from a publishing environment where even the PhDs struggle to work their way up to a well paid job, New York Times Bestseller-listed Skloot gave me hope that my move into science and non-fiction writing was a good move after all!

Similarly, Graham Farmelo first heard the story of little-known oddball physicist Paul Dirac when he was about 17 years old and this fascination too has led to a bestselling biography. If I’m honest, I can’t really remember having a “pow” moment when it came to my fascination for science. I’ve always been a good allrounder, equally successful in literature and languages as I was in the life sciences – perhaps that’s why I now seem to have found my niche in writing about the things that interest me rather than taking one distinct pathway through academia.

The Times debate ended with questions from the floor and one question asked of the panel was whether they could recommend any good science books. Of course Skloot and Farmelo rushed to promote their own books (and I must admit to buying a copy of Skloot’s book and standing there starstruck while she signed the inside cover for me), but here are some of their other suggestions that are now on my List of Books To Read.

  • And the Band Played on: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Schilts
  • Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond
  • The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, a biography of Paul Erdos by Paul Hoffman
  • and anything by Lewis Thomas or Oliver Sachs

"Lawd, I came for a sit down and a free cuppa tea, not to listen to this science drivel..."

Moving on from The Times debate, I wandered around the festival grounds for a while, disappointed to note that the Discovery Zone, a hands-on science showcase, had closed for the day. Instead I popped into another Times-led debate session, this time on the subject of illegal drugs and mental illness, where I spotted one or two elderly people who had clearly just come for the free tea and newspapers to Times subscribers…

Later on, contrary to scientific theory, I noticed that the festival site had gradually started to move from a state of chaos to one of order, as an enormous queue began snaking round the grounds – and not to watch the soon-to-kick off England vs. USA World Cup game (in hindsight, probably just as well…).

Inside the Infinite Monkey Cage

The queue, which I needed to be in, was to watch the live Radio 4 recording of “The Infinite Monkey Cage”, presented by comic Robin Ince (Twitter: @robinince) and “Professor Sexy” himself, newly-honoured Brian Cox OBE (Twitter: @ProfBrianCox). We were treated to guest appearances by Ben Miller (again!) and Lord Professor Robert Winston and his fabulous moustache (too cool for Twitter). Any day that ends in gratuitous moustache ogling is a day well spent, I say!

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