A Report submitted in partial fulfillment of the
Lilian Elizabeth Bowmaker Bursary from Loughborough University
David J. C. Steven, MChem, GRSC, MRI
Between Wednesday September 6th and Tuesday September 12th I attended the British Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Festival of Science held in Kensington, London.
The event is heralded as the merger of Art and Science and occupied a huge area including Imperial College, The Natural History Museum, The Science Museum, The Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Geographical Society.
I am reading for a PhD in Analytical Chemistry but my interest in science is very broad. I have long been interested in all aspects of science. I had made a conscious decision, therefore, to attend lectures which were not of direct importance to my PhD but which interested me on a more personal level.
The Enigma of Time began a series of lectures, which talked about the possibilities of time travel and, more widely, the concept of time. The lecturers in this series were well skilled in addressing an audience of both expert and novice knowledge and I found the lectures both informative and entertaining.
Science Fiction has always been an interest of mine and the opportunity to see one of my childhood heroes was too much to turn down! Tom Baker introduced a series of lectures entitled: Future Worlds On Screen. He talked about life before, during and after Dr Who and gave a talk exactly as I had expected, full of humour and anecdotes, Mr Baker did not disappoint.
Next was Prof. Brian Winston who gave a brief history of the way in which the future is portrayed in film. He began with clips from the 1936 film "Things To Come" and included excerpts from "The Matrix" "Blade Runner" and "Star Wars". He had worked on film sets in the past and explained a lot about the cinematic process when considering the future, whether the film will "date" well being a key point.
Nigel Henbest is a TV producer whose company produces amazing visual effects of events in space. The most famous of these "artists impressions" is the computer generated (CG) images of the NASA probe Voyager whirling through space. He explained all elements of the computing design and how they work hand-in-glove with scientists from all over the world to produce excellent visualisations. Excerpts from the Channel 4 series Universe included a CG Big Bang, a Black Hole moving through space and the comet Schumacher-Levy 9 smashing into Jupiter.
Thursday evening was without doubt the highlight of my week. A packed Royal Geographical Society listened to Buzz Aldrin talk to Peter Snow about the moon landing and his visions for the future of space exploration. The evening was full of both good humour and technical information. Space enthusiasts clearly revelling in the opportunity to quiz one of their heroes. Dr Aldrin’s ideas about how to finance future space travel were very interesting. It included game shows where people win trips into space, and a lot more private investment. Curiously a game show in the USA where people can win a trip to the ir space station has just been commissioned. There was of course the obligatory signed book sale afterwards that disappeared extremely quickly (not before I had bought two copies though!).
On Friday I took the opportunity to explore the Natural History museum and the Science Museum. It is somewhere I had not been in a long while, and is still just as huge as I had remembered it. Of real interest was the section on meteorites found around the world and the chemical analysis performed upon them. They gave advice on how to identify if an ordinary rock was a meteor or not, with excellent examples of "fake" meteors.
Another brilliant attraction there was the dinosaur exhibition, animatronics along with sounds brought the dinosaurs to life. There was an excellent exhibition of bones discovered from all over the world. This exhibition ran seamlessly into another large area detailing Darwin’s theory of evolution. The majority of the exhibitions are aimed at children but were equally appealing to big kids like myself!
The Science museum contains information about the industrial revolution through to space exploration. Two things were of real interest to me and they were the Launch Pad area in the basement and the newly opened Wellcome Wing. Launch Pad is a hands on science area for schoolkids. The whole place is totally interactive, kids get to push buttons, pull knobs and turn handles which then demonstrate basic scientific principles.
Upstairs one level was an area about air and flight. Here you get the opportunity to make wings fly, fire plastic balls through the air using water pressure, balance beach balls in a jet of air and ride on a flight simulator.
The Wellcome Wing is a high-tech tomorrows world place. Fully computer interactive, you can have your retina scanned, fingerprints taken and a unique web page is created for you and you only. Throughout the Wellcome Wing your opinions are asked on many issues in todays world, GM crops, designer babies and global warming. These are all collated and made available on the Internet creating a huge database of information of all the visitors to the Science Museum. Interactive games, digital music makers, quizzes to test your response time, your hearing are all available in a hands on way. At the end of the experiments you have taken part in an excellent concise explanation on their nature and results is given.
Sunday was the main event as far as the festival is concerned. Science really did meet art in South Kensington. The whole of Exhibition Road was closed (no mean feat when it is next to Hyde Park) and taken over by entertainers and scientists alike. The Museums in South Kensington were all open for free between 10am and 4pm and thousands of people took advantage. My favourite included giant (15 ft) Meccano structures that walked around very slowly by using counterbalance weights and levers. Who could forget Monsieur Culbuto, who was dressed as a giant human weeble (he wobbled but didn’t fall down) this was highly entertaining if only because I grew up with the real things. He had a great knack of scaring children and delighting adults! A group of dancers called The Scarabeus Theatre took to the roof of the Natural History Museum and danced on the very edge. They then abseiled a few metres down, and, standing on the wall of the building, began to dance. This was superbly executed and looked terrific as they boogied away dressed in white laboratory cots and safety spectacles! There was a group of human sized penguins who came and talked to you and shouted if you didn’t speak back, courtesy of the Arm Theatre. All this coupled with the first real sunshine of the week and a live band made for a great Sunday’s entertainment.
The next lectures were to be introduced by another of my heroes, Sir Arthur C. Clarke. He was not there in person but by a pre-recorded message he explained that cold nuclear fusion should not be dismissed out of hand and explained that the fossil fuel days were coming to a close. He also commented that we were entering the "carbon age" with particular reference to fullerene (Carbon-60) chemistry.
The final series of lectures I attended were all to do with the brain. The awareness of self and consciousness are not something we think about a great deal (if you see what I mean). Examples from psychiatric patients and patients who have had accidents which leave them with amputated limbs or damage to areas of the brain were given. Details of "phantom limbs" i.e. limbs which are seen and felt after amputation by the amputee were discussed as was the patient whose brain was damaged in an accident and could no longer remember faces. If he looked at a picture of John Lennon, he knew he had seen the face before but did not know who it was. The most striking revelation was that the patient takes a long time to recognise his own picture.
Professor Morton's lecture about hypnotism and unconsciousness was also very interesting. He explained about subliminal messaging and how the brain is easily led. This was achieved by occasionally inserting a random slide into his presentation which said "Florence" and then ten minutes later asking us to name an Italian city, this is called priming the brain.
Sarah-Jane Blackmore’s lecture on why you can’t tickle yourself was given much press coverage. As a PhD student myself I was interested about how a "standard tickle" was decided upon and how patients reacted when put into a Magnetic Resonance Imager (MRI) and weere then tickled! A great study which yielded excellent results. The body cannot tickle itself because there is no time delay between the brain telling the arm to tickle and the brain receiving the message that it has been tickled, therefore it must be doing it itself….which is not funny! However, if someone else tickles you the brain says to itself…hang on I didn’t do that…that is a tickle and you feel it. Quite why you laugh….well that is another question!
Finally, I would like to thank Loughborough University for awarding me the Lilian Elizabeth Bowmaker bursary. It gave me an excellent insight into some of the interesting work that is taking place within the sphere of science in the UK. Long may it continue into the 21st century!
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