Lillian Elizabeth Bowmaker Bursary Report

The BA’s Festival of Science: Science and Society
3rd - 7th September 2001

Report from Jane Medcraft

After an unexpected tour of the streets of Glasgow on Sunday evening, I finally found my way to the university of Glasgow and my accommodation. Welcome drinks had been put on by the BA, British Association (for the advancement of science), student section for all students who were attending the Festival of Science to allow us the chance early on to meet the other young, soon to be, professionals who were arriving from all over the country. Friendships were rapidly formed that week, not least around the England vs. Germany game on one of the few televisions in Scotland that showed the game!

A wide variety of opportunities awaited all interests for the following five days with topics ranging from quantum teleportation to Scotland’s social policy to the human genome. The BA were certainly challenging our intellects with lectures at all time slots from 0930 through lunchtime and into the evening. With quantum teleportation quickly skimming over the heads of the vast majority of people in the audience we rapidly discovered where the real information was to be gleamed. The evening lectures that were laid on, specifically aimed at young children, had surely been really aimed at us! The week started with "Tales of the Unexpected" a series of amazing things that could be done to a set of household objects. All heavily based in science with Pascal’s experiment being demonstrated with a hot water bottle, bricks and a long tube. This was brilliantly followed the next evening by six birds of prey. The sight of a vulture wandering round a lecture theatre, sniffing the audience with a chick’s leg hanging out of its beak will remain as one of the most amusing memories of the festival for a large number of us! On Wednesday night we were privileged to join the hordes of children on a trip around the universe with Uncle Albert, a children’s book creation. Through the smoke it was possible to gain a good refresher course in the galaxy and solar system before blowing up our individual paper bags to pop them all at once to enable us all to experience what the big bang would have sounded like. Explosions and indoor fireworks were used to create and amazing display which I would heartily recommend to all, whether you take a child with you or not.

Since the theme of the Festival was Science and Society and there was a major emphasis placed on the necessity of good communication of science to general society, the children’s lectures were particularly poignant in their expertise at explaining and making interesting some of the basic principles of the world in which we live. Maybe more scientists should attend children’s lectures in future to learn some of the tricks of the trade and then apply the relevant ones to their own subject. However the daytime lectures, whilst lacking some of the drama of the evening children’s lectures mostly contained lots to fire the imagination.

The very first lecture I attended boded well being entitled "Do Robo-dogs dream of digital legs?" a very interesting lecture on the current state and the future of intelligent robots followed. Since robots with a good degree of sensori-motor intelligence already it is now the aim of scientists in this field to develop the social intelligence, to make robots aware of their surroundings and to analyse the correct course of action to take socially. This was then followed by a session of lectures surrounding differing areas of communication and team work, and one in which the biological clock time of hamsters had been studied by measuring the periods of time in which hamsters had played in their wheel across two weeks.

Tuesday started well with a series of lectures on forensic identification entitled Whodunnit? The topics ranged from a discussion of eyewitness memory to how to implant false memories - using experimental evidence that people could be persuaded to be adamant they could remember that they met Bugs Bunny (Warner Bros.) last time they were at Disney World.

Discussions of ID parades followed and interestingly the experimental evidence showed that video ID parades where, within reason, the suspect got to choose the other people to be shown alongside their picture, showed significantly greater benefits on all issues. Another lecture described how computer morphing techniques could be used to produce a better photofit picture of a suspect than an individual recollection, however currently legislation restricts this technique as only one recollection is allowed to be used. A particularly poignant lecture in this series discussed the fact that CCTV and security videos are only really useful if the person pictured is familiar to the viewer. It was shown that although it is very simple to recognise from a partial and poor quality picture someone that we knew well, a stranger was almost impossible to recognise.

Another session, later in the week, focused on reading and looked into some of the issues surrounding the subject. The first of the lectures discussed dyslexia and how this can be tackled successfully whilst the next lecture went on to discuss a much more hidden deficiency which is ‘poor comprehension’. A person with poor comprehension skills can potentially read very well, or so it appears unlike dyslexia, but they do not understand what they are reading. Hence making it difficult to pick out in a classroom situation. It was shown in another lecture that English is indeed the hardest language to learn, with Finnish being deemed as the easiest, issues surrounding the age at which children first learn to read were considered.

Some late afternoon sessions hosted the Gifford series of lectures, these were philosophy lectures and although the topics sounded very interesting after attending two of these, I believe that for the near future at least I will leave philosophy to those with a specific interest in the subject!

One of the last lectures that I attended was on left and right handedness and the genes, culture and symbols related to this. Research had been carried out that can show that humans were predominantly right handed even in the iron age. An oddity to the fact that 80% of humans are right handed is that studies on other creatures show that 50% of mice, gorillas and chimpanzees are right handed and 50% left handed. It seems we are the only species that have a preferred genetic handedness. The lecturer took great pride in his work on handedness and explained the length to which left handedness has been seen as bad for centuries but now it is becoming more of a status issue to be left handed, and many websites specifically for left handed people are shown to claim a wide variety of famous figures as being left handed. Unfortunately for some the lecturer showed evidence to show how many of these people were in fact right handed and showed how it was possible to fool whole generations of people into believing the opposite. He dispelled the rumours that Einstein and Billy the Kid were left handed by showing the pictures that had been printed in reverse in order to show the left handedness. Billy the Kid’s picture could be made right handed by looking at the side of his waistcoat on which the buttons were, in the left handed picture they were on the wrong side. For Einstein a large number of pictures show him with a pen in his right hand but one picture often used to show his left handedness had E=mc2 in mirror writing on the blackboard!

I am now a finalist studying for a masters degree in Systems Engineering. I have a particular interest in Psychology and so this years Festival of Science theme of Science and Society seemed particularly relevant to me. I would recommend anyone with an interest to go to the Festival of Science in future years, I am interested in returning in future years however I would be more likely to attend single day sessions as opposed to the entire week. This is mainly due to the fact that although there are always sessions that are interesting it is unlikely that there would be a full week’s programme in relevant areas. The use of a bursary such as this enabled me to go to lectures I wouldn’t normally have gone to, and in some cases decided that I would not want to pursue those subject areas, but mostly it was to come out wide eyed at the sheer scope of the research being carried out in areas that I had previously not been exposed to!

Secretary to Prizes Committee
October 2001
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